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The wise say that only fools rush into a debate about the work of Elvis. The man could sing just about anything, and did, including the phone book (sign out “Memphis, Tennessee”).
Elvis Presley took romantic Mario Lanza-inspired tunes, Arthur Crudup’s grubby, dirty blues, pop tunes from the Brill Building sages Leiber and Stoller, Jackie Wilson R&B and several shades of country – and spat them out like rock ‘n’ roll.
Along the way, there would be cool Christmas songs, blue-eyed soul, soundtrack snoozers, and enough schlock to make you “Do the Clam.” Moreover, he knew the gospel, the chapter and the verse. Lord, could Elvis sing the gospel.
He was Americana before we knew the word.
That’s why, when evaluating the more than 750 songs recorded by Elvis, it’s more helpful to appreciate his mastery of multiple styles than to wonder if ‘How Great Thou Art’ was far superior to ‘Hound Dog’. “.
So to celebrate Baz Luhrmann’s new “Elvis” biopic, ease your wary spirits and savor this roundup of the best of his universe: 20 essential Elvis songs that will make your head (and pelvis) spin upwards. -speakers.
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Bill Black’s slap-back bass sets a pumped up tempo, and Scotty Moore steps in with his stinging guitar, sending a jolt to radio listeners in Memphis – and soon around the world. By all accounts, the song sort of fell apart as Elvis and his friends rapped around the studio, but producer Sam Phillips recognized the thunder when he heard it. Together they turned Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s 1946 blues song into their first commercial single – and a cultural milestone.
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Here we get a taste of the sexual, slightly menacing Elvis as he takes an Arthur Gunter blues song recorded a year earlier and turns it into a percolating, horny classic. He gasped “baby” 15 times in the opening chorus alone, and his rendition of “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than be with another man” was so nervous John Lennon robbed him more late for his own purposes. . Even better, Elvis changed the lyrics to introduce us to his “pink Cadillac”.
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When Elvis adopts this light, hiccuping vocal affectation on “16 Coaches Long,” you immediately grasp his fear and desperation that his baby has left the station and may never return. It’s a classic Junior Parker blues that guitarist Scotty Moore puts a country spin on, and the result is one of the greatest rockabilly performances of all time.
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Elvis earned a rare songwriting co-credit (along with Mae Axton and Tommy Durden) on his first smash hit after moving from tiny Sun Records to major league label RCA. But it’s the chemistry of guitarists Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins, bassist Bill Black, drummer DJ Fontana and pianist Floyd Cramer throughout that sets the tone for this searing blues over a despondent down-and-out.
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DJ Fontana’s furious drum roll between verses caught listeners’ ears, but it was Elvis’ hip gyrations during live performances of the song that caused the destruction of American civilization as we knew it. then. His version was a clunky (and lyrical) reworking of “Big Mama” Thornton’s original 1952 R&B stomper, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
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On the second verse, Elvis ramps up the intensity and gives a creamy croon, even making musicologists momentarily forget that this song was based on the Civil War ballad “Aura Lee.” Elvis sang it on “The Ed Sullivan Show” before the single and movie of the same name was released, and over a million advance orders for the single were sent to RCA. Even better, the single managed “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel” at No. 1.
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From the opener “Well, I’m tired and so tired, but I gotta go,” Elvis never sounded more natural and at ease as he took on The Jordanaires on Thomas Dorsey’s standard. It was as if he had been singing gospel all his life – which he had been doing.
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The two-chord opening riff and drum beat presage the rock riot to come in the hit from the soundtrack written by Leiber and Stoller, which spent seven weeks at No. 1. And there was probably no no better staged performance filmed until Michael Jackson. came with.
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What’s he putting in that bag? Whether he’s “coming down your chimney tonight” or cruising through the snow in “a big black Cadillac,” the King is warning you that your holiday traditions are about to unfold. Hide the children.
There’s a lot of longing and longing in “Been Too Alone For Too Long,” especially in the live version of his 1968 NBC concert “Elvis,” aka the “Comeback Special.” For the kicks, check out his slightly more explicit alternate version, titled “One Night (of Sin)” from the 1983 album “Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Vol. 4”, which approximates Smiley’s original Lewis.
The wimpy “Are you alone tonight?” (a song that Elvis himself would parody in concert) and the slightly exaggerated “It’s Now or Never” signaled that he was back to business after his time in the military. But this gritty cover of Lowell Fulson’s 1954 blues standard showed that he and his backing crew were as musically sharp as ever. Hear how Boots Randolph’s sax breaks increase the intensity of Elvis’ performance.
“Take my hand, take my whole life too.” Sigh. And it’s again based on an 18th century French love song. Elvis was in full glory and the Jordanaires gave it their all in the background, but the single was slammed from No. 1 by Joey Dee & the Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist.”
The edgy Latin beat and swaying delivery of this movie title track captured the lure of the “city of lights” in a way the Rat Pack never did. Elvis never rolled the dice and sang this Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman song live, and it stalled at No. 29 on the Hot 100. But it was the rare Elvis song that went on to win in popularity long after he shit: Dozens of artists have covered him, from Bruce Springsteen to the Dead Kennedys.
When Elvis hits the chorus “Almighty God is gonna bring you down,” you feel he’s washed in the gospel of white and black lore. This traditional spiritual from the album “How Great Thou Art” is arranged and sung in Jubilee style. If he moves you like he did, watch “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” or “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.”
With its gospel fervor and direct quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis two months before the song was recorded, “Dream” is a far more inspiring social commentary than “In the Ghetto.” When Elvis shouts “We’re caught in a cloud with too much rain”, he captures the desperation of the times. Audiences first heard this during the 1968 “Comeback Special” finale.
The horn section’s first breath and the fervent backing vocalists signaled that a soul revival – and an Elvis career comeback – was on the way, thanks to producer Chips Moman of American Sound Studio in Memphis. That crossfade towards the end felt a bit bold at the time, as did the lyrics about dysfunctional love. It became her 17th – and final – No. 1 single in the United States.
The irony of Elvis singing this cautionary tale about excess crystallized after his death, of course. But by the time he recorded it, for the “From Elvis in Memphis” album, he seemed totally invested in laying down a taut R&B edge to a basic country tune. Listen to how his voice sounds a little raw on the line “the party, the party and the fatal accident that night”. And the moment he hits “a driver, a driver behind the wheel dressed so well”, he borders on hysteria.
Elvis never recorded this in a studio, but it was a staple of his gigs later in his career. This version, captured on a February date in Las Vegas and released as a single in April, was a hit. When he climbed the ranks at the very end, repeating the title of the song, the lyrics were what every female fan wanted to hear.
Those “just a hunk” lines were dynamic, sexy, and utterly compelling, but they beg the question: Why were this and 1973’s “Promised Land” Elvis’ last elite rockers? It would never again reach the top 10 on the national charts (“Burning Love” went to No. 2), and recording sessions in his later years were mostly devoted to ballads. It’s a burning, burning disappointment.
When gospel legend JD Sumner sings the phrase “Way on down” at the end of each chorus, he searches deeply for a sound that is three octaves below middle C, one of the lowest notes ever recorded by a voice. human. The last single released before Elvis’ death shows that his voice was still convincing (“Feel it, feel it, feel it”) until the very end.