7. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley was a singer and guitarist from Tupelo, Mississippi. He was the only child of Gladys and Vernon Presley; his twin brother was stillborn. The family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when Elvis was thirteen years old. He was a shy and reserved young man, yet he dressed flamboyantly. His teachers considered him an average music student, but Elvis loved the popular music he heard on the radio, especially the rhythm and blues music on radio station WDIA, where future legends Rufus Thomas and B.B. King were popular on-air personalities. Elvis also loved gospel music, and attended monthly all-night programs where both white and black gospel singers performed. Once Elvis overcame his shyness, he started to sing in small contests and in school talent contests, which earned him admiration among his peers. After high school, Elvis worked a series of jobs, showing neither flair nor desire for any occupation. Curious to hear what he sounded like, Presley paid the Memphis Recording Service a few dollars to record a couple songs, singing and accompanying himself on guitar. Although Elvis was disappointed with the results, the recording service, also known as Sun Records, took note of the young man’s attempts, and invited him back for an audition.


What happened next is a well known part of popular music history. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips invited the enthusiastic young singer to record several times, trying and failing to create distinctive music. On July 5th, 1954, during a break in another unfruitful session, Elvis picked up his guitar and started goofing around, playing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)”. Bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore joined in for a few bars, until Phillips stopped them and said, “Start over. Let’s record that.” The next night the trio recorded an energetic version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass number, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, which became the “B” side of Elvis’ first single. Just three days later, “That’s All Right” made its radio debut on Memphis radio station WHBQ, on Dewey Phillips’ “Red, Hot & Blue” radio program. The response was immediate, and the song was played several more times that evening.

The Elvis Presley Trio:

Elvis Presley (1935-1977), singer, rhythm guitar, movie star
Scotty Moore (b. 1931), lead guitar
Bill Black (1926-1965), bass

Some Key Contributors:

D.J. Fontana (b. 1931), drums
The Jordanaires (1948-2013), vocal group, background vocals

Chet Atkins (1924-2001)
, guitar, producer
Floyd Cramer (1933-1997), piano
Hank Garland (1930-2004), guitar
Jerry Reed (1937-2008), guitar, songwriter
Jerry Leiber (1933-2011) and Mike Stoller (b. 1933), songwriting team
Doc Pomus (1925-1991) and Mort Shuman (1936-1991), songwriting team

Sun records released four more singles by Elvis Presley, who began to attract a significant regional following. He was controversial for his sexually suggestive movements during his performances, and very popular among young women. Despite Presley’s popularity, plus the development of other “rockabilly” stars Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips had financial problems, and sold Presley’s contract to RCA Victor records for $40,000. In 1956, with the financial backing and promotional might of RCA Victor, Elvis Presley became an enormous television and music star, a household name and a cultural icon.

Elvis starred in thirty-one full-length feature films to capitalize on his immense popularity. Between the movie career and an untimely stint in the U.S. Army from 1958-60, Elvis’s music career was somewhat derailed; he was often asked to record songs of debatable quality, his management valuing songwriting royalties over artistic expression. Still, the hard working singer/actor produced an impressive library of good music, especially between the years 1956 and 1962. In the late sixties, Elvis changed his priorities and added a final, mature phase to his music career, a nice complement to his early groundbreaking work.

Throughout his years of fame and fortune, Elvis developed a growing prescription drug habit, which eventually took his life in 1977. While researching Elvis Presley, I read Dave Marsh’s book “Elvis”, as well as parts of Peter Guralnick’s “Careless Love”, the second volume of his exhaustive biography, which details Presley’s painful descent into drugs, megalomania and death.

Amazon.com link to “Elvis”, by Dave Marsh
Amazon.com link to “Careless Love”, by Peter Guralnick

Memphis, Tennessee

“The country fan did not ask that his star continue to appear impoverished or reject the trappings of success. Nor was the country star obliged to make statements of regret at his estrangement from the workaday world. (Those are the demands of bohemian audiences.) What the country fan wanted was something impossible: that the pampered, expensively clad, luxuriously transported, well-endowed and shrewdly invested star should maintain the same mentality that he and the fan originally shared, that his view of the world should not be altered by the loft of his perch. The effect was pernicious and pathetic not only because it prevented the star from ever making explicit criticisms of the conditions that kept his audience impoverished but because it kept the audience from ever seeing the truth about the human consequences of a change in economic status. The result was a culture that was steeped in vicariousness and utterly passive — and as more Southerners moved into urban America, seeking work during and after World War II, these attitudes came to epitomize working-class attitudes to all culture.

Elvis was a product of this culture of passivity, but he was also a well-informed voice in opposition to it — one of the few who spoke with the real credibility of an insider, neither a patronizing, moralistic leftist reformer nor an equally patronizing moralistic right-wing demagogue. What Elvis did was suggest, especially for younger listeners, that there were more attractive options than the limited ones they already knew about, and that these options were reachable without essential compromise. Although few ever took Elvis up on even a portion of his implicit challenge many permanently honored and revered him for his personal breakout.”

— Dave Marsh, “Elvis”

Elvis Presley was not in my childhood experience. Neither of my parents expressed an interest in Elvis. Part of this was timing; my parents had graduated from college in 1952 and 1953, were newly married and focused on building a life together. Dad was working for the Lincoln Electric Company training salesmen while moonlighting as a writer, trying to write the great American novel. Mom was an underutilized housewife, taking care of the domestic chores. They followed Dad’s career to Cleveland and Chicago before changing course, dropping everything and moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1956.

My mother mentioned on several occasions that the fifties were dark days, an oppressed, unimaginative period in life, where accusations of communism were loudly publicized and creative thought was stifled. In the early fifties, the types of entertainment offered for mass consumption were tightly controlled. By the time Elvis Presley became widely known, he was pretty much a corporate product. The television networks eliminated his lascivious on-stage persona and made him politically correct. That Elvis was a popular teen idol singing simple country songs, was probably another reason that Elvis did not interest my parents. If my folks were from Memphis or Nashville, where country and blues music originated, and had heard the great early Sun Records singles, they might have been fans. In my family, he wasn’t even a blip on the radar. I never heard them mention him once.

My self-taught Elvis education began in high school, when I learned the big hits like “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel”. Once I was out of college, and getting serious about filling holes in my musical education, I bought a copy of The Sun Sessions LP and a nifty set of a dozen gold-tinted singles to commemorate what would have been Elvis’ fiftieth birthday. Since then, I’ve gone all in, purchasing the three big box sets, The Complete 50s Recordings, The Essential 60s Recordings, and The Essential 70s Recordings. However, the true essential recordings are the Sun sessions from 1954 and 1955; beyond that, there are a wide selection of good songs between about 1956 and 1962, first class productions featuring excellent musicians and Elvis’ friendly, confident voice.

The phenomenon of Elvis could only happen in Memphis, a culture steeped in both country and gospel music, but also near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the delta blues. Elvis has been accused of being a racist, capitalizing on the songs of black men by singing them for a white audience. I don’t see it that way at all; I’d argue the opposite is true. He was a poor kid from the poor side of town, who loved music regardless of a man’s color. That’s why he’s so important, the greatest progressive force in pop music history. He’s largely responsible for breaking the color barrier. Whether he had personal prejudices is irrelevant; I have no evidence to suggest he did.

“How Did Elvis Get Turned Into A Racist?”, by Peter Guralnick, New York Times, August 11, 2007

The Jordanaires

Originally from Missouri, the Jordanaires were a gospel quartet who also had a long career providing background vocals for popular music artists. Elvis liked their sound, and used them regularly for both live and studio performances from 1956-1972. Their distinctive sound was also used by such artists as Patsy Cline (“Crazy”, “I Fall To Pieces”) and Ricky Nelson (“Lonesome Town”, “Poor Little Fool”). They are one of my favorite singing groups, along with The Beach Boys and the Franklin sisters, Aretha Franklin with her two sisters Erma and Carolyn. Their rich sound helped Elvis create a second phase of his recording career. After the early rockabilly music, there was the Nashville “countrypolitan” music with the Jordanaires and pianist Floyd Cramer, followed by the Memphis blue-eyed soul music of the late sixties.

The Final Years

Here’s Elvis on his great “comeback” TV performance in 1968, singing his Sun Records classic, “Trying To Get To You”:

I can’t imagine anything worse than being physically addicted to barbiturates, and needing them to fall asleep each night. Peter Guralnick’s book “Careless Love” is a detailed account of Elvis’s life — it portrays someone desperately in need of a medical withdrawal from the stimulants and sedatives that became a daily part of life. In many ways, Elvis and Michael Jackson were similar. Both were huge stars, the biggest pop star in the world for a number of years. Both suffered from addictions to prescription medication that ultimately took their lives. Both were rather childlike as adults; Elvis enjoyed bedtime “pillow talk” with younger women, more than he enjoyed full bodied affection. And both were profligate spenders. Elvis bought jewelry and automobiles for friends and acquaintances he wished to impress or control, and jet airliners to travel wherever he wished. By 1975, Elvis was essentially broke, and between his spending and longtime manager Tom Parker’s excessive gambling habit, they needed Elvis to keep hitting the road, heading to Las Vegas, generating revenue, and performing the same program to fans who adored him, despite the listless recitation of old hits, and the occasionally insane, mean-spirited, drug-fueled rant.

Finally, here he is in June, 1977, just a couple months before his death, on a “good” night where Elvis musters the energy to sing the high notes in “Unchained Melody”. You can hear him whisper “I got this” before the finale, indicating he does not want the other singers to help:

Elvis Presley Wikiquotes
Link to SNL Skit “Waikiki Hockey”, starring Wayne Gretzky

Elvis Presley Song Notes:

Most of these song notes will be easy to find on various compilations available on iTunes.

1. The following alternate versions of songs can be found on The Essential 60s Recordings. In particular, the first three songs are beautiful, unadorned takes that equal the released versions:

“In The Ghetto (Take 4)”
“Suspicious Minds (Take 6)”
“Kentucky Rain (Take 9)”
“Big Boss Man (Take 2)”
“(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame (Alt)”

2. The following alternate versions can be found on The Complete 50s Recordings:

“Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt)”
“I Want You, I Need you, I Love You (Take 16)”
“Loving You (Take 12)”

3. “Shake, Rattle & Roll/Flip, Flop & Fly (Live)” can be found on Platinum
— A Life In Music

Elvis Presley Songs:

Mystery Train, Elvis Presley ★★★★★

Can’t Help Falling In Love, Elvis Presley ★★★★
That’s All Right, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Blue Moon, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Little Sister, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley ★★★★
(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Good Rockin’ Tonight, Elvis Presley ★★★★

All Shook Up, Elvis Presley ★★★
Are You Lonesome Tonight, Elvis Presley ★★★
Good Luck Charm, Elvis Presley ★★★
Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley ★★★
Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Elvis Presley ★★★
(There’ll Be) Peace in The Valley, Elvis Presley ★★★
Trying To Get To You, Elvis Presley ★★★
My Baby Left Me, Elvis Presley ★★★
Blue Christmas, Elvis Presley ★★★
It’s Now Or Never, Elvis Presley ★★★
Kentucky Rain (Take 9), Elvis Presley ★★★
Don’t, Elvis Presley ★★★
Return To Sender, Elvis Presley ★★★
Stuck On You, Elvis Presley ★★★
Suspicion, Elvis Presley ★★★

Milk Cow Blues Boogie, Elvis Presley ★★
Baby, Let’s Play House, Elvis Presley ★★
I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone, Elvis Presley ★★
Blue Suede Shoes, Elvis Presley ★★
Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley ★★
I Gotta Know, Elvis Presley ★★
Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, Elvis Presley ★★
A Mess Of Blues, Elvis Presley ★★
Such A Night, Elvis Presley ★★
Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley ★★
Fame And Fortune, Elvis Presley ★★
Reconsider Baby, Elvis Presley ★★
She’s Not You, Elvis Presley ★★
(You’re The) Devil In Disguise, Elvis Presley ★★
Guitar Man/What’d I Say, Elvis Presley ★★
U.S. Male, Elvis Presley ★★
In The Ghetto (Take 4), Elvis Presley ★★
Suspicious Minds (Take 6), Elvis Presley ★★
Big Boss Man (Take 2), Elvis Presley ★★
(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame (Alt), Elvis Presley ★★
Joshua Fit The Battle, Elvis Presley ★★
Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, Elvis Presley ★★
I Want You, I Need You, I Love You (Take 16), Elvis Presley ★★
Burning Love, Elvis Presley ★★

You’re A Heartbreaker, Elvis Presley
I Forgot To Remember To Forget, Elvis Presley
Money Honey, Elvis Presley
Take My Hand, Precious Lord, Elvis Presley
(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear, Elvis Presley
Loving You, Elvis Presley
(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care, Elvis Presley
Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane), Elvis Presley
I Got A Woman, Elvis Presley
We’re Gonna Move, Elvis Presley
Paralyzed, Elvis Presley
King Of the Whole Wide World, Elvis Presley
Hound Dog, Elvis Presley
Love Me, Elvis Presley
Make Me Know It, Elvis Presley
I Feel So Bad, Elvis Presley
Long Black Limousine, Elvis Presley
Stranger In My Home Town, Elvis Presley
Viva Las Vegas, Elvis Presley
Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley
High Heel Sneakers, Elvis Presley
After Loving You, Elvis Presley
His Hand In Mine, Elvis Presley
Treat Me Nice, Elvis Presley
Ain’t That Loving You Baby, Elvis Presley
(Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I, Elvis Presley
Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt), Elvis Presley
Loving You (Take 12), Elvis Presley
When It Rains, It Really Pours, Elvis Presley
Young And Beautiful, Elvis Presley
Santa Claus Is Back In Town, Elvis Presley
Trouble, Elvis Presley
Shake, Rattle & Roll/Flip, Flop & Fly (Live), Elvis Presley
Crying In The Chapel, Elvis Presley

Related Songs:

Mystery Train, Junior Parker ★★★
Mystery Train/Crossroads (Live), The Doors

That’s All Right, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup ★★★
That’s All Right (Live), The Beatles ★★

Blue Moon, The Marcels ★★★

Don’t Be Cruel, Cheap Trick

Little Sister (Alt), Dwight Yoakam ★★★

Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys ★★★
Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt), Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys ★★★

(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley, Red Foley & Sunshine Boys Quartet ★★★
(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley, Johnny Cash ★★

Good Rockin’ Tonight, Roy Brown ★★★
Good Rockin’ Tonight, Wynonie Harris ★★
Good Rockin’ Tonight (Live), Paul McCartney

Trying To Get To You, Chris Isaak ★★

My Baby Left Me, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup ★★
My Baby Left Me, Creedence Clearwater Revival Band ★★

Suspicion, Terry Stafford ★★

Milk Cow Blues, Johnie Lee Wills & His Boys ★★★
Milk Cow Blues, Josh White Trio ★★
Milk Cow Blues (Live), The Kinks

Baby Let’s Play House, Arthur Gunter ★★★

Blue Suede Shoes, Carl Perkins ★★★★★
Blue Suede Shoes (Take 2), Carl Perkins ★★★★
Blue Suede Shoes (Take 1), Carl Perkins ★★★

Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Lloyd Price
Junker’s Blues, Champion Jack Dupree

Reconsider Baby, Lowell Fulson ★★

Guitar Man, Jerry Reed ★★

Big Boss Man, Jerry Reed ★★★
Big Boss Man (Live), Grateful Dead ★★

Joshua Fit The Battle Ob Jericho, Sidney Bechet ★★★
Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, Golden Gate Quartet ★★

Money Honey, The Drifters ★★

Take My Hand, Precious Lord, Mahalia Jackson ★★

I Got A Woman, Ray Charles ★★★★
I Got A Woman, Jimmy Smith ★★
I Got A Woman (Live), The Beatles

Hound Dog, Big Mama Thornton ★★★

I Feel So Bad, Chuck Willis ★★★

Memphis, Tennessee, Lonnie Mack ★★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, Chuck Berry ★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, Johnny Rivers ★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, The Beatles ★★

High Heel Sneakers, Tommy Tucker ★★
High Heel Sneakers, The Rolling Stones ★★

(Now And Then, There’s) A Fool Such As I, Hank Snow, The Singing Ranger

Shake, Rattle & Roll, Big Joe Turner ★★★★
Flip, Flop & Fly, Big Joe Turner ★★★
Flip, Flop & Fly (Live), The Blues Brothers

Crying In The Chapel, The Orioles ★★

Rip It Up, Little Richard ★★★

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