Blue moons, heartbreak and good rockin': Elvis' 40 best songs

Blue moons, heartbreak and good rockin': Elvis' 40 best songs

Sun Records 45 of Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama"

Blue moons, heartbreak and good rockin': Elvis' 40 best songs

Elvis Presley, Bill Black, Scotty Moore and Sam Phillips at Memphis Recording Service, 706 Union Ave., in 1954. On the night of July 5, 1954, Phillips would record the threesome doing Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's song "That's All Right." Within a week, they backed it with "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which had been a hit for Bill Monroe in 1946. It was the first of five Elvis singles recorded on the Sun label. Memphis Recording Service later became known as Sun Studio.

9. “Blue Moon” (1956): Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch named his Memphis movie “Mystery Train,” but it was this Sun recording he used as a connecting thread among the film’s four portraits of lost souls on one Memphis night. Elvis’ singing is the most ethereal of his career and, though it’s a ballad, a standard even, maybe the wildest. He sings like a spirit. Here’s the ghost of Elvis, more than 20 years before his actual death. It’s the oddest recording on this list, maybe the oddest — in a good way — in the Elvis canon. Rather than timeless, it sounds out of time. (CH)

10. “Stranger in My Own Hometown” (1969): Elvis’ hometown “comeback” sessions at American are richly represented on this list. “Stranger in My Own Hometown” isn’t the highest-ranking record from that period or, certainly, the most familiar. But though it was passed over for inclusion on “From Elvis in Memphis,” it captures the essential meaning of that session — and of that moment in Elvis’ career. Percy Mayfield’s original version is a fine record, but Elvis, finally unleashed, blows it away, with power, desperation and, crucially, a self-aware black humor culled from his own artistic exile to Hollywood and transformative return to a city whose music scene had evolved just fine in his absence. Here the King, not his hit-making producer and ace session band, has something to prove. (CH)

11. “One Night” (1957): A month before recording the released version of “One Night,” Presley and the band cut a more faithful cover of Smiley Lewis’ 1956 R&B hit, “One Night (of Sin)”; when Elvis’ publishing company balked at the unmistakable intent of the title, a more radio-friendly rewrite was ordered. Purists and bad boys may demur, but in the case of Presley’s performances, the bowdlerized version is superior to Elvis’ earlier take (which remained unreleased until 1983). “One night of sin/ Is what I’m now paying for,” sang Lewis, and later, Elvis; the rewrite changes the opening to: “One night with you/ Is what I’m now praying for.” This is more than an edit: What was intended, for all its salaciousness, as a caution against the wages of “sin” becomes an affirmation of love (physical and otherwise) — something you can pray for, without shame. And Elvis’ exuberant, bluesy performance embraces its full promise. (JB)

Blue moons, heartbreak and good rockin': Elvis' 40 best songs

Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley at Sun Studio on Dec. 4, 1956

12. “Baby Let’s Play House” (1955): The fourth of Elvis’ Sun singles, “Baby, Let’s Play House” was the first to chart — a No. 5 country single in a year when Webb Pierce was the man. In the original from just a few months before, Nashville-born R&B man Arthur Gunter sang “You may go to college/ May go to school/ You may get religion/ Baby, don’t you be nobody’s fool.” Elvis changed “religion” to “a pink Cadillac” and goosed the tempo to a bank heist getaway pace. The result may be the wildest good time ever had on record, by anybody. Elvis whoops, stutters, wails and hiccups — and late in the song, somewhere around the 43rd “baby” — seems about to bust out laughing before he catches himself. It’s the only restraint in the whole thing. Mercy. (DW)

13. “All Shook Up” (1957): “All Shook Up” is a title begging for a song, and songwriter Otis Blackwell (who also penned “Don’t Be Cruel”) crafted one worthy of the phrase. It’s an irresistible composition made more so by some of Elvis’ most irresistible pure-pop singing, ending verses — “My heart beats so it scares me to death,” “That’s to have that girl that I love so fine” — with vocal flourishes that take flight. (CH)

14. “Milkcow Blues Boogie” (1955): You could debate which Elvis record to put in a time capsule and shoot into outer space, to explain the Presley phenomenon to whatever life forms reside in the vast cosmos. But you could melt down a 45 rpm copy of Sun Records No. 215 and use it as rocket fuel. “Hold it, fellas,” Elvis says to Scotty and Bill, seconds into the song. “That don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” “Milkcow Blues Boogie” is Elvis unhinged. It’s rockabilly on a bender, with falsetto cries, barnyard double entendre and some moments of true vocal menace. (DW)

15. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957): There are half a dozen songs from the songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller on this list, but this is the only one as mischievous as their best titles for R&B vocal group The Coasters, putting love song convention into a (male only) prison setting: “Number 47 said to number 3/ You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.” Elvis rips into the lyric without hesitation, but this is also perhaps the freest, heaviest movie music he ever made. The thundering power chords set a tone, while D.J. Fontana’s drumming is, in the words of rock critic Dave Marsh, “halfway between strip joint rhumba and the perfect New Orleans shuffle.” Elvis cuts so loose that he’s overcome, his “rockrockrock” at the song’s midpoint descending into babble that only Scotty Moore’s guitar can put back together. All hands on deck. If you can’t find a partner use a wooden chair. (CH)

Blue moons, heartbreak and good rockin': Elvis' 40 best songs

Elvis, with songwriters Mike Stoller, left, and Jerry Leiber, at MGM Studios, Culver City, Calif., in 1957

17. “Wearin’ That Loved On Look” (1969): This is Elvis music for grown folk — a naughty tragicomedy that might be heard on WDIA’s “All Blues Saturday,” if only it had been covered by Marvin Sease or Theodis Ealey. The narrative presents the King as cuckold, as Elvis returns home from an out-of-town trip to discover such evidence of party-hearty “carrying on” as ash trays “all full of ashes”; an apparently too-stoned-to-leave “man downstairs with long bushy hair”; and, worst of all, his “baby,” who is (cue the title lyric). Also, this is Elvis soul music: The emphatic backup vocals and the wiggly tease of organist Bobby Emmons’ keyboards keep everything percolating, no matter the post-Summer of Love, late 1960s weariness of the narrator, who seems to be longing for a time when free love wasn’t so free. (JB)

18. “Reconsider Baby” (1960): As Peter Guralnick notes in his biography “Last Train to Memphis,” a still-teenaged Elvis had seen Lowell Fulson perform “Reconsider Baby” at the Club Handy on Beale in 1954. When he got around to cutting it himself six years later, fresh from the Army, he dug as deeply into the song’s slow-burn sexual swagger as Fulson had. Unlike at Sun, this wasn’t blues reimagined into rock 'n' roll, with quickness, brashness, release. This was just blues, played straight, arguably the best of his life, augmented by Scotty Moore’s razor guitar and Boots Randolph’s dirty saxophone. Here, when Elvis commands “Play the blues, boys, play the blues,” he means it, and he gets what he wants. (CH)

Blue moons, heartbreak and good rockin': Elvis' 40 best songs

"Love Me Tender," a 1956 black-and-white Western musical, was the only Elvis Presley movie in which the King was not the top billing.

20. “Little Sister” (1961): The rare B-side that has eclipsed its A-side (“His Latest Flame,” see No. 29), “Little Sister” owes its rock 'n' roll immortality primarily to Hank Garland’s guitar riff, a twangy Greek chorus of a G note that adds swampy heat and cheeky punctuation to the lyrics’ tale of a spurned Romeo transferring his horndog affection from a presumably age-appropriate target to a ripening youngster. The result is something of a Southern-fried teen screwball comedy, with Jordanaire Culley Holt adding a mocking froggy bass echo to Elvis’ perfectly modulated vocals during the fade-out that comes all too soon.(JB)

21. “Power of My Love” (1969): A re-energized and indisputably mature Elvis transforms this uncompromisingly adult sex song into one of the bluesiest and most, yes, powerful performances of his historic 1969 Memphis sessions — it’s an underrated monster fit for a King (or a King Kong). (JB)

22. “A Mess of Blues” (1960): This B-side to “It’s Now or Never” is a gritty, grinding little R&B number with Elvis recapturing some of his ’50s loucheness — and a nice counterpoint to the A-side’s decidedly melodramatic pop. (BM)

23. “Long Black Limousine” (1969): The first song recorded at the historic 1969 American Studio sessions, “Long Black Limousine” was a crucial cut on what might be the essential Elvis album, “From Elvis in Memphis.” “Rarely has Elvis sung so passionately in the studio,” wrote biographer Peter Guralnick, “rarely has he revealed himself so nakedly.” Fourteen years after singing about a pink Cadillac in his classic version of “Baby, Let’s Play House,” and just six years removed from the soundtrack clowning of “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” it was as if the joy ride was over. (DW)

24. “Like a Baby” (1960): Written by R&B artist Jesse Stone and later recorded by James Brown, this slow march through betrayal, regret and self-pity is one of Elvis’ most soulful, disturbed and — never mind the title — sexual recordings. (JB)

25. “Burning Love” (1972): “Lord Almighty, I feel my temperature rising,” Elvis sings, responding to the song’s churning — burning — rhythm the way many a listener would. A rocker in a time of (often overwrought) ballads, played and sung with more weight and passion than in the original Arthur Alexander version, this was an update of the original Southern rock 'n' roll sound that didn’t sound creaky or nostalgic. Elvis’ last real hit and, arguably, his last great record. (CH)

Blue moons, heartbreak and good rockin': Elvis' 40 best songs

Elvis Presley and Chips Moman, producer of the King's 1969 Memphis sessions

30. “Kentucky Rain” (1970): Buoyed by Chips Moman’s atmospheric production touches and tempo shifts, as well as the piano playing of a then-unknown Ronnie Milsap, the track is defined by the vaulting, dramatic vocals that became Presley’s signature during his post-’60s career. (BM)

31. “Love Me” (1956): “Love Me” may have been the first song to acknowledge the helpless and intense ardor of Elvis’ female fans, indeed to make that the song’s subtext. In Elvis’ hands, Leiber & Stoller’s intended-to-be-wry opening lines (“Treat me like a fool/ Treat me mean and cruel/ But love me”) are instead an invitation for bedlam. (CH)

32. “Guitar Man” (1967): Georgia-bred guitarist and songwriter Jerry Reed scored a small country hit with this snappy 1967 number about a musician making his way from Memphis to Macon to Mobile leading a swingin' five-piece band. But the tune would be redone memorably — not once, but twice — by Elvis. (BM)

33. “Tomorrow is a Long Time” (1966): The King meets The Bard as Elvis cuts a Bob Dylan rarity. It’s a spare and moving piece that makes one wish the King had dug deeper into the Dylan songbook, and more often. (BM)

34. “Blue Christmas” (1957): Elvis’ contribution to the holidays is as loaded with goodies as a Christmas stocking, from the plunk-a-plunk-plunk of the guitar to the almost doo-wop background vocals of Millie Kirkham and the Jordanaires, which move from high to low pitch like garlands wrapped in waves around a Douglas fir. With a quintessential Elvis vocal performance (“I’ll have a bluuuuue blue-blue-blue Criss-muss,” the singer concludes), this Christmas classic seems to become more ubiquitous every season. (JB)

35. “My Baby Left Me” (1956): Elvis’ career-launching take on Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” tops our list, but this follow-up dip into the bluesman’s catalog is every bit as energetic if not as epochal as its predecessor. (JB)

36. “Baby What You Want Me to Do” (1968): Played as part of an “in-the-round” picking session with his pals on the “’68 Comeback” special, Elvis’ cover of the Jimmy Reed blues tune may be among his most joyous performances. Clad in black leather, biting his lip, stomping and sweating his way through the song and several reprises, Elvis’ affection for this dirty groover is palpable, electric and contagious. (BM)

37. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968/2002): An apparently minor Elvis song when it first appeared, this became Elvis’ most unexpected hit a full generation after his death via a remix by producer Junkie XL, who realized two essential things: The hopped-up rhythm motorvates across eras, and the King has full command over that groovy groove. (CH)

38. “An American Trilogy” (1972): A medley of 19th-century tunes — the Southern anthem “Dixie,” the African-American connected folk number “All My Trials” and the Union Army’s marching song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — in a grandiloquent arrangement would become the centerpiece of Elvis’ concerts. (BM)

39. “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road” (1969): The King’s gospel-soul reading of this “love over money” ballad matches the vulnerability that Chips Moman’s “Memphis Boys” session players gave it, and it’s among the many standouts from his late ‘60s studio comeback, "From Elvis in Memphis." (BM)

40. “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (1960): The tune dates back to the 1920s, but was associated with only one man after Elvis was through with it. Elvis was always as much of a balladeer as a rocker, and this was one of his most successful and most enduring big ballads, his pleading, questioning verses (“Is your heart filled with pain?/ Shall I come back again?”) broken up by a spoken-word bridge that tip-toes along the edge of camp. (CH)



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