Monday (Aug. 16) marks the 33rd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, and his popularity continues to grow as his music is discovered by those who weren’t yet born in 1977.
Die-hard Elvis fans take his music and legacy seriously and recoil with anger when the uninitiated — or the uninformed — dismiss his entire career by pointing to his final years when he was overweight and his concerts were often subpar.
If you’ve never spent much time with his music, you owe it to yourself to get one of many compilations of his hits. (God knows, RCA has sliced, diced and reissued his catalog more times than we can count.) From there, listen to Elvis at Sun, a collection of his earliest work at Memphis-based Sun Records. And then maybe check out the audio and video for the TV special that became known as the ’68 Comeback Special.
The truth is that Presley’s career cannot be adequately summed up in 10 songs, so we didn’t even try. Instead, CMT.com staff members Chet Flippo, Chris Parton, Stephanie Pendergrass, Whitney Self and Calvin Gilbert each picked two songs among their favorites as they reflected on his career. Decisions changed several times while determining which titles to include and which to omit — another indication that this is in no way a definitive list.
Interestingly enough, Presley wasn’t the first to record most of the songs we selected, yet he made them his own. Maybe that’s why he remains one of the greatest singers who ever lived.
“Always on My Mind” — Elvis’ recording of “Always on My Mind” is one of the few songs with the power to always make me stop whatever I am doing or thinking and pay full attention to the performance. It’s one of the few instances of the true majesty a pop performance can impart. Willie Nelson’s version of “Always” is commanding; Elvis’ “Always” totally rules. It was written by a trio of Southern songwriters — Mark James, Wayne Carson Thompson and Johnny Christopher. (James also wrote “Suspicious Minds” and “Moody Blue” for Elvis.) Even though it became a huge hit, it was first released as the “B” side of a single. The “A” side was “Separate Ways.” More than 300 other artists have since recorded “Always on My Mind,” from the Pet Shop Boys to B.B. King. Elvis’ version was played at the 2006 World Cup football match, and an alternate studio take was included on the 1997 boxed set, Platinum: A Life in Music. — CF
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” — Generally speaking, I’ve never been a huge fan of recitations, although this one seems as though we’re eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. The song was written in the 1920s and had already been recorded several times before Presley and producers Steve Sholes and Chet Atkins covered it in 1960 during a two-day session that also yielded his version of “It’s Now or Never.” It’s an excellent showcase for the subtle side of his incredible vocal skills, and the recording still induces chills when he reaches the final tag to sing, “Is your heart filled with pain/Shall I come back again?” — CG
“Good Rockin’ Tonight” — Can you say “euphemism”? His Sun recordings were not nearly as polite as the ones he’d later make, and his version of this Roy Brown R&B song sheds some light on why parents were concerned about the advent of rock ’n’ roll during the mid-’50s. In the first place, he’s inviting the object of his affections to meet him behind the barn. And then he proclaims, “I’m gonna hold my baby as tight as I can/Tonight she’ll know I’m a mighty, mighty man.” Good rockin’ tonight, indeed. — CG
“Hound Dog” — “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine.” I used to sing this song as a little girl before I had even heard Presley’s recording. It’s slightly less than two minutes of pure energy. In fact, when he went to record his future No. 1 hit, he reportedly insisted on 31 takes until he had it just to his liking. During a 1970 concert at the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Presley told the audience a story of how while trying to think of a gentle, sweet song to serenade to a certain lady, he “got up real close to her” in “a real tender, touching moment” said, “Baby … ” He then belted out, “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog” and proceeded to sing the entire tune to the audience’s delight. With those hip gyrations, his signature smile and sense of humor, it’s not exactly tender — but it sure is sexy. — WS
“Love Me Tender” — Rrrawwrrr! This song will make any woman weak in the knees. I used to have a poster hanging above my bed featuring a sequence of four black-and-white photos of Elvis playfully kissing a woman in a stairwell. I saw it one day while I was perusing an old record store in Nashville and had to have what is now referred to as The Kiss. Above the top it reads, “Love Me Tender.” Several women have come forward to say they are indeed the mystery lady in the photographs. However, the woman has never been officially identified. No wonder this love song is among those featured in Rolling Stones’ “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Each time I hear this seductive masterpiece, I think of these photos and pretend that woman is me. — WS
“Now and Then There’s (A Fool Such as I)” — “Now and Then” we all play the fool for someone, don’t we? And the King was no different. Backed by the Jordanaires, Presley can’t seem to let go after having his heart broken as he promises to foolishly love for the rest of his life. Not only did he put a rock ’n’ roll twist on Hank Snow’s original, but without fail his version of this classic will leave you unsuccessfully trying to mimic the incredible bass voice of Ray Walker. — SP
“One Night” — When I first heard Elvis’ “One Night” as a child, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “One night with you/Is all I’m now praying for.” You can’t say that on a record! Especially in the 1950s. Even as a kid, I had heard that the original title of the song was “One Night (Of Sin),” and that was enough to intrigue me and my friends. Smiley Lewis’ original R&B hit of “One Night (Of Sin)” was far raunchier than Elvis’ cleaned-up version of the Dave Bartholomew/Pearl King song. Elvis and his team rewrote the lyrics to whiten it up, but it still remained a very suggestive and tempting song for the times. Keith Richards once told me that Scotty Moore’s authoritative guitar playing on Elvis’ recording of “One Night” — especially the definitive final notes — was a huge influence on him. — CF
“Suspicious Minds” — With a storyline about being trapped in a relationship that’s going bad, but still too good to quit, this is Elvis’ soulful peak for me. I dare anyone to resist singing along with “because I love you too much baby,” and you can really hear him dig in deep during the slowed-down bridge section. Besides being listed on tons of “greatest songs” lists, it helped relaunch his career after the ’68 Comeback Special and introduced the world to the new, reenergized Elvis — and his sideburns. — CP
“That’s All Right” — This was the first single Elvis ever released, way back in 1954, and while it didn’t go to the top of the charts, its legacy lives on as one of the most loved rockabilly songs ever. I just love how after so long, you can still play it anywhere and watch the smiles grow. You’d have to fight not to feel the spirit of early rock ’n’ roll — or imagine him swivel and shake and drive the girls wild — and that still makes it an irresistible dance tune. It’s easy now to forget how remarkable Elvis’ cool factor was back then, but looking back on this song, it seems inevitable that everyone would want to be him or be with him. — CP
“The Wonder of You” — What could be more romantic than Presley’s heartfelt declaration of love in “The Wonder of You”? “And when you smile the world is brighter/You touch my hand and I’m a king/Your kiss to me is worth a fortune/Your love for me is everything.” The song was recorded in the late ’50s by Ray Peterson, but no one comes close to conveying emotion and perfectly portraying characters in their songs like Presley. And that’s the wonder of Elvis. — SP