Elvis Presley would have turned 76 on Saturday. What amazes me is how relatively young he still would have been. Elvis’s death seems like it happened several pop culture lifetimes ago, so it’s bizarre to imagine that if the conspiracy theorists were correct and Elvis was still alive, he’d still be reasonably spry and vital.
As with most rock stars who died young, there’s little doubt that a premature demise romanticized Elvis and enhanced his legacy. Still, it’s fascinating to think what he would have been like had he lived into his eighth decade. Elvis went through so many phases, and transformed himself so many times, that’s near impossible to figure out where he would have gone next had he not overdosed while on the toilet that fateful Memphis night. Elvis was also such a consumption king (no pun intended), that it’s more than fitting he died from it. Imagining Elvis old is like imagining Babe Ruth old.
Even more so than his young and dead brethren, though, Elvis’s musical legacy has eroded at the expense of his pop culture legend. When we think of Elvis, we think of the jumpsuits, the bad movies, the Colonel, the peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and the screaming teenage girls. We don’t remember that he was an important and influential artist. If he didn’t invent rock and roll as we know it, he was certainly one of the founding fathers.
So join me as we try to cut through all the ephemera and get at what really matters: the music.
Consider this an Elvis playlist for beginners, but not for idiots. We’re going light on the big hits that you’ve heard so many times on oldies stations and in shopping malls that they don’t even register anymore. So while they might be great songs in their own right, you won’t find “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Jailhouse Rock,” or “Suspicious Minds” here. I’m also leaving out some songs that have already gotten their due as influential classics, like “Mystery Train.” This will be a mix of moderate but mostly forgotten hits with some deeper cuts. Of course, if you’re not familiar with Elvis’s biggest singles and signature tracks, you should check those out too. Especially “Burning Love.”
Elvis didn’t write his own songs, but he came of an age in an era where that was not expected nor required of pop musicians. So while he didn’t innovate in the same way that Buddy Holly or Chuck Betty did, he was still a creator. He was an artist in the same way that Frank Sinatra and Sam Cooke were: a singer, yes, but something more too.
Presley’s catalog is immense, and you have to wade through some throwaway nonsense to find the good stuff, particularly after Elvis got back from the Army, but the good stuff is there for those willing to put in the effort. Or for those lucky enough to be reading this blog post.
Some of Elvis’s best and most important songs, presented in almost-chronological order:
Milkcow Blues Boogie
“Hold it, fellas, that don’t move me. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.” That statement from Elvis, coming after a few seconds of a slow-paced version of the song, could have been his epitaph. This was recorded in 1954, one of Elvis’s earliest songs for Sun Records and Sam Phillips.
You’re a Heartbreaker
Recorded at the same session as “Milkcow Blues Boogie” with Elvis’s original band, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, “Heartbreaker” gets lost in the shuffle of better-known, similar Sun songs like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” And that’s a shame because this song showcases Elvis’s unique mix of cockiness and sadness.
Baby, Let’s Play House
This song is quintessential early Presley: energetic, vivacious and swinging. It also features Elvis’s quirky vocal inflections at their sweet spot: not too showy, not so playful as to kill any sexuality, and certainly not too drab. Interestingly, Presley himself changed one of the song’s key lyrics from “You may have religion/But don’t you be nobody’s fool” to “You may have a pink Cadillac/But don’t you be nobody’s fool.” Somewhere, a young Bruce Springsteen was paying attention.
Trying to Get to You
An old R&B song that Elvis and his band tried recording a couple times before finally nailing, “Trying to Get to You” features a deeply felt yearning in the interplay between the guitar and piano, and especially in Presley’s beyond-his-years-and-station vocals. In those early days, and throughout his career, Elvis picked songs to record in an incredibly scattershot fashion. He’d try songs he liked, songs band members brought him, and songs producers and labels suggested with equal vigor. And he didn’t care whether they were country, blues, gospel — or whether they were huge hits or picked out of obscurity. The Beatles and forgotten country steel guitar players were equals in Elvis’s world, if they’d written something he could attack.
Shake, Rattle & Roll
After Elvis left Sun to sign with RCA (indie rock’s first sellout?), his music changed markedly. It lost much of its country tinge in favor of a harder rock sound, and the arrangements morphed significantly with new musicians and bigger budgets. The first thing that jumps out of you on this track is the snap of the drums, an instrument missing from much of Presley’s Sun recordings. Also, for anyone clinging to the myth that Bill Haley mattered in the same way Elvis did, listen to his version of “Shake” and compare it to Presley’s. “Shake” is also an example of a song that Elvis performed live frequently before trying it in the studio, and the recording is all the tighter for it.
One-Sided Love Affair
This Bill Campbell song appeared on Presley’s debut eponymous LP, recorded for RCA. In an age when the album mattered less than it would for decades, Elvis Presley boasted a stunningly strong and filler-free tracklist, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Got a Woman,” “Money Honey,” and “Just Because.”
(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley
On certain of his gospel numbers, Elvis’s recordings are rote. On a select handful, like “Peace,” you can truly feel and understand that this world meant a lot to Elvis, at least at some point in his life; and that devotion still mattered to him on some level, whether out of respect for his mother or true spirituality.
Elvis’s movies have a deserved reputation for being trifling works of inanity, with soundtracks to match. But before he left for the army, both Elvis’s films and their soundtracks featured significant high points. The film King Creole is a slightly more serious version of Jailhouse Rock — both firmly in the vein of Rebel Without a Cause. Conversely, the title track to Creole’s soundtrack is a sillier version of “Jailhouse Rock,” featuring Leiber and Stoller’s patented flourishes and lyrics taken right out of the film. The movie’s better than the song, but the song’s a lot of fun.
Another Leiber/Stoller song, also known in some circles for Nicholas Cage’s crooning in Wild at Heart. “Love Me Tender,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” get all the attention, but for my money this song from the same time period is Elvis’s best pure lovestruck ballad. Incidentally, Leiber and Stoller hated Elvis’s recordings of “Hound Dog” and “Love Me,” and were reticent to work with him again until the three met in person and wrote and played music together.
Consider this in the same way as “Peace in the Valley.” In the same way that Elvis really felt it for just some of his gospel songs, so too did he feel it for just some of his lascivious songs. But this is for damn sure one of those songs. Presley recorded “One Night” (which was written by Dave Bartholomew, who also wrote “Walking to New Orleans”) before he left for the Army in 1957, but the song wasn’t released until he was abroad, as RCA stockpiled material to last through the King’s absence.
A Big Hunk O’ Love
Elvis’s final number-one hit of the 1950s, “Hunk” was recorded while Presley was on leave from the Army, and released in summer 1959. It’s notable for Elvis’s Big Bopper-esque “Hey baby!” and him sounding like he’s really fucking happy to be on leave.
Such a Night
“Such a Night” was recorded as part of a killer 1960 session along with “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” “It’s Now or Never” and future Peggy Lee hit “Fever.” Each of this songs features a newly-adult sound from Elvis’s vocals, and with his maturity came a different kind of swagger than the youthful one with which he left for Germany. The session hints at what Presley’s 1960s recording career could have been had Colonel Parker not hijacked him to make 25 different versions of Blue Hawaii, and as such plays a role in one of the saddest parts of the Elvis story.
A slinky guitar line, fairly filthy lyrics and a delightful vocal bass drop highlight this song. Penned by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman (who also wrote “Viva Las Vegas” among many others), “Little Sister” was released as a double A-side with “(Marie’s the Name) Of his Latest Flame,” another fantastic pop song.
Not the Sinatra song, which Elvis also performed, including in an uncomfortable televised duet with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself (the hatred and jealousy between the two is palpable on screen). No, this version of “Witchcraft” is prototypical of much of Presley’s 60s output: fun and bouncy, but with no substance.
The Lady Loves Me
Of Elvis’s tossed-off ’60s films, Viva Las Vegas stands alone as a movie that actually works on more than the most basic level. The songs are great, Elvis hasn’t completely started mailing in his acting performances yet, and the admittedly silly plot at least makes sense on its own terms. The title song is a classic, but you’ve heard that. So listen to this duet with Ann-Margaret. Even on record, the chemistry between Elvis and Ann-Margaret sizzled. You can practically hear them taking each other’s clothes off in the studio.
Follow That Dream
Here’s an example of a song that should have been better that it was, from a film that could easily be described the same way. If this song had been infused with a Sun-style arrangement, and the yearning vocals of Presley’s youth, it could have been a classic instead of another forgotten cut from a shitty soundtrack.
If I Can Dream
“Suspicious Minds” gets all the credit for Elvis’s late-60s comeback, after too many Spinouts and Speedways for even the most ardent Elvis fans, but “If I Can Dream” stands as another great what-if in Presley’s career. Performed at the climax of his ’68 comeback TV special, the song suggests a new direction for a mature Presley: anthemic, socially aware and powerful. Too much of Elvis’s late-career music pretends the cultural and musical revolution of the ’60s never happened. “If I Can Dream” is one of the few songs that isn’t in denial. Unfortunately, Elvis couldn’t maintain his momentum or his sanity, and his comeback died on the vine.
Change of Habit
Occasionally, a terrible Elvis movie resulted in a great Elvis song. This is such an occassion. The movie Change of Habit, co-starring Mary Tyler Moore as a nun, is brutal. It’s not even fun-bad like Presley’s beach movies. But somehow the title track, and particularly the tone of the lead guitar and the pulsing bridge, make the whole fiasco worthwhile. See also: “A Little Less Conversation” from Live a Little, Love a Little.
Long Black Limousine
“There’s a long line of mourners driving down our little street/Their fancy cars are such a sight to see/They’re all your rich friends who knew you in the city/And now they’ve finally brought you home to me.” Even if Elvis didn’t explicitly note the foreshadowing, it’s clear that he related to the story of a small-town kid made good-then-bad. As Peter Guralnick notes, “rarely has Elvis sung so passionately in the studio, rarely has he revealed himself so nakedly, and if his voice is roughened by the cold, if his singing lacks some of the easygoing grace of some of his finest sides from the early sixties, rarely can he have taken so much satisfaction from the consistent application of effort and craft.”
“Kentucky Rain” takes some getting used to. The intro is a bit precious and overwrought. But if you let yourself fall into the rhythm of the song, Elvis will ratchet up the honest drama and leave behind the pretense. By the final chorus, you’ll be swept away. Trust me.
You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Elvis’s version of this Dusty Springfield song treads a fine line between pathetic and sweet. Even as early as 1970, Elvis was starting to get in a bad way, and combined with the reversed gender roles of the song, his crumbling strength comes out in puddles.
Polk Salad Annie
Live Elvis performances were bizarre affairs in the ’70s — a combination of kitsch and ritual, of honesty and facade, of karate and desperation. Presley often rushed through clipped versions of his early hits to focus on jumpsuit changes and scarf-tossing. But he tended to put his heart and soul into covers and late-career work. And then there were the show-stoppers, of which “Polk Salad Annie” was always the show-stoppiest, making full use of the bloated band, horns and back-up singers.
Elvis has never sounded so vulnerable as on this recording. You can hear it all coming apart.
The Twelfth of Never
This rehearsal recording of a Johnny Mathis song, not released until the ’90s, was one of the last times Elvis Presley was ever put on tape. It’s a classic posthumous recording: innocent yet tinged with a sick, sad knowing.
These songs really just crack the surface. Of the hundreds and hundreds of songs Presley recorded, there are at least a hundred that are well worth preserving and remembering. This playlist is intended as an introduction, not a comprehensive overview.
* Thanks to Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis, “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love,” for invaluable aid with this post.