Wise men say only fools rush in to a debate on Elvis’ oeuvre. The man could, and did, sing just about anything, including the phone book (cue up “Memphis, Tennessee”).
Elvis Presley adopted Mario Lanza-inspired romantic pieces, Arthur Crudup’s down-and-dirty blues, pop tunes from Brill Building wiseacres Leiber and Stoller, Jackie Wilson R&B and several shades of country – and spit them out as 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.” Plus, he knew gospel, chapter and verse. Lord, could Elvis sing gospel.
He was Americana before we knew the word.
That’s why, when assessing the more than 750 songs Elvis recorded, it’s more useful to appreciate his mastery of multiple styles rather than quibble over whether “How Great Thou Art” was, well, greater than “Hound Dog.”
So to celebrate Baz Luhrmann’s new “Elvis” biopic, put your suspicious minds at ease and savor this survey of the best of his breadth: 20 essential Elvis songs that make you turn your head (and pelvis) toward the speakers.
Appropriation or appreciation? How ‘Elvis’ highlights his complicated history with Black music
‘That’s All Right’ (1954)
Bill Black’s slap-back bass establishes a souped-up tempo, and Scotty Moore chimes in with his bee-sting guitar, sending a jolt to radio listeners in Memphis – and soon around the world. By all accounts, the song sort of fell together as Elvis and mates banged around in the studio, but producer Sam Phillips knew thunder when he heard it. Together, they transformed Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s 1946 blues song into their first commercial single – and a cultural milestone.
Fact checking the ‘Elvis’ movie:Did he really fire Colonel Tom Parker onstage in Las Vegas?
‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ (1955)
Here we get an early taste of the sexual and slightly menacing Elvis as he takes an Arthur Gunter blues song recorded a year earlier and transforms it into a percolating, horn-dog classic. He pants out “baby” 15 times in the opening chorus alone, and his rendering of “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” was so nervy that John Lennon later stole it for his own purposes. Best of all, Elvis tweaked the lyrics to introduce us to his “pink Cadillac.”
‘Where has this been hiding’? Tom Hanks changed his mind about his favorite Elvis song
‘Mystery Train’ (1955)
When Elvis adopts that slight hiccuppy vocal affectation on “16 coaches long,” you immediately grasp his fear and desperation that his baby has left the station and may never return. This is a blues classic by Junior Parker to which guitarist Scotty Moore gives a country feel, and the result is one of the greatest rockabilly performances ever.
Review:Austin Butler rules as the King, but Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’ is an unchained mess
‘Heartbreak Hotel’ (1956)
Elvis got a rare songwriting co-credit (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 alchemy of guitarists Scotty Moore and Chet Atkins, bassist Bill Black, drummer D.J. Fontana and pianist Floyd Cramer all the way through that sets the tone for this searing blues about a despondent down-and-outer.
The problem with Elvis and Priscilla: What we have learned about power dynamics since
‘Hound Dog’ (1956)
D.J. Fontana’s furious drum roll between the verses caught listeners’ ears, but it was Elvis’ hip-thrusting gyrations during live performances of the song that caused the destruction of American civilization as we then knew it. His version was a goofy (and lyric-mangling) reworking of “Big Mama” Thornton’s original 1952 R&B stomper, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
What about now? We didn’t have the empathy to talk about Elvis’ health problems then
‘Love Me Tender’ (1956)
On the second verse, Elvis raises the intensity and kicks into a full creamy croon, making even musicologists forget momentarily that this song was based on Civil War ballad “Aura Lee.” Elvis sang this on “The Ed Sullivan Show” before the single and movie of the same name were released, and more than 1 million advance orders for the single poured in to RCA. Better yet, the single succeeded “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel” at No. 1.
Ranked: The 10 best (and the absolute worst) Elvis movies
‘(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)’ (1957)
From the opening “Well, I’m tired and so weary, but I must go along,” Elvis never sounded more natural and at ease as he fronted The Jordanaires on the Thomas Dorsey standard. It was as though he had been singing gospel all his life – which he had.
‘I couldn’t be an imposter’:How Austin Butler vanished into the role of Elvis Presley
‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957)
The opening two-chord riff and drum beat presage the rock riot to come in the Leiber and Stoller-written soundtrack hit, which spent seven weeks at No. 1. And there probably wasn’t a better staged performance caught on film until Michael Jackson came along.
Austin Butler’s ‘Elvis’ acting lessons: It all started when Tom Hanks delivered a typewriter to the actor’s door
‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town’ (1957)
What’s he packing in that bag? Whether he’s “coming down your chimney tonight” or cruising through the snow in “a big black Cadillac,” the King serves notice that your holiday traditions are about to come unwrapped. Hide the children.
‘One Night With You’ (1957)
There’s ample lust and longing in “been too lonely too long,” especially in the live version from his 1968 NBC concert “Elvis,” aka the “Comeback Special.” For kicks, check out his slightly more explicit alternate version, called “One Night (of Sin)” from the 1983 album “Elvis: A Legendary Performer, Vol. 4,” which hews closer to the Smiley Lewis original.
‘Reconsider Baby’ (1960)
The wimpy “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (a song that Elvis himself would parody in concert) and the slightly over-the-top “It’s Now or Never” signaled that he was back commercially after his Army stint. But this gritty cover of Lowell Fulson’s 1954 blues standard showed that he and his backing team were as musically sharp as ever. Listen to how Boots Randolph’s sax breaks heighten the intensity of Elvis’ performance.
‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ (1961)
“Take my hand, take my whole life, too.” Sigh. And it’s based on an 18th-century French love song, yet. Elvis was in full swoon-inducing splendor, and The Jordanaires gave it their all in the background, but the single was blocked from No. 1 by Joey Dee & the Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist.”
‘Viva Las Vegas’ (1963)
The jittery Latin beat and swinging delivery on this movie title track captured the allure of the “bright light city” 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 out at No. 29 on the Hot 100. But this is the rare Elvis song that continued to gain in popularity long after he crapped out: Dozens of artists have covered it, from Bruce Springsteen to the Dead Kennedys.
‘Run On’ (1966)
When Elvis hits the refrain “God almighty gonna cut you down,” you sense that he’s washed in gospel from both white and black traditions. This traditional spiritual from the “How Great Thou Art” album is arranged and sung in the jubilee style. If it moves you as it moved him, check out “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” or “Swing Down Sweet Chariot.”
‘If I Can Dream’ (1968)
With its gospel fervor and direct quotations from Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated in Memphis two months before the song was recorded, “Dream” is a far more inspirational piece of social commentary than “In the Ghetto.” When Elvis cries out “We’re caught in a cloud with too much rain,” he captures the despair of the time. The public first heard this as the finale to the ’68 “Comeback Special.”
‘Suspicious Minds’ (1969)
The first blast of the horn section and the fervent backup singers signaled that a soul revival – and an Elvis career comeback – were afoot, courtesy of producer Chips Moman at American Sound Studio in Memphis. That just-fakin’ fade out/fade in section toward the end seemed a bit daring at the time, as did the lyrics about dysfunctional love. It became his 17th – and final – No. 1 single in the USA.
‘Long Black Limousine’ (1969)
The irony of Elvis singing this cautionary tale about excess crystallized after his death, of course. But at the time he recorded it, for the “From Elvis in Memphis” album, he seemed wholly invested in putting a tense R&B spin on a basic country tune. Listen to how his voice sounds a little raw on the line “the party, the party and the fatal crash that night.” And by the time he hits “a chauffeur, a chauffeur at the wheel dressed up so fine,” he was approaching hysteria.
‘The Wonder of You’ (1970)
Elvis never recorded this in a studio, but it was a staple of his concerts later in his career. This version, captured at a February date in Las Vegas and released as a single in April, was a showstopper. When he climbs the scale at the very end, repeating the song title, the words were what every female fan wanted to hear.
‘Burning Love’ (1972)
Those “just a hunk-a-hunk” lines were dynamic, sexy and thoroughly convincing, but they invite the question: Why were this and 1973’s “Promised Land” the last of the elite Elvis rockers? He would never again hit the top 10 on the domestic charts (“Burning Love” went No. 2), and the recording sessions over his final years were mostly devoted to ballads. That’s a burning, burning bummer.
‘Way Down’ (1976)
When gospel legend J.D. Sumner sings the phrase “Way on down” at the end of each chorus, he’s digging deep for a sound that’s three octaves below middle C, one of the lowest notes ever recorded by a human voice. The last single released before Elvis’ death shows that his voice was still compelling (“Feel it, feel it, feeeel it”) up to the very end.