“Silent Night” Turns 200

One of the best known and most often recorded songs in history is the Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night”. It was first performed in German 200 years ago this Christmas Eve in the tiny St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. And this Christmas Eve, 200 years later, it will undoubtedly be sung again in places of worship – and in living rooms – all over the world. There are many events planned this year in Salzburg – 20 minutes from Oberndorf – to commemorate the bicentennial of this song that, in 2011, was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the song in 1816 and gave it it’s proper title: “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, Mohr took his lyrics to organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to have music written for his words in time for the song to be performed for the Christmas Eve mass. Interestingly and quite unique for it’s day, Mohr requested Gruber write for guitar accompaniment. The song was performed that Christmas Eve but no report exists indicating how it was received. The oft-told story that it was written for guitar because the church’s organ was under repair is untrue.

Over the years, the original manuscript was lost and subsequently Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. It wasn’t until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that confirmed that he wrote the words and Gruber the music.

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Like the town where it resides, the Silent Night Chapel is pretty, tiny and quaint.

The original St. Nicholas church was severely damaged by flooding in the 1890’s. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf had to be rebuilt upstream in 1899. The church continued to sustain damage, so much so that the decision was made to tear down the chapel and erect a new one. Today, you can visit the quaint Silent Night Chapel in pretty Oberndorf and you can take a 25-minute tour for 3 Euros.

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Picture this times 30 million. Note that only Gruber is credited.

The song began to become well known, with fans of it distributing it to churches and traveling singers until it was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1839. It quickly became a perennial favourite, adored the world over. Almost one hundred years after hitting American shores, in 1935, Bing Crosby recorded “Silent Night”. It was suggested to him that he try his hand at this treasured Christmas song and immediately he demurred. At the time, Bing was the biggest singer in the land and had already revolutionized the art of popular song. He initially refused to record the song owing to the fact that he was a pop singer who sang in night clubs. He was also an owner of racehorses and he felt it would be inappropriate. Bing had attended the Jesuit Gonzaga University and was a religious man. Eventually, though, he was persuaded. One of Bing’s first 78RPM albums was “Christmas Music”, released in December of 1940, and it contained his initial recording of “Silent Night”. He re-recorded the song in 1942 and released it as a single. It was enormously successful and went on to sell – wait for it – 30 million copies. This is historically significant for two reasons. Consider that only TWO other records in the history of mankind have sold more copies than Bing’s “Silent Night”: it is the third-highest selling single of all time. Secondly, Bing once again proved to be a pioneer – this time in that he was the first pop singer to successfully interpret Christmas music, both carols and pop songs. To think that at one time this wasn’t a thing whereas now it is a major facet of the music business.

Other versions followed. Many, actually. Virtually every artist that has ever sang Christmas music on record or in performance has included this most revered song. I always make a point of saying ‘even Dean Martin’. Dino brought joy to the world with his two Christmas albums but did not sing carols on record – except for “Silent Night”. It closes his 1966 seasonal offering “The Dean Martin Christmas Album”. Dino was savvy enough not only to sing it but to sequence it last on his record. It is the perfect closing song for any Christmas program and it seems odd when it appears anywhere else on an album.

There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, though. The third album ever released by Frank Sinatra was “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” for Columbia Records in 1948. “Silent Night” opens this set. You could argue that this also speaks to the song’s status: it deserves to go first. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” was released in 1957 and is the biggest-selling Christmas album of all-time and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time. King – like Frank – didn’t wait long to record Christmas music; this is his third album also. He arranged his version of “Silent Night” and it appears on this record and is the second song on side 2 (?).

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Two guys that could really sing but didn’t know where to put “Silent Night” on the record!

All the greatest singers of Christmas music have recorded “Silent Night” and, with the exception of the two big hitters mentioned above – knew that it was the perfect note to end on. Perry Como has it close his 1959 record “Season’s Greetings from Perry Como”. It is the last song on Nat Cole’s original 1960 offering “The Magic of Christmas”. It is also the final song on the first Christmas album from Andy Williams, 1963’s “The Andy Williams Christmas Album”.

1963’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” is commonly referred to as one of the greatest albums ever and the one that made it hip for pop artists of the mid-1960’s to release Christmas music. Phil ends his record with a spoken personal greeting featuring “Silent Night” as a backdrop. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel made a statement of sorts by ending their album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with “Silent Night” played along with a news anchor telling of the unrest in the world. Seven of the ten best selling Christmas albums of all-time feature “Silent Night” with five of them presenting it last; the other two favour it enough to present it first.

“Silent Night” continues to be recorded to this day. In fact, it has been put on record at least 733 times in the past 40 years alone – that is over 18 appearances every Christmas. It’s interesting to note that even with the division in the world today this 200 year old song about the birth of Christ can still resonate with people the world over.

Listing the “best” versions of “Silent Night” is a bit of a fool’s errand. You don’t come across many drastic reinterpretations of the song. Few artists attempt to “bring something new” to the tune or the classic arrangement of it. Just to sing this celestial song is enough. However, I’m a list guy so here goes. Perhaps we can say that this list takes into account not just the purity of the performance but the significance of it in the Christmas music canon.

The version you sing in church on Christmas Eve — I’m being presumptuous here but indulge me. Call it a dreamy nod to the traditions of Christmas Past. Due in part to it’s Origins, Christmas is a sacred time for a lot of people and regardless of your particular inclinations the Christmas Eve service or Mass is simply a part of the season. Invariably, “Silent Night” is sung by many on this night around the world. Maybe ‘living room’ singing has gone by the boards but this practice – as well as the tradition of door-to-door caroling – is also a part of the pageantry of the season. “Silent Night” – being so familiar to many and so easy to sing – has been sung by many of us at one time or another. And it’s a nice thing, to sing this song yourself.

Bing Crosby (1942) — We’ve discussed Bing’s version already but it bears repeating. For myself and for many, there are certain sounds that signal the start of the Christmas season. It may be the energetic intro of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the Jordanaires singing “Christmas…Christmas…” before King launches into “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. And for many it is the dulcet tones of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra playing the intro to either Bing’s “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”. Bing’s 1942 recording is not only sublime but it is flat-out historic.

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Earl Grant (1965) — Earl Grant was a jazz and lounge keyboardist in the ’50’s and ’60’s that had a hit with his vocal rendition of “The End”. For an instrumentalist, he had a great voice and sounded a lot like Nat Cole. His 1965 album “Winter Wonderland” features great arrangements of seasonal favourites. He brings wonderful gospel flavour to his “Silent Night” and blends piano and organ with his humming. The humming – something we all can do – makes this recording extremely accessible and it possesses what Bing would call a ‘mellow glow’.

Harry Connick, Jr. (2003) — Speaking of gospel… After Bing’s, Harry’s was the first version I heard of this song that produced an emotional response in me. Harry was raised Catholic and brings a lot of that reverence to his Christmas music. On his second Christmas collection, “Harry for the Holidays”, Connick brings an exciting New Orleans street parade vibe to the songs of the season. His “Silent Night” ends this record; it even appears after a song about New Year’s. He makes great use of an old friend, trumpeter Leroy Holmes. Leroy’s work on this track literally drips with soul, spirit and emotion. Harry’s vocal likewise. His “Hallelujah”‘s may more likely have been heard in the church Leroy grew up going to as opposed to the one Harry attended.

The Temptations (1970) — Falsetto Eddie Kendricks takes the lead on this track from the Tempt’s first Christmas record, “Christmas Card”. There’s actually nothing spectacular about this version. It contains a gentle orchestral setting and a really fine, soulful vocal from Kendricks. There is an overall heartfelt simplicity to this recording that is somehow comforting.

Elvis Presley (1957) — I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of this record. Elvis’ two Christmas albums – 20 Christmas songs – are near and dear to my heart and, when Christmas comes, for me it’s Bing and King head and shoulders above the rest. Elvis Presley did not release a mediocre Christmas song. But “Elvis’ Christmas Album” features eight Christmas songs and four gospel songs. I love gospel music. The idea that Christmas is the only time to record and release, to hear and to listen to gospel music rankles me. At Christmas, I wanna hear Christmas. I can – and do – listen to gospel throughout the whole year. But that’s just me. EP arranged his fine version of “Silent Night” and the Jordanaires shine. King’s recording of this carol did not raise eyebrows but Irving Berlin thought that Presley’s version of “White Christmas” was a travesty and he had his staff call radio stations in New York to request banning the song and the whole album. Not many complied but one DJ was fired for playing “White Christmas” and most Canadian stations refused to play it.

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Dean Martin (1966) — Again I say that it adds to “Silent Night”‘s cred that Dino, who kept it jolly, thought enough of this song that it was the only carol he ever recorded. Dean sings it in his usual laid back style and it’s a fine recording but what I like about it is it’s sincerity. Dean Martin was seldom serious. There is an often heard bit of comedy from Frank and Dean on stage in which Frank admonishes Dean to “be serious!” to which Dean replies that he tried that and he could only get construction work. It’s a joke but it does speak to Dean’s public persona. He played drunk more often than he was drunk but he was always seen with a smile and was ready with a zinger; after all he did make his name in comedy opposite Jerry Lewis. He inherently was an easygoing person who seldom played it straight. So to hear him earnestly singing “Silent Night” is in it’s own way remarkable. It serves as a reminder that there was a time in the entertainment industry when many performers across the spectrum of the business could get serious when it came to Christmas. It seems they all remembered their shared childhoods that contained much the same Christmas traditions. When the holiday season came around most performers contributed something to the Christmas spirit and – at least sometimes – it was heartfelt and reflective. Nice.

Ledward Ka’apana (1996) — I wanted to include “Led”‘s lovely version for the simple reason that the finest Christmas music speaks to your soul. It is warm, emotive, comforting and promotes relaxation. It’s often listened to quietly by the fire or while admiring the Christmas tree’s glow. It is peaceful. A lot of the same could be said for Hawaiian music. Few other musical styles promote escape as much as the ukuleles and steel and slack-key guitars of the 50th State. When you combine the two genres, it is indeed a tranquil experience. Such is the case with Ka’apana’s take on this timeless classic. This appears on an album I can highly recommend, “Ki Ho’Alu Christmas”. It is choice.

Mahalia Jackson (1962) — Did I say I don’t like mixing gospel with Christmas? Mahalia Jackson’s very being exuded gospel. It was the only music she ever sang, saying that “it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues”. Mahalia was once referred to as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and, during his famous speech at the March on Washington, shouted an encouragement to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “tell them about the dream”. He proceeded to deviate from his script and utter the ad-libbed words “I have a dream”. She was one of the first 8 people to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and when she sings “Silent Night” on her 1962 album of the same name her spellbinding voice, vocal intonation and breath control are devastating. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a protégé of Mahalia’s and Franklin would take Jackson’s vocal stylings and phrasing into the stratosphere; which would lead to Whitney and Mariah taking 90 seconds and 14 tones to sing a one-syllable word. But Mahalia’s passion is palpable even though it is properly restrained.

Bobby Darin (1960) — I spoke about Dean Martin and others “getting serious” for the holidays. Walden Robert Cossotto was no exception. In fact, Bobby Darin took it even further. Raised Catholic Italian, like Dino, Bobby’s album “The 25th Day of December” bears much more resemblance to Christmas Eve high mass than it does to “Splish Splash”. This record is ambitious and daring and boldly exhibits songs of the Nativity. Bobby sings carols, hymns, spirituals and folk songs and most of them are obscure. Unlike Dean Martin and more like Frank Sinatra, there is nary a “White Christmas”, a Rudolph or a Frosty in Darin’s Christmas canon. For example, Darin sings in the original Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem”, part of the Agnus Dei from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass that is unrelated to Christmas and was introduced in 687! “Bobby’s Swingin’ Christmas Party!” this ain’t. “Silent Night”, however, is worthy of inclusion among these highbrow works. For a guy with a bum ticker, Bobby always had great breath control. He had a great voice, great tone and he does well with this venerable carol, introduced in Austria 200 years ago.

Gottfried Kasparek is a musicology and dramaturgy professor. He recently broke down the composition “Silent Night” and had this to say: “Even members of different religions or atheists cannot escape the magic of the moving composition. This is because the song expresses the power of the Christmas story in simple words and motifs and because the music does not sound triumphant but rather touching”. Check out these sites for more skinny:

https://www.stillenacht.com/en/

http://www.visit-salzburg.net/surroundings/silentnightchapel.htm

http://stillenacht-oberndorf.com/

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This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 4

Let’s get this out of the way: you cannot dismiss all the movie songs as garbage. Really, you can’t call them garbage at all. Here’s the thing: the bulk of the songs that appear in the movies are less songs and more plot devices, used simply to advance the story or comment on the action on the screen. Some examples are “Song of the Shrimp” from 1962’s excellent “Girls! Girls! Girls!”. This song’s lyrics are about a shrimp that reads an article in a shrimp newspaper and leaves his parents to see the world starting in New Orleans. Like…really? From the same film, we have “Thanks to the Rolling Sea” – “Abalone steaks and tuna fish cakes taste so heavenly” – and “We’re Coming in Loaded” – “The fishing was great. We’re coming in loaded ’cause we’re all out of bait”. All three of these songs are actually perfectly acceptable in the context of a bunch of men who work together on a shrimping boat. They probably have lots of songs they sing together as they work. In the ‘lullabies and songs sung to children’ category, we’ve got “Big Boots” from “G.I. Blues” and “Cotton Candy Land” from “It Happened at the World’s Fair”. If the action calls for you to interact with a baby or a young child, sure, you may sing them a goofy little song to get them to go to sleep or to quiet their fears. And then – I hate to even bring it up – there’s “Dominick”, sung to a bull in “Stay Away, Joe”. When a bull won’t breed you sing to it. Don’t you? The problem I have is not necessarily with the songs themselves. Tunes from this ‘lower’ level, like “You’re Time Hasn’t Come Yet, Baby” from “Speedway” or “Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce” from “Girl Happy”, are great songs I actually like. The problem lies in the fact that this is ELVIS PRESLEY – the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – and no matter how many movie tickets you want to sell or how many records you want to sell you DO NOT put “No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car” on an album and release it to the public under Elvis Presley’s name! Elvis is constantly slagged for making bad records in the ’60’s but it wasn’t his fault. “Ito Eats” from “Blue Hawaii” is cute because the gang is at a luau and they are heckling Ito for eating too much and being fat. Fine, OK, but don’t put it out and call it the latest release from Elvis Presley!!  Within the borders of the films, these cute songs advance the plot – sometimes quite charmingly – but that’s where they should have stayed.

Whew. OK. Now that that’s out of way, let’s look at The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley: the Movie Songs.

10. “Hard Luck” (from “Frankie and Johnny”, 1966) — The movie? I dunno…Elvis as a riverboat gambler in period dress? It’s not terrible but because it is a period piece the songs are turn-of-the-last-century in flavour. However, when Johnny (Elvis) hits the skids, he wanders the streets at night singing this stellar blues number. It features stand-out harmonica playing from Charlie McCoy. McCoy is a full-on legend who has played on records by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.

9. “So Close, Yet So Far (from Paradise)” (from “Harum Scarum”, 1965) — I often call this the most hidden of all the hidden gems. After all, it’s in “Harum Scarum”, King’s romp through the Middle East with a turban on his head. There is not much to recommend the film except this powerful song. Johnny (Elvis – Johnny again!) lands in the slammer and is separated from his lady love and puts in a great performance with this stirring number. It builds to a wonderful climax accompanied ably by the Jordanaires. “Here am I, waiting for you. Here am I, praying for you…” When the material was half-decent, he could still fill a song with emotional intensity, no matter what the setting. Written by Joy Byers who wrote many songs for the movies including “C’mon Everybody”, “Goin’ Home”, “Hey, Hey, Hey” and “Stop, Look and Listen”.

8. “Shoppin’ Around” (from “G.I. Blues”, 1960) — The first movies I ever remember seeing in my life were “Enter the Dragon”, “Smokey and the Bandit” and “G.I. Blues”. I’ve loved this Elvis film and the music from it for many, many years. This is one of his films in which he plays a musician so this performance takes place in front of a band in a nightclub. One of Tulsa’s (Elvis) pals wants Tulsa to be a hit with Lili (Juliet Prowse) so he volunteers Tulsa to sing this excellent rocker. Fantastic, beefy guitar from Scotty Moore and a great, fun vocal: “I’m gon’ stop…….shoppin’ around”. I always thought this was the ‘opposite song’ to the Miracles’ “Shop Around”.

7. “Roustabout” (from “Roustabout”, 1964) — I love this song, yes, but here’s the thing: the appeal of Elvis’ films and the joy that you can get from them – what makes them enjoyable – is encapsulated in this film and the title track. Try to explain King’s movie career in a sentence or two and you will likely be describing “Roustabout”. Elvis plays Charlie Rogers, a free-spirited and sometimes surly drifter who loves him some kicks. He has a way with a song and with the ladies. This basic synopsis of “Roustabout” could apply to basically all his films. The lyrics reflect this: “‘Til I find my place there’s no doubt I’ll be a roving roustabout” – I mean, that is King Movies in a nutshell. Sung over the opening credits. The soundtrack album went to #1.

6. “Let Yourself Go” (from “Speedway”, 1968) — By 1968, even the soundtracks were featuring more meaty material. Another tune by Joy Byers, this track could also be heard in the “’68 Comeback Special”. Steve (Elvis) is called upon to sing at the local club “The Hangout” – a cool place where instead of at tables you sit in cars. Here’s the thing: Elvis looks spectacular. And he’s wearing ‘the Speedway jacket’ – which I tried on at a Graceland shop but wouldn’t pay the freight. This tune is sexy: “Oh, baby, I’m gonna teach you what love’s all about tonight…kiss me nice and easy, take your time. Baby, I’m the only one a-here in line. All you gotta do is just-a…..”

5. “Young Dreams” (from “King Creole”, 1958) — Another song sung by King in a reasonable setting in a movie. EP plays Danny, a nightclub singer. “King Creole” is Elvis’ finest dramatic film and was directed by the great Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”). Curtiz knew about composition and – along with his cinematographer – would’ve known the best settings in which to shoot King, in terms of lighting, etc. Danny sits and sings this excellent song and it is visually thrilling as well. I listened to this song recently after 30+ years of hearing it and I still shake my head. It’s wonderful. And King plays a bit of ‘shoulder’, too.

4. “Spinout” (from “Spinout”, 1966) — It’s so hard to pick which songs to share links to. Do yourself a favour and look all these up on whatever service you use. This tune contains one of my favourite King vocals and some absolutely amazing drumming. King plays Mike, a stock car racer with a way with a song. He sings this at a shindig at the pad he’s borrowing. The guitar sound to start the tune is unique and is played by a legend – it’s either Scotty Moore or Tommy Tedesco. And it’s a fantastic vocal, the highlight of which is the “prove” in “Don’t you know she’s out to prove she can really score”. When someone says to you “all the movie songs are lame”, play them “Spinout”. “A-let me tell ya, Spinout…”

3. “Almost in Love” (from “Live a Little, Love a Little”, 1968) — OK, y’wanna fight? Listen to this: Elvis’ best soundtrack is the one for the film “Live a Little, Love a Little”. Annnnd tell me I’m crazy. I can defend this bold statement but I won’t do it here. Suffice it to say that “Almost in Love” is one of the smoothest songs he ever recorded featuring one of his most subdued and sensual vocals. The tune is gorgeous with it’s idyllic strings and gentle trombone solo. As a big fan of bossa nova, I can appreciate the fact that this tune is based on a song from Brazilian legend Luiz Bonfa. The thing about this tune and two others from this film is that they are just the type of song that other singers of the time were singing. They would have fit perfectly on any of Dean Martin’s or Frank Sinatra’s later albums for Reprise Records. Because this is Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, they’re dismissed or even disparaged. That’s wrong. This recording is celestial.

2. “What a Wonderful Life” (from “Follow That Dream”, 1962) — We’ve arrived at the top two and I have a confession to make. Part of what makes these two songs rank so highly is my strong personal connection to them. This film was made when there was still some care going into providing quality vehicles for King. In this film, King plays Toby Kwimper and EP displays some of his finest comedic acting. This tune is played over the opening credits. Like “Roustabout”, the lyrics depict the very heart of all of Elvis’ movies: “It’s a wonderful road, this road I’m travelin’…it may go straight or it may detour…don’t know where I’m goin’, don’t care where I’m goin’, like the four winds blowin’ I go on. Laughin’ the day away, lovin’ the night away, ’til the moon is gone. It’s a wonderful life…”. You see what I’m saying? The reason I love his movies is described in these lyrics. It’s a delightful song. I love it.

1. “I Got Lucky” (from “Kid Galahad”, 1962) — Absolutely, the finest song from Elvis’ movies – out of all the songs that do not have a life outside of the movies. This was the title track of a budget Camden release LP in 1971, other than that it was, strictly speaking, a ‘movie song’, unlike, say, “Teddy Bear” or “Return to Sender”, both of which ‘lived’ outside the films they were performed in. Make sense? “Kid Galahad” is one of Elvis Presley’s very best films. Elvis plays boxing nice guy Walter “Kid Galahad” Gulick and he sings this at a 4th of July picnic. His voice, his voice, his voice. The sound his voice makes on this track. He’s not shouting “Jailhouse Rock” but the key he’s in here makes his voice sound so…I dunno. Just perfect. His tone. The wonderful Boots Randolph plays sax on this track and the Jordanaires also do stand-out work. “So, won’t you tell me that you love me, hurry up and name the day” – listen to him sing that line. THAT is what is so magnificent about his voice. Seriously, this song can make me emotional. Not just because I think it’s gorgeous but also because it means the world to me. I had the “I Got Lucky” album on cassette when I was a teenager. I would drive around in my 1983 Ford Escort and listen to this song and “What a Wonderful Life” and I would be transported. Couple things: this is a great clip. Elvis sings to Joan Blackman who was also in “Blue Hawaii”. And did you notice Charles Bronson? And this song was co-written by Dolores Fuller, who had a hand in writing other songs for the movies. Dee Fuller was a girlfriend of filmmaker Ed Wood. She is portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker in the film “Ed Wood”.

Up next: we try to bring it all together! What are the Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs of All-Time?!

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**the images and media used in this post are not mine**

 

 

 

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 1

The holidays are over so depression automatically sets in? I don’t buy that. Gladys Love Presley saw fit to have her baby, Elvis Aaron Presley, on January 8th, 1935. That means that January’s Elvis Week begins on January the 2nd. New Year’s Day marks the official end of the Christmas season and the next morning you wake up and – bam! – it’s Elvis Week!

For this Elvis Week, I’ve decided to tackle the enormous task of ranking the best recordings of Elvis Presley. In a way, though, this is an easy task. He has SO MANY stellar records that a Top Ten list could include many different songs and still be valid. It would be pretty hard to debate any one person’s choices. And how do we define “best”? I’ve tried to be really clinical and highlight songs that are sung and played well – which is a ridiculous statement, they all are but what I mean is: songs that are universally held to be “great”, with maybe some personal faves thrown in. This “greatness” will also include intangibles like a wonderful turn of phrase, a stellar performance from a musician, a connection to an event in Elvis World, or historical and cultural significance. I’ve also broken his career down into decades: ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, all distinct eras of Presley recordings. Other categories could have included best movie songs, best Gospel songs, best live recordings, best Christmas tunes… I’ve decided to go with the three decades and movie music. As a fifth and final post, I’ll try to take the best from each list and arrive at “The Best Elvis Presley Song”. This will obviously not be definitive but instead will simply serve as a good starting point for debate and comparison. Although, again, I have to say that it will probably be hard to say that the song that emerges here as his ‘best’ is NOT his best – it just may not be your favourite or the one you think is the best representation of the King at the top of his form.

Anyways, blah, blah, blah. I think you know what I mean. Here’s my Top Ten Elvis Presley Song: the ’50’s:

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On the cusp. Publicity photo, early RCA days. January, 1956.

10. “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)” (1957) — It could be argued that Elvis Presley was a gospel singer who got stuck singing rock ‘n’ roll just to pay the bills. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Indeed, in the early days, he auditioned to join legendary gospel quartet the Blackwood Brothers but was turned down. In 1956, Presley burst onto the scene and the powers that be denounced him as ‘evil’. The idea of him singing gospel or revered Christmas carols was repugnant to the establishment. But I have always maintained that, as the Lord had blessed him with his singing voice, that voice shined particularly bright when he sang certain gospel music. “Peace in the Valley” was written by Tommy Dorsey – not that Tommy Dorsey but gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey. It appeared on the biggest selling Christmas album of all time, “Elvis’ Christmas Album”. His recording, featuring the Jordanaires and some fine, mellow guitar playing, is stellar. In a particularly moving moment, EP performed it on his third and final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957. The screaming teenagers quieted down and Presley showed the frowning parents watching at home another side of his talent and personality. Watch how he backs up into the Jordanaires as he looks down and sings “there will be peace…”. It’s not showmanship – it’s the singing he had done in his church and in his homes all of his life. Sullivan had once sworn to never have Presley the reprobate on his show. After King sang “Peace in the Valley”, Sullivan came out and solemnly declared Elvis to be a “decent, fine boy”. It is actually an emotional moment and one of great cultural significance.

9. “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956) — In many respects, this song marks The Beginning. It’s writing was inspired by a newspaper report of a suicide and the note that was left behind (“I walk a lonely street”) and it was presented to Elvis in late 1955, before he had moved from Sun Records to RCA. Elvis loved it immediately and memorized the song vowing to record it at his next session. That came in January of ’56 and it was the second song Elvis recorded at his first session for RCA. The songwriters, upon hearing Presley’s echoy, bluesy recording, could not recognize their song. This started a trend that saw Presley take a song and make it his own. Although he almost NEVER received a credit as such, from the VERY BEGINNING Elvis was the arranger and producer at all of his recording sessions. In Sam Phillips words, the credited producer at Elvis’ sessions was “not a producer. (They were) just at every session”. “Heartbreak Hotel” became a hit of gargantuan proportions. Number 1 on the pop and country charts, top 5 on the R&B chart, 27 weeks in the Top 100, the biggest selling single of 1956 and EP’s first million-seller. It started a chart run lasting 21 years that is unrivaled in music history. Number 45 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Co-written by Mae Boren Axton. Her son, Hoyt, wrote “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain” in the ’70’s, the latter of which King recorded. See? This is what I’m talking about. This song could easily be called his best of the ’50’s and even his best EVER but here it’s 9th! Whatever. Onward.

8. “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” (1959) — I can see some of you have your eyebrows raised. This tune over “Heartbreak Hotel”?! Well, yeah. It’s the vocal. Maybe this tune, recorded by Elvis on a leave from the Army, serves as sort of a bridge between the animalistic singing of ’56-’57 and the pop vocalizing to come in the early ’60’s. It’s still sexy but it is delivered with such finesse, the lyrics are caressed. Simply, it’s the sounds he makes on this record that are so delightful. “I’m a fool but I’ll love you, dear…”. Written in 1952, it was recorded by Canadian Hank Snow, Tommy Edwards and Jo Stafford before Elvis released his version as the B side of “I Need Your Love Tonight”. “A Fool Such As I” went to #2 in the US and #1 in the UK. King’s version was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2nd annual Grammy Awards. It was later recorded by Bob Dylan.

7. “All Shook Up” (1957) — This song is notable in Elvis’ canon for being what I think is his most successful single ever in terms of chart activity. Number 1 on the US pop charts for 7 weeks, in the Top 40 for 21 weeks, #1 on the R&B charts for 4 weeks, #1 in the UK for 7 weeks and Billboard’s #1 song for 1957. Two million copies sold that year. Elvis biographer, Peter Guralnick, says – so it’s true – that Elvis suggested the title to songwriter Otis Blackwell which resulted in King getting one of his few writing credits. The song rolls along in mid-tempo with a vocal that is quintessential EP. #361 on Rolling Stone’s list. Listen to it again – for the first time. The Beatles recorded this during the “Get Back” sessions but it was never officially released and Billy Joel’s 1992 version for the “Honeymoon in Vegas” soundtrack cracked the Top 100. A re-release of Elvis’ version charted again in the weeks after King’s death.

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“All Shook Up” single art. March 22, 1957.

6. “That’s All Right” (1954) — It’s often said that it all started in the summer of 1954. “It” being everything. Recorded July 5 at Sun Studio in Memphis and released July 19th. Written and recorded by blues man Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946, Elvis Presley’s recording is truly the stuff of legend and it is not far-fetched to suggest that “rock ‘n’ roll” was invented by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black that hot summer afternoon. Long story short: Sam Phillips had been trying to record King in a mellow, ballad setting and things hadn’t been working. On a break, the boys worked out their frustrations by kicking out the jams with a spirited version of Crudup’s old blues. It was literally what Phillips had been looking for; marketable white boys that played music like black guys – the way it should be played. With emotion, energy and grit. Balls. Phillips hit ‘record’, had the boys run through it again and the rest, as they say… To try to understand the significance of the recording, you have to try to understand American society at the time, especially in the South. Such was the climate that, when bassist Bill Black heard the playback – he and his white buddies “sounding black” – he remarked, only half-jokingly: “Damn. Put that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town”. Probably the most significant recording in history that didn’t chart at the time of it’s release, “That’s All Right” sold 20,000 copies and hit #4 on local Memphis charts. In 2004, exactly 50 years after it’s initial release, it was released as a single in England and went to #3! Rolling Stone has argued that it is the first rock ‘n’ roll record and placed it at #113 on it’s Best 500 list.

5. “Too Much” (1957) — This one may not be as well known but it is a personal fave. I also believe it to be a wonderful example of some of Presley’s finest rock ‘n’ roll singing. He is strutting and the way his voice intentionally cracks on the “take” in “take me back, baby, in your arms” is just perfect. This song is exactly what you want from the most staggering 24-month span in any performer’s career. It went to #2 on the pop charts and was top 3 on many lists at the time: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, Most Played in Jukeboxes, #3 on the Country chart and #3 on the R&B chart.

4. “Mystery Train” (1955) — “That’s All Right” is his most legendary Sun recording but this may be his best. Junior Parker released the song on Sun in ’53 and one of the mysteries about the track was where the title came from as it is mentioned nowhere in the lyrics. Released by Presley in the late summer of ’55, it’s enduring appeal stems from it’s ominous sound. The echo from Scotty Moore’s guitar sounds sinister in a way and the track brings to mind so many other blues songs from the past that feature lyrics depicting some dark and calamitous happenings in the singer’s life. In “Mystery Train”, the train is the villain and has taken the singer’s baby away. As a single, the song was released as the B side of the country tune “I Forgot to Remember” and made some noise on local country charts. Indeed, “Mystery Train” was the first song to make Presley known as a country singer. The fact that it is not really a country song is further testament to EP’s unique blend of country and R&B. Rolling Stone’s ranking it as high as #77 on it’s 500 list speaks to how highly it is regarded.

3. “Hound Dog” (1956) — There are fewer recordings more iconic than this one. There are fewer tracks that completely encapsulate everything that rock ‘n’ roll was meant to sound like. Like Elvis Presley himself, this song has catapulted into the stratosphere as something other than what it was originally. Like “Rock Around the Clock”, “Hound Dog” is understood historically and culturally but you need to work hard to hear it as a “song”; a song of vicious import, a feral moment in music history that has been taken for granted. Everything about this recording is the foundation of all rock music to come. A direct line can be traced starting with “Hound Dog” and running through Led Zeppelin and all the way to Jack White. Stories of the song’s history before it reached King are legendary and I suggest you read up on it. It was written by two 19-year-olds, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were soon to become legendary in their own right penning classic songs for Elvis and the Coasters. Presley’s version was not only immediately iconic and indicative of the whole rock ‘n’ roll movement but it was extremely successful for Elvis. It was simultaneously No. 1 on the US pop, country, and R&B charts in 1956, and it topped the pop chart for 11 weeks — a record that stood for 36 years. And with a preposterous 10 million copies sold it is one of the biggest-selling singles ever and is the 19th Greatest Song of All-Time according to Rolling Stone Magazine. Presley’s vocal is savage and Scotty Moore invents rock guitar with his work here.

2. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — So, somebody from Mars – or a teenager of today, same thing – says to you “Who is Elvis Presley? What was he? What did he do that was so great?”. You would show this person some television performances or some concert footage. You would also, surely, play this person some recordings. If you had to pick only, say, five records that would perfectly pinpoint for this stranger ‘what’ Elvis Presley was, you would (or could or should) play them “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. “He’s one of the best singers ever” you would say, “his voice….” you would add, shaking your head. In this seasonal chestnut you would have one of the finest examples of what he did so well with his voice. Not only that but you have that voice in a gritty, blues setting that allows the voice to growl and claw it’s way through the lyrics. The white, clean and neat sound of the Jordanaires does not detract from the raunchy proceedings. Dudley Brooks plays the piano as if he’s recalling days pounding the ivories in seedy juke joints all over the South. And DJ Fontana pounds his snare drum like he’s back in his living room and his parents have just gone out to the hardware store. On top of all this, it’s a Christmas song, a song from a season near and dear to Elvis in many ways. The song is so ridiculously “Elvis” and it’s a shame we can only listen to it during the last six weeks of the year. This is his second-best vocal performance of the 1950’s. Bettered only by…

1. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of the best-known Elvis Presley songs due to the production number version of the song contained in the film of the same name. That’s all I’m going to say about that number in the film as I feel it neuters this remarkable recording. The song is another written by Lieber and Stoller; the top three songs on this list are Leiber/Stoller numbers. It had a goofy lyric about life behind bars, the type of song they would have written for their act, the Coasters. But Presley plays it straight and handles it as pure rock ‘n’ roll. This is the prime example of ALL of Presley’s recordings of the relationship between rock singer and rock guitarist. Both Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore lay down performances for the ages on their respective instruments. Along with his work on “Hound Dog”, it is his playing on “Jailhouse Rock” that cements Scotty Moore’s rep as the man who invented rock guitar; no less is he than the man that gave birth to Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Slash. And Presley’s vocal? I dunno…what can I say? This is the pinnacle of what he was as a vocalist. He did well on many ballads throughout his career but this type of singing was his bread and butter and this is probably the best example there is of that type of singing.

Next: The 1960’s – Elvis returns from the Army – and the Colonel has a plan…

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Press conference, private railway car, Los Angeles. 1960.

(**the images and media used in this post are not mine**)