I have dedicated two posts to Elvis and his name pops up over 50 times throughout my blog, more than any other artist. Now there is a new biopic out and from what I have heard and read it was very well done with some amazing vocals from Austin Butler, Elvis impersonator number 19,350,108 (serious fans will understand that figure). If you include singing in the shower this is a low estimate of people who have tried to sing like Elvis Presley. According to Wikipedia there have been an estimated 400,000 full blown costume, hair, voice, the whole thing impersonators. I am sure many of us have heard some very good ones, but Butler maybe the best of them all. Really looking forward to seeing the film. I am no expert on Elvis, but I do know a bit about his music, particularly in the early years, and I’m learning all the time. I titled this post with an oxymoron as I believe the life story of Elvis is full of contradictions and events that make his very existence a labyrinthine that intertwines not only the history of Rock and Roll, but three decades of changing times, culture and the events that led to his untimely death at the age of 42. For that story you need to watch some of the many films or read one of the many biographies.
We all know of the King of Rock and Roll, a title he never accepted, and we at least recognize a song or two, afterall he holds the record for the most certifications ever from the RIAA (Recording Industry Arts Association) in the USA. For example he had 54 Singles obtain Gold Record (500,000 sold) status, for all his album and other milestones you can see the Guinness World Records link here. Why do we (maybe not you but a lot of us) still listen to Elvis songs, many of which are now over 60 years old? As I write this it was 68 years ago today, meaning we are just two years away from the 70th anniversary of the recording of his first release, July 5, 1954. Music for most of us is a personal thing, we like what we like because somehow on some level we can connect with it. Why is it when we play our favorite song for someone else they often offer a friendly nod or say, “that’s nice”? Why don’t they love it as much as you do? It could be the style or genre, maybe the artist, melody or the lyrics they don’t connect with, maybe it’s just missing the context that made you love the song. We could say it’s the music of our youth that sticks with us, but many people change their preferences over time. Hey, my sister talked me into going in on buying a The Partridge Family album when I was 12 so I know this is true!
Read more: Elvis Presley, simply complicated.
Elvis passed when I was in high school and I’ll admit he was on the periphery of my music radar, unlike my girlfriend at the time who would have gleefully tossed her panties on stage. But I came to enjoy that amazing voice and his unique way of delivering a song on a record, let alone on stage or in film. Elvis wasn’t known for his songwriting abilities and like many artists he didn’t read or write music. And though he played guitar, bass and piano as well as other instruments, typically he is not remembered for this talent. All was surpassed by the love of his voice and grant you, his looks and swinging hips for some. The focus of my blog is centered around cover songs and given the plethora of Elvis information both pre and in, the new film, I will talk about him from a different perspective. Focusing on his early career, here is a selection of songs and many of them were not Elvis originals but he certainly added something special and made most any song his own.
While researching in May of 2018, I found there were 485 documented (by Secondhandsongs.com) songs that Elvis covered. In 2019 they had 507 listed and as of July 2022 that number has grown to 514, researchers are uncovering and adding new songs to the list all the time. The original Elvis songs he did total 271, which even for a 25 year recording career is very impressive. Not that it’s a competition but just to give you a comparison, Rod Stewart in his 50 plus year career has recorded about 50 (Elvis 271) or so original songs and approximately 315 (Elvis 514) covers. I took the time to add up the number of covers of just the top 10 of the 271 original songs by Elvis and there are currently 2,179 versions, add in the rest for a grand total of 5916. This makes him the fifth most recorded artist of all time, behind The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby and Bob Dylan. Expect a spike in these numbers as the new movie will inspire a lot of singers.
Thanks to YouTube and various posters who have done my work for me I can give you video or audio of some of these songs. And thanks to Secondhandsongs.com I have a great reference library! Here is a selection of covers that Elvis did early in his career with reference to some original songs as well.
The first songs to be recorded at Sun Studios and then released on July 19, 1954 were “That’s Alright” a cover of Arthur Crudup, and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” from Bill Monroe.
“You’re a Heartbreaker” was his first original song (written by Jack Sallee) recorded December 8, 1954 and released on Jan 8, 1955. It was the ‘B’ side of the single “Milkcow Blues Boogie” a cover of Kokomo Arnold from 1934. Neither song charted, his first original song that would become a hit was “Heartbreak Hotel”, released a year later on Jan 10, 1956. This was his first release with RCA Records and it was a worldwide smash #1 song.
At this point in the timeline I would like to talk about the great Little Richard. I did a post on him a while back and you can check that out here, so I may repeat myself a bit here. First I will say he was a key figure and pioneer in Rock and Roll. When Specialty Records released his sixth single and first successful song, “Tutti Frutti” in October of 1955 it hit #18 on the then equivalent of the Hot 100 and #2 on the R&B chart. He would follow with “Long Tall Sally”, “Rip it Up”, “Ready Teddy” and “Lucille” all with the exception of “Ready Teddy” hit #1 on the R&B charts and all had varying success on the mainstream charts. All fantastic stuff.
Pat Boone was the first to cover Richard, his version of “Tutti Frutti” which was a ‘B’ side, charted at #12 in 1956. Elvis was next do the song and he would record Richard’s songs seven times but none of them charted. Was Little Richard a victim of the the exploitation experienced by performers, and many of them Black, absolutely. This practice is a stain on White culture, particularly in the US, but also Canada and the UK. Is Elvis to blame for any of this? I think not, and again these are issues I have tackled in many of my past posts on Rock and Roll and Blues history. Elvis recorded Little Richard songs as a tribute not as an attempt to “rip him off” or steal his music. He recorded covers of many Black artists, because they were great songs. Did Elvis pick up some pointers from the dynamic Little Richard, yes, did Little Richard pick up some tips from other artists such as Esquerita? Yes.
Little Richards’ woes at least from a royalty and financial perspective were due to a bad record deal. It is true Black artists were notoriously paid less than the popular White artists. If you do some research you will find that recording artists both Black and White have been getting screwed over by Record Companies and Managers since the beginning of recorded music. Both Black and White record executives often underpaid their artists, also Black and White executives stole or hid royalty fees from both Black and White performers, and the list goes on. Black artists have covered other Black artists. Black artists have also covered White artists many times, every hear of “Maybellene” or “Blueberry Hill”? This is a debate that has been going on for a very long time and has come into mainstream again with the movie release. Just thought I would include this perspective as it not about a Black and White divide, though a little education on this topic would go a long way.
While I am tangenting again, just one more aside, here is a sampling of bona fide early Rock and Roll songs by date of recording/release to give more perspective on this. I can go back several years but let’s just begin with Big Joe Turner’s original “Shake Rattle and Roll”, Feb/April 1954, covered by Bill Haley June/August 1954 after he covered”Rock Around the Clock” April/May 1954, Elvis with “That’s Alright” July/July 1954, Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” May/July 1955, Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” September/October 1955. James Brown’s first hit was “Please, Please, Please” Feb/Feb 1956. Buddy Holly’s first hit release was “Blue Days – Black Nights” Jan/April 1956. These and many other artists were in the mix as pioneers of Rock and Roll, did any of them invent it? No. On to more Elvis songs.
“Blue Suede Shoes” was written and first recorded by Carl Perkins in December 1955, Elvis recorded the song in February 1956 and easily the best know version.
“Money Honey” was written by Jesse Stone and originally recorded by Clyde McPhatter and Drifters 1953. Elvis released it in 1956.
“My Baby Left Me”, another song by Arthur Crudup from November 1950. Elvis released it May 4,1956
“Shake Rattle and Roll” again a song written by Jesse Stone (Alias Charles Calhoun) and first released by Joe Turner and His Blues Kings in June 1954. The best-known version of this song for most is from Bill Haley and His Comets from July 1954, but Elvis was the seventh to try this one, released in 1956.
In total Elvis would release 26 covers and 11 original songs in 1956. Notable originals include; “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” followed by “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Paralyzed”. Adding to the list of memorable covers that year were:
“Hound Dog” originally from Willie Mae Thornton, albeit via Freddie Bell and The Bellboys, but Elvis would find his own style for the song. Check out this clip from ‘Big Mama’ Thornton, “Everything Gonna Be Alright” and you will hear why she came to people’s attention beyond “Hound Dog”, she was an incredible talent who was unfortunately much overlooked in her all too short time with us.
“How’s the World Treating You” written by two major stars in the music world, Chet Atkins and Boudleaux Bryant, first released in 1953 by the Beaver Valley Sweethearts. Elvis did it in October 1956.
“Love Me Tender” has original lyrics written by Ken Darby who was a singer and vocal director on the Wizard of Oz soundtrack. He wrote more songs for Elvis as well as Marilyn Monroe and Bing Crosby. It is classified as a cover however because the melody is from a Civil War song circa 1861 called “Aura Lee” written by George Poulton, the original lyrics were not used but they were written by W.W. Fosdick.
As we know Elvis served in the Army from March 1958 to March of 1960. Recorded on June 10, 1958 before he left for Germany they released “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” in March of 1959 as a ‘B’ side song. It was gaining popularity so they re-released it as an ‘A’ side and it hit #1 in the UK and #2 in the US. The first ‘A’ side was an original Elvis song, “I Need Your Love Tonight” which hit also #1 in the UK and #4 in the US.
After his return he and The Jordanaires were right back at it and I mean hard at it, he released 29 cover songs in 1960 alone and another 13 original songs. In 1960 and 1961 he would have “Surrender” and “Stuck on You” both hit #1 and “A Mess of Blues” was #2 in the UK. “Little Sister” reached #5 in the US, however the song, along with the singles flipside “(Maries the Name) His Latest Flame” both hit #1 in the UK. For covers it would be “It’s Now or Never” which was another song with original lyrics but the music was from “O Sole mio” composed by Eduardo di Capua in 1898, and “Are Lonesome Tonight” which was originally from 1926. These two hit #1 in the US, UK, Canada and Australia as well as several other countries in the top five. “Fever” which was about the 11th version of the song first recorded by Little Willie John was not a hit for Elvis but one of my favorites. For me it’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” at the top of my list, it has original lyrics from the dynamic trio of Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss. Although the music was adapted from “Plaisir d’amour”, which was a popular French love song composed in 1784 by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini.
In 1962 ‘Good Luck Charm” would hit #1 in the US and eight other charts, “Return to Sender” hit #2 in the US and #1 on seven other charts. He would chart another three singles that year. In 1963 he charted two singles, “(You’re the) Devil in Disguise’ peaked at #3 in the US and #1 on eight other charts.
Elvis’s time was dedicated to a string of movies (1964-66) so his recording releases were largely restricted to songs from those films. Unless you are an Elvis fanatic you may not know that an album was released in 1999 of ‘home’ recordings from 1964-67. Some of the songs are just Elvis solo, several were used for a later Gospel album and other songs include an ensemble such as “500 Miles“. It’s a folk favorite written by Hedy West first recorded by “The Journeymen” (John Phillips, Scott McKenzie and Dick Weissman) in 1961. The song was based on the words and melody from this traditional folk song – the first recording is called “I’m Nine Hundred Miles from Home” by Fiddlin’ John Carson (1924).
Just how far back can we go to find a connection to a song Elvis covered? So far (that I’ve found at least) as mentioned is “Love Me Tender” as it’s roots go back to 1861 and you can check it out my Love Songs post. But here is another, “The Gospel Train” or “Get On Board” is a traditional gospel song dating back to at least 1872. Here are the Tuskegee Institute Singers (1916). Based on this same melody is “Cindy” by Riley Puckett and Clayton McMichen, first recorded in 1927. Hope you are following along OK, now a song based on that melody was recorded as “Cindy Cindy” (words and music by Darrell Fuller, Buddy Kaye and Ben Weisman) released by Elvis in June of 1971.
Here are some more songs;
“Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” by Eddie Riff with Orchestra (written by Ivory Joe Hunter and Clyde Otis) in 1956. Elvis recorded this as a single in 1964.
“And I Love You So” (1970) written and performed by Don McLean, another beautiful song from a gifted artist, this song touched Elvis enough that he released a version in May of 1975.
Elvis recorded several songs from the talented Jimmy Reed, such as “Baby What You Want Me to Do” (1959). Elvis (1968).
In an earlier post I talked about Aretha’s cover (1971) of “Bridge over Troubled Water’ from Simon and Garfunkel (January 26, 1970) but Elvis , and an astounding 52 other artists did a cover of this in that first year (1970) alone.
Elvis also covered Bob Dylan (four times) including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right“. To say Elvis’s tastes and abilities were diverse is a bit of an understatement.
Trivia. The Queen song “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (1979) was written by Freddie Mercury in about 10 minutes while lounging in a bath. It was a tribute to Elvis. It was the first time Freddie composed a song using a guitar which he admittedly “couldn’t play for nuts” and the band completed and recorded the song in half an hour. It went to #1 in the US, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands and sold close to 3 million copies worldwide. A great cover by the very talented Dwight Yoakam the closest thing to a legit ‘Country Elvis’ you’ll ever find, he hit #1 on the Canadian Country chart in 1999.
Interesting fact that top ranked (Rolling Stone Magazine) music icons Elvis (#3), Aretha Franklin (#9) and Robert Johnson (fifth greatest guitarist) all passed away on August 16.
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