Elvis Presley poses in a promotional photo for the film Jailhouse Rock, circa 1957. Photo / Bettmann
I haven’t seen the movie Elvis directed by Baz Luhrmann. Apparently he plays fast and loose with the truth about Elvis Aaron Presley’s life.
Does it matter? Fame, like hero worship through the ages
from Achilles to Joan of Arc, has never been limited by the facts of a lifetime. Or even if the hero really existed. The film continues this tradition of creating myths.
More important to me, however, than the myth or knowledge of the flawed man behind the star’s image, was simply Elvis’ voice, his supreme gift.
Here is my pick of 10 essential Elvis performances that used this gift:
It’s All Right (1954)
The beginning. Sun Studio by Sam Phillips, with Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on acoustic double bass. A blues song by Arthur Crudup steeped in country rhythm and swing. Elvis sings “all right” in about 10 different ways, showing all of Elvis’ recognizable vocal mannerisms. They’re cliches now, but they had to look fresh and original back then. The track caused a stir when it first aired on a Memphis radio station. Listeners phoned in demanding that it be played over and over again.
Blue Moon (1956)
On all the tracks Elvis has recorded at Sun Records, he sounds like no one before him. These recordings are a bomb that explodes in the tradition of popular music. His version of Blue Moon sounds like he’s singing from space. It’s really weird when he turns an elongated “blue” into something primitive and otherworldly. The rarefied soundscape has a lot to do with Sam Phillips’ “reverb technique” that gave Elvis’ early records a big, echoing sound.
My Baby Has Left Me (1956)
Few Elvis impersonators have tried this song. It’s surprisingly sharp. We hear a sound trajectory that goes from there to the blues lamentations of Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin. Plant was inspired by African-American blues singers, but he was also a huge Elvis fan.
Hotel Heartbreak (1956)
Elvis’ definitive first song. Being alone never sounded so good, so sexy. When it gets low and slow in that stuttering voice, it makes the girls scream. This is the song most people choose if they want to impersonate Elvis. I can make a pretty good version myself. The minimalism of the musical accompaniment, that tinkling piano and heavy bass notes, gives the song a texture that, unlike the song’s lyrics, helps make Heartbreak Hotel a place you want to be.
You’ll Never Walk Alone (1967)
There are strong performances on post-Army Elvis records, even the ones that accompany some of those awful movies. However, it is his sixties gospel recordings where he is most passionate and committed. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ll go with You’ll Never Walk Alone, which was a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune that Elvis turned into a gospel song. He sings like a man who knows what it’s like to be lost. His renditions of How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and Milky White Way are equally moving. I’m not religious at all, but I would listen to these songs in a beautiful church and probably cry.
Tomorrow is Long (1966)
A cover of a Bob Dylan song. Elvis heard the song via an Odetta album of Dylan covers. The way Elvis sings it, with restraint and simplicity, in a mournful tone, slows down time. The song is five minutes and 18 seconds long, but it feels much longer, with tomorrow never reached.
If I Can Dream (1968)
To fully appreciate If I Can Dream, you have to watch the performance of Elvis that concluded his 1968 NBC television special. It’s the rock star’s presence with bells. His moves are kind of goofy and incredibly cool at the same time. Elvis is both a church preacher and a snake oil salesman in a traveling circus. Either way, you can’t help but believe, such is the performance. There’s a growl in his voice on this plaintive song that’s rare.
Suspicious Minds (1968)
Rejuvenated by the ’68 Comeback Special and free of movie contracts, Elvis traveled to Memphis to record what many believe to be his best album. The sessions produced wonderful suspicious minds. In my opinion, his voice is effortless – a word that best describes Elvis singing at its most sublime. The song’s protagonists are stuck in a trap, while Elvis’ voice is stuck in an irresistible groove.
An American Trilogy (1971)
This song montage takes me back to being a young kid exposed to Elvis through my dad playing one of his biggest hit albums. I didn’t understand what an American trilogy was. It just seemed important. An ascending lyrical movement of sadness and emotional release. A deep mystery to a child’s ears.
My Way (Live, 1977)
In the 1981 documentary film This Is Elvis, the makers of the film include footage of Elvis in his final days on stage singing My Way. He is fat, bloated, sweats profusely, he looks ridiculous in a tight jumpsuit. Even though her body is deteriorating, her voice retains some of that effortless quality. He puts everything into the performance, surely knowing that he will face the “last curtain” soon. It’s tragic and sad, yet defying life’s struggles and ultimate absurdity. It’s the conclusion of Elvis’ American dream. I doubt the current biopic will pull off anything so poignant.
- Global Industry Growth, Share, Segment Analysis, Current Trends, and Industry Overview Report Forecast to 2027 – The Current Manomet
- Boss’s first electric guitar comes with a built-in synthesizer
- Paul Gilbert Donates Super Rare Ibanez PGM90HAM Electric Guitar to Jason Becker Fundraiser
- Classical, fusion, electric guitar: the curious soundscape of Abhisek Mallick