We now embark on a “very special episode” (remember those heavily promoted extra sentimental TV episodes of longstanding shows in the 1970s?) of the top-10 hits of the 1960s, one totally dedicated to the biggest hits of Elvis Presley during that decade
Now, when it comes to Elvis’s biggest hits, that term would more appropriately apply to the 1950s, when he shot like a rocket after leaving Sun Records — where many critics feel he recorded his best material — for RCA Victor in late 1955.
A quick succession of massively successful singles followed, and as groups like the Beatles did in the 1960s, many of these songs were stand-alone 45 RPMs, only appearing on LPs as part of greatest hits collections. That applies to Heartbreak Hotel; I Want You, I Need You, I Love You; Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog and many others. They ended up on Elvis’s Golden Records album, one of the more perfect compilations ever released, similar to Johnny Mathis’s first hits collection, a massive seller that also compiled non-LP singles.
When Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army, there was some worry that hit streak would end, but he had recorded a sufficient amount of material before setting off to Germany in 1958 that this was not the case. Many of those songs, and some earlier ones, ended up on Elvis’s second hits collection, which only had 10 tracks and songs that were not nearly as good as the previous hits LP batch, both in artistic and sound quality.
When Elvis finally departed from the army, one part of the approach seemed to be identical to that of the 1950s, the hits would be on stand-alone singles that would eventually be released on Elvis’s third hits collection. But the songs were also diluted rock and roll wise, and included ballads that would appeal to adults. Also, some of the earliest 1960s singles were released as stereo 45s as well as regular mono ones. The stereos are highly collectible, and also represented a leap in sound quality thanks to the work of engineer Bill Porter at RCA’s Nashville studio, which had been converted to stereo not long before.
Just like the 1950s, Elvis was on a hit-making hot streak, but not for long. Here are those 1960s successes:
• Stuck On You: The rock and roll dilution element was evident from the start. This was a lighthearted song that bore a resemblance to the easygoing vibe of Don’t Be Cruel. A safe choice that straddled rock and pop, but it’s not as well remembered as…
• It’s Now Or Never: This adaptation of the operatic O Sole Mio was an absolute monster hit, and is still a favourite for many fans today. Elvis shows off his greater vocal range here. One poignant story: DJ George Klein wrote in his book of his friendship with Elvis that, for years, he had said on his show that the Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog pairing was Elvis’s biggest selling single. Just before he died, when Elvis rented out an amusement park for a get-together with friends and family, he approached Klein and said the repeated claim was not true. In fact, It’s Now Or Never was Elvis’s biggest selling 45. And it deserved to be — all generations love this masterfully sung hit.
Are You Lonesome Tonight: Another masterfully performed ballad, and according to legend, this was the only song Elvis recorded at the specific request of his manager Colonel Tom Parker. The song was a favourite of Parker’s wife. During the sessions, Elvis had a bit of trouble recording the oh-so-sincere spoken word part seriously. Of course, as many fans know, when Elvis humorously changed the words of the song in Las Vegas in 1969 apparently upon spying a bald man in the audience, he broke out in uncontrollable and highly appealing laughter. Fans cherish the “Laughing Version” of Are You Lonesome Tonight to this day, but not so much Elvis’s change of words to the song as part of the 1977 concert special, when the singer was in poor shape. This version was so unappealing that, in the original broadcast, you don’t even see Elvis during that portion, and the volume is lowered as fans are interviewed. Fans got to see it as part of the 1981 movie This Is Elvis as an example of how the singer had physically deteriorated.
Surrender: Another masterful operatic performance based on the Italian song Come Back To Sorrento, but not quite as good as It’s Now Or Never. Also, engineer Bill Porter wasn’t feeling well during the session and, as a result, the sound quality was not quite as immaculate as the previous hits.
I Feel So Bad: A more edgy performance of a Chuck Willis song that barrels along very nicely, particularly in the lead- up to the sax solo.
Little Sister/Marie’s The Name, His Latest Flame: In my mind, as good a double A-side single as Don’t Be Cruel/Hound Dog. The vocal and instrumental performances are astounding — in fact, some believe Elvis hit a vocal peak at this point.
Can’t Help Falling In Love: The versions of this masterpiece that Elvis sang in his 1968 TV special and, in a similar arrangement, to end his concerts were trivial in comparison to the 1961 single and even the more minimalist version featured in a scene of the film Blue Hawaii. Poignancy and tenderness galore here. Shocking that this didn’t appear on Elvis’s third greatest hits collection.
Good Luck Charm: Cute, but the comments made for Stuck On You apply here too. Not that memorable.
She’s Not You: Even less memorable.
Return To Sender: From the movie Girls, Girls, Girls. A fun hit that has stood the test of time, and Elvis sounds like he’s having fun.
(You’re The) Devil In Disguise: A quite rousing song vigorously performed.
Bossa Nova Baby: A fun song from one of Elvis’s more fun (and well recorded) movie soundtracks, Fun In Acapulco.
Crying In the Chapel: A sign that the hits were drying up. A great performance of an early 1950s rhythm and blues song, but this outtake from 1960 was a hit in 1965. This song also appeared on the 1967 gospel album How Great Thou Art.
In The Ghetto/Suspicious Minds/Don’t Cry Daddy: Three great songs from the early 1969 Memphis sessions, when Elvis dug deep to be a soul singer and carried the grit in his voice from the 1968 TV special to these recordings. He had finally caught up to contemporary late 1960s music after having not long before recorded such trivia as Old MacDonald, Dominic (a song about an impotent bull that Elvis demanded not be released on record) and of course, the song that is a wonder of trashiness, Yoga Is As Yoga Does.
Next time: Procul Harum, the end of the P list, the Q list and the start of the R list.