I grew up in the '50s listening to Elvis. As a musician, I played Elvis songs. On my weekend radio program I had a regular Elvis spotlight. I know Elvis' music.
But then, so does everybody, of all ages.
On the 35th anniversary of his death I decided to round up the top 10 Elvis songs. I called upon my Graceland Irregulars (okay, Facebook friends) and was overwhelmed. He was so influential in our culture for two decades, that I wound up with the Top 20 Elvis songs.
There are three stages of Elvis, each combines music and image.
There's the '50s Elvis, the rebellious hip-swinging sultry sex symbol, the likes of which no one
had ever seen before. The '60s Elvis starred in cookie-cutter mediocre movies (with a few exceptions). The 1968 black leather Elvis morphed quickly into the '70s, cape-wearing,Vegas showman and uncontested King of Rock 'n' Roll.
From Ed Sullivan to Hollywood to Vegas, Elvis changed his image and his music and created an indelible icon stamp at each stage. No one in the history of music had ever done this and probably won't again.
Here's the Top 10 from his early years:
"Heartbreak Hotel," 1955. He took a good song and made it great, moving from an anguished scream to a cellar low "I get so lonely I could die," creating both musical and visual moods that are still fresh.
"Blue Suede Shoes," 1955. Driven by his energy on stage and in the studio, Elvis turned silly songs into cultural dictates, unleashing the pent-up feelings of '50s teens (and scaring the hell out of adults who smashed his records).
"Don't Be Cruel," 1955. Listed as No. 197 in the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and again is a masterful play between beseeching apology and masculine declaration. Summary: Sorry I made you mad. Let's get married.
"Hound Dog," 1955. Elvis took Big Mama Thornton's steamy, female sex dictum and turned it into a larynx-ripping call to rock. Children sang it and still do.
"Love Me Tender," 1956. Just Elvis and guitar, displaying an nuanced display of gentle strength and pledge of love. The timeless ballad is a masterpiece in simplicity and, well, tenderness.
"All Shook Up," 1956. The phrase entered young society's vocabulary while giving Elvis an overt reason continue honing sexy moves. (A friend told me that her teacher told her class that she experienced her first orgasm at an Elvis concert.)
"Jailhouse Rock," 1957. The driving two-chord slide and solo drum paved the way for power chord songs of the '60s and '70s.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight," 1960. It's a masterwork of desolation, loneliness and rumination and if you truly listen to it and feel it, you will cry, because we've all felt this way at some point in our lives.
"It's Now or Never," 1960.His biggest selling song ever is based on the "Oh Solo Mio" tune. It's the ultimate seduction song. The singer comes on with the statement "It's now or never," and moves from manly determination to a soft plea, ending with a soaring cry of primordial masculinity: "My love won't wait." Elvis' masterful inflections encapsulate a mating game that every man has performed for centuries.
"Viva Las Vegas." Elvis did 31 movies, from mediocre to vacuous, but the 1964 "Viva" captures the energy, abandon and glitz of the city that rejected Elvis, until he came back and took it over. (Note the pre-Michael Jackson moonwalk steps.)
Next post: Elvis gets serious, ups the musical ante and changes stage shows forever.