The Top 30 Recordings of Elvis Presley
Next week will mark the 33rd anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley and to commemorate that and honor his musical legacy, I have compiled a list of what I feel to be thirty of his greatest recordings. You will notice that many of the bigger hits will not be found on the list and there is a good explanation for that. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” and “All Shook Up” are not only among Elvis’ best songs, but rank as some of the greatest in the history of recorded music. Yet I did not include (most of) his hits here because all of you have heard them so damn much that both their initial earth-shattering impact and some of their greatness has been lost.
You will also see that there is a large number of tracks from what are generally thought of as weak periods in his career and while the mid-’60s tracks I have included are indeed exceptions that prove the rule, I do not buy into the idea that Elvis declined again in the ’70s. At least not to a large extent.
Here’s the way I see it: when Elvis made his comeback special in 1968, he gave the most powerful performance of his life, created the ultimate versions of most of his ’50s hits, and proved that he was still the King of Rock & Roll. But he also included two brand new songs in the special: “Memories” and “If I Can Dream,” both of which were heavily polished and orchestrated. 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis contained a fusion of country and R&B, but also continued with the heavy orchestration (although admittedly a little rougher around the edges), as did his return to live performing later that year. It is my opinion that while, indeed, Elvis’ recordings from 1971 to his death are a step down from the 1968-1970 output, this is only slight. The public went for it at first because they were happy Elvis was doing something other than singing “Old Macdonald” in films like Double Trouble, but then later lost interest when they realized that a full-time return to straightforward rock and roll was not in the cards.
So perhaps the post would have been better titled “30 Great Elvis Songs that Have Mostly Been Forgotten” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it and wouldn’t apply to some of the material here. But anyway, here’s the list….
01. Long Black Limousine (1969)– This was the first track recorded at Elvis’s 1969 sessions at American Sound Studios in Memphis. The eerie morality tale begins with just a piano and chimes and Elvis singing in his most soulful voice “There’s a long line of mourners drivin’ down our little street/Their fancy cars are such a sight to see/They’re all of your rich friends who knew you in the city/And now they’ve finally brought you, brought you home to me.” As the tempo increases and the band and background singers join in, the song turns into an almost gospel-like piece telling the story of a man’s one true love and her tragic death following a “race upon the highway”. Elvis would never get more soulful and when he sings that “all my heart, all my dreams are with you in that long black limousine” we are totally convinced that he has lived every word of this sad elegy. Southern soul does not get any better than this. Hell, music does not get any better than this.
02. Hurt (1976)– In his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1,001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, noted music critic Dave Marsh says of this song (number 668 in his estimation): “His last great bellow. If he felt the way he sounded, the wonder isn’t that he only had a year left to live but that he managed to survive that long.” I can’t describe it any better than that, but those of you who haven’t heard the song may be a bit confused by Marsh’s description. What he means is that the song is a lot like Johnny Cash’s tune of the same name (totally different song, but both are equally dark and depressing and yes, I am aware that Cash’s “Hurt” was a Nine Inch Nails cover) in that the performer was able to give the performance of his lifetime, or close to it, while on death’s doorstep. The best part of the song to me is not the operatic ending, but the song’s midsection where Presley sings, “I’m hu-uuuu–rrrrr-t” then softly speaks the words “Much more than you’ll ever know/Yes, darling, I’m so hurt/Because I still love you so”
03. Take My Hand, Precious Lord (1957)– In 1957, as the press accused him of corrupting America’s youth, Elvis recorded an EP containing some of the most sincere gospel music of the era. This one, featuring sparse instrumentation and the Jordanaires singing in the background is the best of the bunch. He had not yet developed the range he would in later years and that, combined with the 22-year-old’s youthful energy somehow makes the whole thing better and if you listen to it while driving late at night, it is downright haunting.
04. Jailhouse Rock (1957)– The greatest pure rock and roll performance of all time. Need I say more?
05. Kentucky Rain (1969)– “Seven lonely days and a dozen towns ago I reached out one night and you were gone/Don’t know why you’d run, what you’re running to or from/All I know is I want to bring you home.” Thus begins this tale of a runaway lover and the remainder of the song, over a countrypolitan backing, details his search for his lost love while walking through the “cold Kentucky rain” and catching rides with a “preacher man,” talking to “some old gray-bearded men sitting on a bench outside a general store.” “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” were bigger hits, but this is the best single to come out of the legendary American Sound sessions.
06. Twenty Days and Twenty Nights (1970)– A perfect companion piece to “Kentucky Rain,” but this time the tables are turned in the opposite direction. In this one, it is Elvis who “left my home up in the hills far behind me” and “left my wife with unpaid bills, she can’t find me.” But by the end of the tune he is passionately crooning “I miss her” over an gentle acoustic rock backing. Too bad Elvis lost it in the ’70s, right?
07. Baby, Let’s Play House (1955)– Listen to the first five seconds of this track to see where the whole Buddy Holly hiccup thing originated. Elvis changes one line of this classic Arthur Gunter R&B number. “You may have religion” becomes “You may have a pink Cadillac” and as a result the song is distinctly Elvis and distinctly within the spirit of early rockabilly. Not to mention that Scotty Moore may deliver the best solo of his career.
08. Separate Ways (1972)– A haunting tale of divorce released as a single with “Always on My Mind” (long before Willie’s version), this was perhaps as personal as Elvis ever got in song. “Someday when she’s older,” the clearly disheartened singer says, “maybe she will understand why her mom and dad are not together/The tears that she will cry when I have to say goodbye will tear at my heart forever.” I can’t listen to this tune without thinking of the eight-year-old Lisa staying at Graceland just a few years later and being awaken by the sound of paramedics rushing upstairs to try to do what they could for her father. In that context, the song is beyond chilling.
09. Don’t (1958)– Just a piano, the Jordanaires, and a sparse rhythm section here as Elvis delivers the definitive tale of teenage love from an era that practically thrived on such tunes. “Don’t,” he says in his best Ink Spots impression, “don’t/That’s what you say,” then switching to a deep croon “each time that I hold [back to gentle R&B voice] you this way.” This track proves once and for all his greatness as a stylist and Lieber and Stoller’s place as two of the best songwriters of the 20th century.
10. (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care (1957)– This song was later recorded by Buddy Holly, but this version from Jailhouse Rock is much better. This is rockabilly at it’s finest with tales of “hot rod racin’,” “movie shows,” “crazy dance steps,” and falling in love with “a square”.
11. Unchained Melody (1977)– A version of this was recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan in February of 1977 and released on Moody Blue, Elvis’ last album. It is more polished and additional instrumentation and background vocals were overdubbed after the concert, but that’s not the version I’m referring to. I’m talking about the version from June of that year in Rapid City filmed for the Elvis in Concert TV special. Elvis is at the piano and he sings his heart out as if he knows he doesn’t have much time left. When one hears him almost shout the line “I’ll be comin’ home, wait for me,” you wonder if he is just simply singing a love song or addressing his dead mother. And the falsetto at the end will absolutely break your heart. With all due respect to the Righteous Brothers, this is the definitive version of the song.
12. Reconsider Baby (1960)- From his first post-Army album Elvis is Back, this is dirty blues at its finest. Elvis had a perfect blues growl, with just the right amount of pop appeal and with the backing of the best Nashville had to offer. This is amazing stuff.
13. Blue Moon of Kentucky (1954)– The B-side of Elvis’ first single, this old Bill Monroe tune became the blueprint for all future rockabilly classics. Elvis adds a new intro to the song prior to singing Monroe’s first verse and speeds up the tempo to a breakneck pace. When the two met backstage prior to Elvis’ one and only appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, the younger singer was scared to death. Instead the Father of Bluegrass expressed his admiration for Presley’s version and in later years sped the song up himself.
14. Tomorrow is a Long Time (1966)– By 1966, Elvis was seen by the public as more of an actor than a singer. He hadn’t made a non-soundtrack recording session in several years and released three horrendous films that year. Yet as this Dylan cover clearly shows, Elvis never completely lost it even when his career was at rock bottom. He learned this song based on Odetta’s cover and Dylan later called this mostly acoustic track his personal favorite cover of any of his songs. And did I mention that nobody heard it because it was released as a “bonus cut” on the Spinout soundtrack, which also contained such marvelous tunes as “Beach Shack” and Smorgasbord”?
15. I Really Don’t Want to Know (1971)– To paraphrase a famous quote by Steve Earle, I would stand on Eddy Arnold’s coffee table and say that this is the best version of the classic country tune. Elvis and the band keep it country but change it from the ’50s to the ’70s and add a nice dash of soul crooning into it as well.
16. If I Can Dream (1968)– This song ended “The ’68 Comeback Special” and although the rest of the now-legendary TV appearance proved that the King, clad in black leather, could still compete with Jim Morrison and other icons of the era as an electrifying stage presence and created a forerunner to MTV Unplugged as he revisited his classic hits, this tune found him dressed in a white suit and tie addressing a 1968 TV audience that had witnessed just months earlier the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the escalation of the undeclared war in Vietnam. The song begins with a lonesome trumpet and a bass line, then it slowly builds and Elvis sings “There must be lights shining brighter somewhere/There must be birds flying higher in a sky more blue/If I can dream of a better land/Where all my brothers walk hand in hand/Tell me why, oh why, oh why can’t my dream come true?” He then describes the nation as being “lost in a cloud with too much rain/trapped in a world that’s troubled with pain” and describes “strong winds of promise that will blow away all the doubt and fear.” To call this a political song is to sell it short. This should be an anthem for the entire human race.
17. It’s Now or Never (1960)– This was Elvis’ best-selling single and an adaptation of the traditional Italian tune “O Sole Mio.” Elvis retains the Italian flavor by adding mandolin, a decidedly European backing, and an operatic ending that displayed the full power of his remarkable voice on record for the first time.
18. It Hurts Me (1964)– Believe it or not, this tender love ballad was co-written by none other than Mr. “Devil Went Down to Georgia” himself, Charlie Daniels. It sounds as if it could have been recorded a decade earlier and Elvis’ vocal delivery is top notch as always when he describes the girl he loves being stuck in a relationship with a man “never loved you, and he never will/And darlin’, don’t you know he’ll never change.” We’re talking about the type of person who “never will set you free, ’cause he’s just that kind of guy,” but Elvis sadly and hopelessly declares at the end that “if he ever tells you he’s through/I’ll be waiting for you.”
19. Where No One Stands Alone (1967)– From the Grammy-winning How Great Thou Art album, this heavily orchestrated gospel piece chillingly foreshadows Presley’s own demise. “Like a King,” he croons, “I may live in a palace so tall/with great riches to call my own/But I don’t know a thing in the whole, wide world/That’s worse than being alone.”
20. Mr. Songman (1975)– He is once again clearly addressing himself and his divorce on this strong country cut from Promised Land where he deals with the pressure of trying to please the fans while his own life is in ruins. “I know memory’s not reliving,” he sings, “but at least it’s not the end.” How I wish that were true.
21. It’s Midnight (1975)– Another achingly personal song from the same year where over a pure ’70s pop arrangement he tells a woman (Priscilla?) that he hates himself for loving her and confides to the listener that “I oughta go to bed and try to straighten out my head and just forget you/But it’s midnight and I miss you.”
22. Blue Moon (1954; released 1956)– A Rodgers and Hart song dating back to 1934, this version is performed by just Elvis, Scotty and Bill with the famous “Sun echo” giving it an ethereal effect. In the ’50s Elvis was usually seen as an engaging performer and the first rock star, both loved and hated with equal vigor. Only in later years, as his voice deepened, did he become known as an extraordinary vocalist. With that said, I doubt he could have pulled off the falsetto sections of this one in 1977.
23. Talk About the Good Times (1974)– A Jerry Reed-penned rockabilly gospel number that speaks of good times in the past and better times to come. Lyrically, it’s similar to “Daddy Sang Bass” and like Johnny Cash on that song, Elvis is clearly drawing his performance from events in his own childhood.
24. Edge of Reality (1968)– This tune was part of the soundtrack to Live a Little, Love a Little, but it could easily pass for the theme to a lost James Bond film with its loud horns and mysterious lyrics about “a girl with a nameless face” who is “tormenting me” on the “edge of reality.” Unsurprisingly, in the film it was used as part of a dream sequence with Elvis and a man in a dog costume. It deserved much better.
25. My Boy (1974)– “You’re sleeping, son, I know, but really this can’t wait/I wanted to explain before it gets to late.” This is perhaps the most “Vegas” sounding of all of his singles, but it still stands as one of his best if only because of his honest, heartfelt vocals as he bitterly tells his sleeping child of the end of love between the parents (Elvis didn’t have a boy, but this was clearly directed at Lisa Marie.) Ultimately, he decides not to “spoil your little dreams and put you through the hell.”
26. Gentle on My Mind (1969)– This song has been recorded far too many times, but this version has an urgency to it that is really special. Elvis spits the lines out in a mumbled, carefree manner as if he had already lost everything and was remembering what he had left behind. This may not be the definitive version, but it does bring a whole new meaning to the song.
27. Wear My Ring Around Your Neck (1957)– Perhaps the perfect teenage rocker, this song went to #1 on the R&B charts in 1957. The drumming on this is incredible and works to build intensity within the chorus.
28. Pieces of My Life (1975)– Elvis’s version of this Troy Seals tune is amongst his most somber efforts. The country backing underlies lyrics of loss while living a life of fame. “Well, I’ve found the bad parts, found all the sad parts, but I guess I threw the best parts away,” he sings.
29. Way Down (1977)– His last single and the last time he would perform a real rock tune. Electric pianos and heavy bass dominate throughout the track and the vocal performance heard here is the one that all of the impersonators try with little success to imitate on all of their repertoire. I also must commend J.D. Sumner who literally went into the record books with this one. At the song’s conclusion he hits a double low C which is the lowest note produced by the human voice on record.
30. Hawaiian Wedding Song (1961)– There’s something intriguing about the music of Hawaii and this tune mixes the best of that with pop gold. Far from being the usual “movie song” of the ’60s, this track dates back to a 1926 operetta and the romantic lyrics and steel guitar make this one a true classic and one of the few soundtrack tunes the King would revisit live in later years.
So, there you have it. Just the opinion of one fan that you are welcome to agree or disagree with. Tell me what I left off. Tell me which song I included that you can’t stand. Maybe pick a tune from the list at random you haven’t heard before and give it a listen. Music is a matter of opinion and mine is no more important than anybody else, so please let me know yours.
Long Black Limousine by Elvis Presley