King vs. King: Debating Elvis Presley's best songs, Part II
Friday is Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, and to honor Elvis the musician, let's have a rumble about which songs of his were the best. For the next few days, I'll sample from the new boxed set "Good Rockin' Tonight" (reviewed here by Robert Hilburn), pitting song against song in the ultimate cage match of King versus King.
This time, we'll consider a trio of hits penned by the team arguably most responsible for Elvis' crossover appeal: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Two East Coast Jewish kids who found their fortune in 1950s L.A., Leiber and Stoller wrote a huge chunk of the early rock songbook, blending the craft and roguish wit of Broadway-style pop with the sexiness of the blues and the adolescent itch that artists like Elvis himself brought to the table. Their partnership with Presley resulted in many hits, and more than that, provided the King with material through which he could show off his inherent (and, some might say, ultimately underdeveloped) sophistication.
Three of the best-known Elvis sides by Leiber and Stoller are "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Treat Me Nice." Which deserves the diamond-studded TCB ring?
My opinion's after the jump.
There's no doubt that "Hound Dog" contains the most memorable hand claps -- possibly the best in all of rock. Married to the bass and a snappy drum line, the hand claps put the Cuban habanera rhythm of the song front and center, lending it the Latin tinge that really makes it a rock classic. But it's a little straightforward for my tastes and lacking the extra layer of wit that I love in Leiber and Stoller's work for the Coasters (the perfect pop marriage, even better than their stuff with the King).
"Treat Me Nice" has that extra layer, plus a lovely Latin rhythm. But Elvis' vocal is just too Dean Martin-esque for me on this one. "Kiss-a me twice"? Too much pasta sauce on this dish.
"Jailhouse Rock," on the other hand, strikes the right balance. Elvis' vocal comes on raw and confrontational, dominated by the burr that he cultivated in his upper register (no falsetto for this kid!). His approach is pure hopped-up rock, but the band links the song to the older styles that inspired this new form. The Purple Gang of a rhythm section moves things forward with a shrug, and on the piano, Dudley Brooks is a boogie-woogie delight.
Then there are the lyrics. Full of in-jokes and vivid little exchanges, they paint the scene that inspired one of the great rock-flick dance sequences, the highlight of the Presley film vehicle of the same name. It's like something from a musical comedy, fleshing out an unlikely scenario for a production number, but it's also one of those great early rock and roll hits (others include "Splish Splash" and "Johnny B. Goode") bearing witness to the magnetism of the music itself. If you can't find a partner, grab a wooden chair, because with this 45 on the turntable, you're not going to be sitting down for long.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Associated Press