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King vs. King: Debating Elvis Presley's best songs

ELVIS_RCA_3_ This Friday is Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, and plenty of commemoration, criticism, hand-wringing and navel-gazing marks the occasion. (I'm not immune -- see my piece as part of our Presley Package in Friday's Calendar section.)

No matter how you approach the King, it's always wise to head back toward his music. Listening to Elvis -- really listening, not just letting those famous songs go by in the background, as they have for so many years -- can still startle. He was one of rock's most adventurous singers, unafraid to hit dangerous notes and make a racket. He could take those risks because he was gifted with a voice so majestic that it became the aural equivalent of a national monument. And in doing so, he became a prime mover in pop's transformation during the rock era, the icon of a youthquake and a sonic revolution.

So, 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.

We'll start with Presley's very first single, two sides recorded and released on Sun Records in the summer of 1954. Which was better, his version of "That's All Right" or "Blue Moon of Kentucky"?

After the jump, I hand the belt to....

"Blue Moon of Kentucky"

I can hear the serious Elvisheads groaning out there. "That's All Right," Presley's take on the Arthur Crudup blues "That's All Right, Mama," is one of rock's Big Bangs, a rendition so bright and powerful that it seems to smash a hole in the space-time continuum. And I do love it. Elvis comes on like a thoroughbred in it, starting out in a high register with the urgency of someone straining to move faster than his body will allow. He's having a blast playing cat-and-mouse with Scotty Moore as the musician tosses out guitar lines. He's young and feeling his own heat. It's a thrill.

He's less sure of himself with "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Elvis feels his way into the song by repeating its first two words a few times, an indication that this was an improvisation, a choice made in the studio when nobody could figure out what to do to follow up "That's All Right." (Bill Black, on bass, suggested it.)

Finally he gets on board as the band jumps and rolls behind him. His delivery is throaty, a little bit mannered. He's turning the high lonesome wistfulness of Bill Monroe into something like the blues, and he might be feeling slightly naughty about it.

But that's why "Blue Moon" wins, in my book. "That's All Right" turns Crudup's grown-up jump blues into something sleeker and harder: a teenage speed machine. It's a beautiful trick, but not as difficult to pull off as making Monroe's courtly, wistful slice of homegrown sentiment into something funnier, rougher and dirtier -- into the blues.

To me, that seems more daring. And when I listen to the two back to back, Elvis, Scotty and Bill sound like they're having more fun taking that chance.

Am I nuts? Leave your comments below.

-- Ann Powers

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Photo: Sony Music Entertainment

 
Comments () | Archives (26)

As good as those two historic songs were they were not the Big Bang of Rock 'n' Roll outside or for that matter inside America because of their limited distribution.

It was the song, "Heartbreak Hotel", that most Elvis fan cite as the detonator. Elvis's first million selling record.

To choose the best Elvis tracks is such a difficult choice. About 70% of them were magnificent. Elvis had such a great voice and could sing in virtually every musical genre available to him. From 'Mystery Train' to 'Suspicious Minds' Elvis proved he was the KING.

There will never be another like him. He was truly 'sui generis'.

There is not one best song of Elvis Presley (the King of Rock and Roll), they are all the best, noone has ever or will ever come close to singing like Elvis, the one and ONLY KING OF ROCK AND ROLL!!!!! Therefore all his songs are GREAT!!!

This is all very subjective, and I'm curious to see what others pick, but my favorite Elvis Presley song, hands down, is Lawdy Miss Clawdy, very quickly followed by Marie's The Name (His Latest Flame). It's a toss up, but I'm sticking with that order. Lawdy Miss Clawdy sends shivers up and down my spine, even to this day. It's magical and timeless and embodies the hard core spirit of rock n' roll in any generation or decade. That's my two cents.

You're a little nuts Ann, but that makes you good at what you do. While I like "Blue Moon of Kentucky" it's one of many '50's recordings that uses the reverb/echo style that works better with some songs than others. I find it a bit distracting on this song, but agree with the playfulness you note. As Hilburn pointed out in his review of 'Good Rockin' Tonight' listening to some of Elvis's lesser known tracks is a real pleasure and demonstrates his breadth and skill as well. I also enjoy listening to some of his banter in live Vegas recordings - like his wanting to get Kirk K[ri]korian and Howard Hughes in a crabs game prior to belting out a jammin' Johnny B. Goode rendition . . .

First of all I applaud you for comparing the early Elvis and not immediately jumping to his better-known songs. The trick with Elvis is just what you say: really listening, removing all the associations and overplay and hearing the songs for what they were. "That's All Right" would win, I think, just because it is so raw - an inchoate, magnetic energy - but "Blue Moon of Kentucky" is beautiful too. What is refreshing about it is just that it isn't so well known, so stripping it down to its essence and hearing it for what it is becomes an easier undertaking. The song reminds me of "Blue Days, Black Nights" by Buddy Holly. That window before 1955 when this sound was emerging is just astonishing. What could be better? The muted drumbeat (what they now call the 'rockabilly' drumbeat - a shame it has been compartmentalized in this way as there is nothing quite like it)... The early tube-amp tone and simple country/blues melody lines of the guitar... The stand-up bass... And the golden voice of Elvis... Keep it up Ann - a worthy undertaking for such an amazing musical talent and extraordinary legend.

I agree, a better version. You fail to mention the alternate version of Blue Moon of Kentucky, which is done in a more moderate tempo and has more of a country feel. Both versions are excellent, yet they show how daring Elvis could be and how much experimenting went on in those formative sessions.

Take it from a Memphian. "Don't Be Cruel." The best of the best.

"Don't Be Cruel." Hands down, no contest. The greatest rock'n roll song ever recorded.

Elvis Presley merits no serious consideration.

The Sun sessions were Elvis's best. He was a flat out rocknroller then. Elvis does pick it up in the second stanza of Blue Moon, his high pitch howling pushes the song forward. But he's way more confident and at ease with Good Rockin, nailing it from beginning to end. So that makes Good Rockin the song of choice for me, not that I don't like Blue Moon. I like all the Sun stuff though and I like a lot of his post army/movie career as well. I think at the end he was starting to bring it back home and it's a shame he died when he did. I still hate the Jordanaires, and always will. Elvis didn't need any stinking backup. TCB baby.

First off, Ann's right: "Blue Moon"s sexy playfulness makes "Good Rockin'" almost stately and refined by comparison (but ONLY by comparison), especially considering Bill Monroe's original. As for you commentators: Mr. Colgan, Ann called it one of the big bangs not the big bang and I, personally, find the record that may have turned Chuck Berry onto Elvis more significant than the one that turned Ed Sullivan onto him. Mr. LaVelle, Memphian or not, if there could possibly be ONE song to sum-up Elvis, "Don't Be Cruel" ain't it. As for you, Lou Bricano, if Ray Conniff and Kenny G are what you like, then why are you chiming in on a conversation about Elvis; if you fancy yourself "a rocker" then you are sorrowfully mistaken--you understand nothing about the subject and probably little about art or America. This is not a subjective assesment but rather a scientific conclusion. You, Mr. Bricano, lack soul.

If, by the way, I were forced to choose one song by E, it'd be "Long Black Limousine" where it sounds like he's singin' to himself in the Hearse.

I like your analysis, however, "That's All Right,Mama" not only captures beautifully the universal agony and alternating anger of every youth suffering such an event in a relationship but also displays the glorious style of delivery, in terms of naked emotion, born of such natural and effortless fusion of rhythm and blues.

For another such comparison listen to his version of "Gentle on My Mind" and stack it against any other.

Don't Be Cruel, how can it get better?

I share a birthday with Elvis....that is my claim to fame :D

Difficult choice between the two sides of his first Sun single, but your observations are right on the money. In fact, Bill Monroe reminisced once that on first meeting Elvis years later Elvis offered an apology for his rendition of Blue Moon of Kentucky which Mr. Monroe politely declined with the remark that Elvis was, essentially, Takin' Care of Business!

Fascinating comments (save Lou Bricano; to dismiss Elvis' contributions is to deny history)... I would agree and edge 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' over 'That's All Right' by a hair. The stark difference between Monroe's and Presley's versions make for a compelling listen.

My favorite song by Elvis is "The Wonder of You" - amazing song with his beautiful voice; 2nd favorite is "Are You Lonesome Tonight" where we hear Elvis talking...oh! that voice!

I have lots of favorite Elvis songs, but I always get a special thrill from his '68 comeback special performance of "Tiger Man." He just tears that thing to shreds. Man.

This is as difficult as trying to come up with a song Elvis sang that someone else did a better job on. Notice how few of his songs were ever hits for anyone else and conversely look at how often he would take another singer's song and turn it into his own.

For the true power of Elvis, if you HAVE to take just a few, I would suggest: Milk Cow Blues, Power of My Love, Long Black Limousine, Tryin' To Get To You - especially as done on the 68 Special, Heartbreak Hotel, Peace In The Valley, and Polk Salad Annie.

to the Lou who thinks Elvis merits no serious consideration, I only say this:

are you effing kidding??

My favorite song? Why it's the one I would believe is played more than any other Elvis song...Blue Christmas. Still makes me cry to this day. I dig Jailhouse Rock and Kentucky Rain as well though. Who knew Elvis could rock like he did on Jailhouse Rock??? Badazz Dude there! And the Bass line on Jailhouse Rock was awesome too.

I thought Elvis was Chuck Berry copycat? Elvis didnt write his own songs, did he? lol

Elvis Presely recorded Rock and Roll a year before Berry ever went into a recording studio. Not to take away from the legend that Chuck Berry, or his peers are-but Presley is the big bang, the catalyst, the first American Idol. He didn't invent Rock and Roll, (Bill Haley and His Comets had found the formula of mixing RnB and Country music a few years earlier than Elvis), but Elvis did more to solidify Rock and Roll's domination as the most popular form of Music in America than any of the early pioneers did. He's always acknowledged his influences, and was humble to the end. Elvis is the benchmark to which every Rock and Roll artist, as well as every pop star, is measured up against.

There is no one song that defines Elvis. He sang everything from Rockabilly, Blues, Country, Dixieland, RnB, Soul etc etc. But I think Presley himself would choose a song in the style that he loved most- Gospel. For that reason, if you want to hear Elvis at his most sincere, and singing from his soul, I would pick Peace In The Valley.

Sorry, "CCGray", but yours is, indeed, an empty subjective opinion.

There's a lot of room between Elvis Presley and Ray Conniff (an excellent musician) or Kenny G (unlistenable dreck). The scientific fact, pal, is that Elvis couldn't write and he couldn't play. He could sing, and and some of what he sang very early in his career was pleasant enough, but his later years are an atrocious embarrassment.

As before: Elvis merits no serious consideration. This is purely a case of the emperor's new clothes.

 
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