King vs. King: Debating Elvis Presley's best songs
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
Photo: Sony Music Entertainment