Elvis Presley's 'Blue Moon' at 57: His best ballad?
It's a bold statement, for sure, that Elvis Presley's interpretation of "Blue Moon" is his greatest-ever ballad performance. You could quibble all day long about which of those classic early sides show the King at his peak: "Can't Help Falling in Love," "Love Me Tender," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" or any of the dozens of less known love and/or heartbreak songs Elvis offered over the years. But the one I always return to is "Blue Moon," recorded on Aug. 19, 1954, at Sun Studios in Memphis.
The song was written in 1933 by Rodgers and Hart for the MGM movie "Hollywood Party," but with different lyrics, and then reworked again for the 1934 film "Manhattan Melodrama." In this second version, the soon-to-be-classic opening verse -- "Blue moon/You saw me standing alone/Without a dream in my heart/Without a love of my own" -- isn't there. Instead, Rodgers and Hart approached the melody with different lyrics: "Act one/You gulp your coffee and run/Into the subway you crowd/Don’t breathe, it isn’t allowed." The team wrote a third set of lyrics for another film.
The songwriters published the song with another -- now classic --set of lyrics in 1934. Twenty years later, Elvis Presley stood in Sun Studios with his backing band and laid down the song, trimmed to two haiku-like stanzas. He was 19 years old.
Writer Peter Guralnick, responsible for the definitive two-volume Presley biographies "Last Train to Memphis" and "Careless Love," relayed in the former volume the day Presley recorded "Blue Moon":
They had seized every opportunity they could to get into the studio all through August, but Sam [Phillips, owner of Sun Records] was on the road so much, and the band was working so many weekends (while still holding down full-time jobs), that this was easier said than accomplished. On August 19 they spent hours doing take after take of "Blue Moon," in an eerie, clippity-clop version that resembled a cross between Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call" and some of the falsetto flights of the r&b "bird" groups (the Orioles, the Ravens, the Larks). And after it was all over, Sam wasn't satisfied that they had anything worth releasing, but never uttered a word of demurral for fear of discouraging the unfettered freshness and enthusiasm of the singer."
The recording ended up on Elvis' debut long-player, "Elvis Presley," mixed in with songs recorded at a later date. Fifty-seven years later, the song still floats, still seems to exist in a heavenly ether, and you wonder about Phillips' initial assessment, though for a producer looking to break new ground the ballad doesn't come close. It's not rock 'n' roll; there's barely any guitar in it -- just a quiet little strum in the background, along with circling bass line and that tiny echoed rhythm serving as springboard for Elvis' moan.
The voice? It's young Presley at his best, overflowing with raw talent, range, melancholy, an inherent understanding of the devastating words. When he drifts into the falsetto wail, you can hear doo-wop, when he goes low, echoes of Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
It's this primal beauty that no doubt prompted Jim Jarmusch to employ Elvis' version as a key narrative device in "Mystery Train," the director's ode to Memphis. In two consecutive early-morning scenes (2:20 a.m., to be exact) that feature a remarkable collection of male musicians/actors, we hear "Blue Moon" on the radio as Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi and Rick Aviles drink and drive through Memphis.
Jarmusch then cuts to a hotel front desk, where Screamin' Jay Hawkins and a bellhop are listening to the same station. They chatter about the importance of personal style as Elvis wails in the background. The song fades out and the disc jockey -- played by Tom Waits -- moves into a commercial break. Watch it below (be forewarned that there's a barely audible vulgarity right at the beginning):
Got a problem with me calling "Blue Moon" Elvis' best ballad? Offer your counter-arguments in the comments.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: A blue moon rising over Los Angeles on New Year's Eve 2009. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times