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King vs. King: Debating Elvis Presley's best songs, part III

January 7, 2010 |  4:24 pm

ELVIS_68_AP Friday is Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, and to honor Elvis the musician, I've been sampling 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've spent a little time with the baby Elvis and the ascendant rocker. Now let's turn to the gentle side of the King, focusing on two of his most beloved ballads.

Elvis's hip-shaking rock hits demonstrate not just his sex appeal, but his masterful blending of hot country and smoky blue styles. His ballads give us something else: the serious Mr. Presley, the former talent show winner with a sentimental streak, who knew that, if he wanted to, he could make the angels weep with that voice.

Rock 'n' roll made productive trouble, bringing the American vernacular into a new era. Ballads do something else -- they hearken back to the past, connecting old stories and melodies to the contemporary moment. Two of Elvis' best-known ballads explicitly did so: "Love Me Tender," based on the Civil War-era ballad "Aura Lee," and "Can't Help Falling in Love," which recasts the 18th century French chanson "Plaisir D'Amour" as a swoony wedding song.

Which is a better heartstring-puller? My view comes after the jump.

"Can't Help Falling in Love"

I keep waffling on this one. For years, I've loved the hymnlike mush-fest that Elvis insisted be incorporated into his 1961 film "Blue Hawaii." (He sings it to his girlfriend's grandmother, as it plays on a music box. Tres adorable!) The King adored "Can't Help Falling" too, making it the climax of many a show; he knew its undulating melody would always bring a flood of tears from his fans.

Listening again, though, I was momentarily swayed by the earlier "Love Me Tender" -- a more plain-spoken and subtler expression of Elvis' good-boy side. Elvis performs "Love Me Tender" as a cowboy ballad, though its Antebellum origins fit the plotline of the movie that began his Hollywood career. Strumming an acoustic guitar, he follows in the tradition of silver screen cowboys like Gene Autry, keeping his delivery simple and folksy. There's a point in the chorus, on the phrase "All my dreams fulfilled," where Elvis betrays a glimpse of the grand maudlin streak he'd eventually develop. But mostly, "Love Me Tender" comes on simple and clean, arranged for maximum decorum by Oscar winner Ken Darby and executed with rustic elegance.

"Can't Help Falling" is another kettle of frisson. "Plaisir D'Amour," its origin point, is one of those useful classical-lite numbers that splits the difference between the sublime and the sensual. It had been in the movies before George Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore took it to the Brill Building and reworked it -- Irene Dunne trilled her way through it in 1939's "Love Affair."

The French lyrics, bien sur, lament the fickleness of the desiring heart. The words Elvis admired turned the song American: they're deeply earnest and overreaching, a romantic huckster's hard sell. But Elvis believed them. Letting a flutter into that gorgeous lyric baritone, he swore the kind of romantic allegiance he might have dreamed about, though we all know that, like nearly every other rock star, he failed that ideal spectacularly. 

Yet Elvis' vocals always express complexity, and even in this cheesiest of come-ons he turns a few phrases toward a different view of things. "Like a river flows, surely to the sea, darling so it goes," he croons with the blase warmth of someone who's been around the block and knows he'll be going there again.

With the great Hal Blaine rolling out the coolest of drum parts -- this studio session was one of the drummer's early home runs -- Elvis somehow keeps it cool even as he gets hot under the collar. He flirts with the chorus' little guitar lick and rounds out his phrases until they curl like smoke from a lonely cigarette. This bit of distance from the romance of the song makes his reading of "Can't Help Falling" just a tad fatalistic, as if he knew that he would fail at this love, fail at all loves, because despite how things were going for him, he would always remain human, imperfect.

That's the song's lovely sadness: the King's sighing admission that, no matter how much we all adored him, or maybe because we all adored him, someday he'd let us all down.

-- Ann Powers


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Elvis, the young King

King vs. King: Debating Elvis Presley's Best Songs, Part II

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

Elvis Presley, the actor

Photo: Associated Press