I’ve got an older brother. He and his friends are fans of blues and blues/rock; artists like Buddy Guy, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and other late-Sixties rockers like Pink Floyd and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Me being the younger guy, I always wanted to turn them on to some “cool” music they weren’t aware of. They all know and respect Elvis Presley but I always wondered if they really knew him, knew some of the lesser known songs and even mini eras of him that were cool, recordings that would help prove he had a place (at least) among the iconic rockers in history. And what about the kids of today? Could I show them, too, that, yes, Presley had been there first, had done it better than most and deserved to stand alongside (at least) others? Not just in terms of sales and historical significance but also in that “cool” factor. You’ll often see Presley’s image tricked up; a hologram on stage with Celine Dion, updates of his old tunes for remixes, phony sonic “duets” with artists of today and a Cirque du Soleil show devoted to him perhaps all to make him more palatable to the masses – but what tracks of his, taken on their own merit, would prove my point and would show the kids of today, or even hippie-type rockers like my brother and his friends, that Elvis Presley really helped invent “cool”? This is a playlist of the songs that I would use to illustrate my assertion that Presley is cool by any standards. If you don’t “hear it” after listening to these songs, you likely never will. No explanations or context are really needed here to appreciate these songs. This is Elvis for Anyone.
“That’s All Right” (Arthur Crudup) – Rec. July 5, 1954, rel. July 19, 1954 // It’s like I tell my kids; try to imagine you’ve never heard of “Elvis” before. Try to think of a time when music was generally not like “Maybellene” but more like “Come On-a My House”. Try to imagine that time and then imagine hearing a white Southern boy singing “That’s All Right”, the track I would have to start my chronological “Cool Elvis” playlist with. The primitive, raw energy of this recording makes it significant and not just historically – it’s great to hear and great to sing in the car.
“Mystery Train” (Junior Parker) – Rec. July 11, 1955, rel. August 20, 1955 // This tune qualifies for this list for a lot of the same reasons as the previous tune but this track adds something darker, sort of a Robert Johnson thing. It is mean and it is sinister. This song is not only representative of early Elvis but also of the entire southern/Memphis blues ethos.
“Hound Dog” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) – Rec. July 2, 1956, rel. July 13, 1956 // This might actually be a hard sell because it’s so iconic. But try to focus on his ferocious vocal. And maybe the coolest thing about this track is not Presley at all but Scotty Moore – his two solos on this record are out of this world. More like hard rock compared to other recordings of the time. Can we not trace Jimmy Page back to this two minute and sixteen second part of history?
“My Baby Left Me” (Arthur Crudup) – Rec. January 30, 1956, rel. August 17, 1956 // Here is another song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup – the author of “That’s All Right” – and it’s another early example of Elvis’ love of the blues. This is another energetic track that must have sounded so different from other offerings in 1956 and is delivered with sheer joy and exuberance. Features an excellent drums-and-double-bass intro.
“Too Much” (Lee Rosenberg, Bernard Weinman) – Rec. September 2, 1956, rel. January 4, 1957 // This song has that beat, that tempo, that groove. It’s what we call “strutting”. And it also has the way he says “take” as in “take me back, baby…”.
“Mean Woman Blues” (Claude Demetrius) – Rec. January 13, 1957, rel. June 20, 1957 // Another blues tune with great lyrics and another ballsy vocal. Hard to disassociate this recording with his performance of the song in Loving You. In that scene, he uses it as a weapon and it is vintage King. He tears a small juke joint up and sends the kids into a frenzy before putting up his dukes and sending some joker to the “E Room” (Emergency room).
“Jailhouse Rock” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) – Rec. April 30, 1957, rel. September 24, 1957 // I’ve always said that this is maybe his best vocal performance ever. I mean, this song is a freight train and his delivery is one of the coolest single things I’ve ever heard. A big ask is to get people to forget the production number version from the film but I do make the request. There should be nothing to distract you from this recording; not dancers, not some clowns playing fake instruments and not hokey background vocals like “Rrrrrrrrock!” Seek out early takes of this recording; on one, he is putting so much into it that his voice breaks down, testimony to the fire he brings to the record.
“Trouble” (Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) – Rec. January 15, 1958, rel. July 29, 1958 // How cool were Leiber and Stoller? Here’s their third song on the “Cool Elvis” list. Along with “Mean Woman Blues”, this is maybe the best example of Elvis as a danger, as a threat to your physical well-being. On this track he’s menacing. This song benefits from the visuals you get when he performs it in his greatest film, King Creole. A vicious hood is talking smack to him and wonders if he can really sing. So, King gets up on stage and again uses a song as a bludgeon.
“A Mess of Blues” (Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman) – Rec. March 20, 1960, rel. July 5, 1960 // I’ve heard a bootleg recording of Led Zeppelin doing this tune, adding much to its cred. The Presley version is solid with some excellent piano. Another great – if more polished – example of Elvis singin’ the blues. Listen to the legendary Floyd Cramer’s wonderful left hand.
“Hard Luck” (Ben Weisman and Sid Wayne) – Rec. May 13, 1965, rel. March 1, 1966 // All the movie songs are terrible? Not so. Buried in Frankie and Johnny is this tune by a prolific movie song writing team. Once again, he sounds so comfortable singing the blues. Featuring stellar harmonica by the much heralded Charlie McCoy who is right in the pocket here. Frankie and Johnny may be a hard sell as “Cool Elvis” but the movie was released right on the cusp of one of the grander comebacks in entertainment history.
“Spinout” (Ben Weisman, Dolores Fuller and Sid Wayne) – Rec. February 17, 1966, rel. September 13, 1966 // Speaking of movie tunes, gotta go with this beauty. A stone groove with fantastic drumming and another great vocal; listen to “prove” in “she’s out to prove”.
“Down in the Alley” (Jesse Stone) – Rec. May 26, 1966, rel. November, 1966 // A gritty, grinding hostile recording that is criminally undervalued in Elvis World. Just the fact that Elvis is singing about balling down in the alley in the middle of the night adds a veneer of wonderful grime.
“Guitar Man” (Jerry Reed Hubbard) – Rec. September 10, 1967, rel. January 3, 1968 // I’m so thankful for my man, Jerry Reed. I often think that King could’ve done an album of Jerry’s tunes with Reed playing guitar. Truth be told, there are very few songs by Elvis or by any other artist that are more fun to sing along to than this one. “Guitar Man” is something of a poster child of this era of great tunes with a new sound for Presley.
“A Little Less Conversation” (Mac Davis and Billy Strange) – Rec. March 7, 1968, rel. September 3, 1968 // What can I say? Remix aside, this recording can stand, in sheer swagger, energy and coolness, with ANYTHING in rock history. There are elements of soul/funk in this tune from the underrated film Live a Little, Love a Little.
“The Power of My Love” (Bernie Baum, Bill Giant and Florence Kaye) – Rec. February 18, 1969, rel. June 2, 1969 // This is a great one to play for any old blues boy-type guy. This one bumps and grinds and I always feel like those who know only little about Elvis could never identify him as the singer of this tune. Another song that needs more love and should be used in films. Again, here Elvis is combative, declaring boldly to his woman that no matter what she does she cannot withstand the power of his love. He will be the victor.
“I’m Movin’ On” (Hank Snow) – Rec. January 14, 1969, rel. June 2, 1969 // Let’s talk some straight talk here; “I’m Movin’ On” may be Elvis Presley’s single greatest recording. I say this because it may be the one song of Presley’s that most exemplifies the blend of country and blues he was famous for, the blend that was always at the heart of his music. The rural bounce of the verses feature that unmistakable bass line that plays like a ragged old pick-up truck bounding down a country road. And the soul/funk work-out of the chorus when the drums are pounding and the back-up singers are belting it out from the pulpit. An old school C&W fan could appreciate this song written by the legend, Canadian Hank Snow. “Move on, baby!”
“Suspicious Minds” (Mark James) – Rec. January 23, 1969, rel. August 26, 1969 // You could make a case for Elvis being the coolest artist ever on the strength of the American Sound Studio recordings alone. The songs King recorded with Chips Moman in Memphis in early 1969 are my favourite of his. Like previous songs on this list, this one deserves to be listened to again for the first time. With headphones. A fan favourite. Everybody loves it and it is maybe the first of his recordings to actually be majestic.
“Rubberneckin’” (Dory Jones and Bunny Warren) – Rec. January 20, 1969, rel. November 10, 1969 // A companion of sorts to “A Little Less Conversation”, “Rubberneckin'” represents the sheer joy of life. Another of the American Sound recordings – like the previous three tunes here – this one just sparkles.
“Polk Salad Annie” (Tony Joe White) – Rec. February 17, 1970, rel. June 1, 1970 // Tony Joe White’s swamp rocker “Polk Salad Annie” benefits from a visual of Elvis performing it on stage. Simply as a recording, though, it’s got energy to burn and humour as well. You listen with a smile and you know Elvis is digging it. Whether he’s having fun with the opening monologue or gyrating feverishly when the tune hits its transcendent boogie climax, your ears, your eyes or your mind’s eye are all overloaded with delights.
“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector) – Rec. August 12, 1970, rel. November 11, 1970 // Being a fan of the oldies, when I first heard Elvis sing this classic I couldn’t get into it. But I soon came to realize that he found the heart and soul of the song – as he was so apt to do throughout his career – and he ratcheted it up big time. Though he never recorded it in the studio, its always a delight to hear him start the tune at a crawl before blasting out the chorus. Never has “Baby!” sounded so cool. When he gets to the bridge, I’m torn between who to listen to; his great soul voice running through “we had a love, a love, a love you don’t find every day” or the wonderfully arranged back-up singers’ declaration “that’s how much I love you, sweet baby”. A show-stopper. One of his many.
“Never Been to Spain” (Hoyt Axton) – Rec. June 10, 1972, rel. June 18, 1972 // King did to this tune what he did to “Lovin’ Feelin’”; he punched it up and let it blast through the arena. Much like Bobby Darin did with his pop standards, King often liked to start quietly and build to a climax, a technique that had a great effect in a live setting. Interesting that Elvis recorded – though again only live – this tune by Hoyt Axton years after having recorded Hoyt’s mama’s tune, “Heartbreak Hotel”. I had been very familiar with Three Dog Night’s hit version of this tune but Elvis’ masculine take adds another dimension. I often connect this song with the impressive Racquetball Building at Graceland. Set up to house a plethora of Elvis’ awards and many jumpsuits from the Seventies, a monitor plays a performance of this tune and its grandiosity more than matches the awesome surroundings.
“Burning Love” (Dennis Linde) – Rec. March 28, 1972, rel. August 1, 1972 // Here we are again talking about an iconic song that needs its veneer and its history stripped off and it needs to be reevaluated. Its hard to deny that it simply works all these years later, like “Suspicious Minds”. It features a stellar guitar intro, and a great “mature Elvis” vocal with a bit of echo. This should be another easy sell. Its packed with fire and everyone likes this song. Definitely one of the songs on this list that you’ll have to encourage people to forget they’ve ever heard. “Burning Love” is still sexy and muscular.
“Promised Land” (Chuck Berry) – Rec. Dec 15, 1973, rel. September 27, 1974 // “Aw, git on it!” You wanna talk about energy? The pure power and majesty of Elvis in the Seventies is exemplified here. For all of Chuck Berry‘s legendary status, his songs often seem toothless when compared to what could be done to them by others. Elvis Presley, The American Institution, surrounded himself with other musicians with the same background and heritage but there was an exception. One of Presley’s back-up groups, the one he christened Voice, had a piano accompanist name of Per-Erik Hallin. A native of Sweden, the man Elvis called “Pete” was chosen to play the clavinet (my favourite instrument) on “Promised Land”. This keyboard sound is certainly in the engine room of this record. This song plays in a scene in Men in Black and it is actually perfect; driving really fast with “Promised Land” playing really loud.
“If You Talk in Your Sleep” (Red West and Johnny Christopher) Rec. December 11, 1973, rel. May 14, 1974 // If you wanna know the truth, Elvis’ friend and employee Red West wrote great songs, some better than the movie songs, written by professionals. There’s a grand, meaty sound achieved here by EP and his group. Presley recorded at the immortal Stax Records studio down the street from his home at Graceland in December of ’73. Me, I’d like to think that King goes to Soulsville, U.S.A. and lays down nothin’ but blue-eyed soul. But, being Elvis, he sang all kinds at the sessions. Thankfully, at least a couple of funky stone grooves emerged as well. Like this tune and the following.
“I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body” (Dennis Linde) Rec. December 10, 1973, rel. March 20, 1974 // King goes funk master with this great song written by the author of “Burning Love”, guitarist and songwriter Dennis Linde. The thirty-odd tunes EP laid down at Stax were dispersed over three album and a couple of years. Might’ve been better if similar sounding songs were grouped on dozen-song sets but what do I know? “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” brings the funk and would’ve fit well on a record of comparable songs. Solid. “I got a, I got a, I got a, I got a feelin’ in mah body…”
“T-R-O-U-B-L-E” (Jerry Chesnut) – Rec. March 11, 1975, rel. April 22, 1975 // Twenty years after his debut on the country charts, my man could still kick up the sawdust. Jerry Chesnut composed many great ballads for King and many songs for others including this gem. This is another one you play to convince the C&W fan. A great vocal and a rollicking track complete with perfect “country song” lyrics.
“Way Down” (Layng Martine, Jr.) – Rec. October 29, 1976, rel. June 6, 1977 // Our playlist ends the way Presley’s chart career did. His voice may, by this time, be lacking a bit of the old fire. But an overdubbed Moog synthesizer helps to add a mean and dramatic touch to this song. Featuring a double low C note sung by J.D. Sumner, some great piano playing by David Briggs and a driving, compelling performance make this one worthy of inclusion. Released about ten weeks before his death, “Way Down” had descended the charts by August 16, 1977 when Presley died. Afterwards, it rebounded.
So this is the CD I’d take to poker night at my brother’s. For those of you old school enough to still deal in Compact Discs, I tried it and these songs do fit on a CD. For a real crowd-pleasing set, you have to have some familiar songs or people feel out of it. So, along with the better known tracks, I’ve thrown in some hidden gems and all together they present a pretty good case that Elvis Presley defined cool throughout the entirety of his career. Don’t let history, his status as an icon, phoney Elvis sightings and the jokes about his weight take away from the fact that the cat was solid. He is that cool. He really does epitomize everything we love about rock & roll. It’s borne out not just in the images but in the recordings. It’s amazing to think that someone so visually stunning and entertaining didn’t need the visual at all, really. Just the music.
This is an article that was first published on The Mystery Train Blog, an Elvis blog ran by my main man, brother in Christ and blogging mentor, Tygrrius. He made the graphic below for the release on his site.
- That’s All Right
- Mystery Train
- Hound Dog
- My Baby Left Me
- Too Much
- Mean Woman Blues
- Jailhouse Rock
- A Mess of Blues
- Hard Luck
- Down in the Alley
- Guitar Man
- A Little Less Conversation
- The Power of My Love’
- I’m Movin’ On
- Suspicious Minds
- Polk Salad Annie
- You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’
- Never Been to Spain
- Burning Love
- Promised Land
- If You Talk in Your Sleep
- I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body
- Way Down