Many people know “Elvis, the icon” but I always wonder how many really know “Elvis Presley, the recording artist”. It’s always a shame when anything of quality is taken for granted. I remember once back in Apartment Zero Days when my buds and I were hanging out at Kelsey’s, our usual Friday night haunt. “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets started to play and something struck me; I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. I made mention of this to my friends but they didn’t share in my awe. This got me thinking; some songs you are so used to hearing that they almost become something other than songs. They become more a collection of familiar sounds that you are so used to hearing that you forget that it was once brand new, created in a studio and released to the world as something – for better or for worse – that hadn’t been heard before in quite that way. Sometimes I think that we all really need to dial it back and listen. This concept may apply to no one more so than Elvis Presley.
He’s a legend, a well-known image. He is an idea, a persona, a representation. Of a type of music, a moment in history. He represents something bigger than who he was. While this is understood, it is folly to not make the attempt to discard preconceptions and consider him as if you had never heard of him before. The man recorded more than 700 songs in his career and there may be 50-odd that casual fans have heard and/or heard of. So, what about the others? One of the most-read articles of all-time here at Vintage Leisure is The Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs You’ve Never Heard and I’ve often thought that a sequel was called for or even a series of articles highlighting these deep cuts. Here for your perusal, then, are 10 Presley tracks that you really need to hear or hear again. These you should consider again in a new light as I think that doing so will greatly enhance your understanding of this man as a singer of song. Let’s not forget that that is what he was. And remains.
Any Way You Want Me (That’s How I Will Be) (Schroeder/Owens) — Recorded 1956 in New York City, Master is take 12. Available on the King of Rock & Roll (1992) box set
What can I say about Elvis Presley in 1956 that hasn’t already been said? It is actually very difficult to convey to a reader in the 21st century the enormity of the impact Presley had on the world in those 12 months. So much of the story of that year centres around controversy; was rock & roll bad for kids? Was Elvis going to bring black kids and white kids together? Were his stage shows going to turn young girls into sex-starved sirens? When the talk turns to the music, many commentators have tried to describe the emancipation his recordings of this year afforded young people. But, you may ask, could the guy sing?
Elvis really hit the bigs when he found himself inside RCA’s New York City studios for the first time on Tuesday, January 10th, 1956. He kept it simple that day, covering Ray Charles and the Drifters and trying out a brand new song written for him called “Heartbreak Hotel”. But at subsequent sessions through the spring he also tried his hand at ballads, though many were still slow to accept him in this vein. Elvis himself said at the time that he didn’t have the voice for ballads. Then in July, he cut two of the most iconic recordings in history, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel”. Also that day he tried “Any Way You Want Me”.
The song was co-written by Aaron Schroeder who would write a total of 17 songs for Elvis, five that reached Number One. Let me say that again – Aaron Schroeder wrote FIVE Number One songs for Elvis Presley. Released as the B side of “Love Me Tender”, “Any Way You Want Me” hit #27. Presley exerts great restraint in this recording. His breath control is on point, his vibrato in check and he brings the right amount of passion to the vocal. Simply the way he sings the title, particularly the first note of each “Any…”. This session was the first to include all four members of the Jordanaires, accomplished and highly-trained singers. Gordon Stoker has related that, before this session, he was not much taken with Presley as a vocalist. After King ran through a dozen-or-so takes of “Any Way You Want Me”, he changed his mind; “the feeling that he had on that particular sound made the hair on my arm come up”. He turned to his fellow Jordanaires and declared that this kid could sing.
Where No One Stands Alone (Mosie Lister) — Recorded 1966 in Nashville, Master is take 7. Available on How Great Thou Art (1967)
I’ve talked before about the connection between Presley and gospel music and of the power inherently present in sacred songs. When you combine his strong feeling for these songs with his emotive abilities and the force that is inextricably linked to gospel, the results are substantial. Case in point, much of the How Great Thou Art album.
The year this album was recorded bears notice. By this point, Elvis was fairly deep in a hole where his recordings were concerned. Most of his album releases were soundtracks filled with many insignificant tunes but this gospel record features songs quite the opposite. “Where No One Stands Alone” was written by gospel singer Thomas “Mosie” Lister (1921-2015) who was an original member of the Statesmen Quartet and who also wrote two songs King included on His Hand in Mine, “He Knows Just What I Need” and the title track. This Lister composition was also used as the title track of a 2018 gospel compilation album by Presley and he is joined on “Where No One Stands Alone” by Lisa Marie Presley. Consider these lyrics sung by Elvis Presley in the mid-1960s.
"Like a king, I may live in a palace so tall with great riches to call my own but I don't know a thing in this whole wide world that's worse than being alone Hold my hand all the way, every hour, every day from here to the great unknown take my hand, let me stand where no one stands alone"
No More (Robertson/Blair) — Recorded 1961 in Hollywood, Master is spliced from takes 13 & 16. Available on Blue Hawaii (1961)
I’ll admit that some of my love for certain movie songs comes from the connection I make between them and the films they come from. Blue Hawaii is my all-time favourite movie. Elvis sings this song as Chad Gates sitting on the beach. He has just returned from two years in the service and he has just rejoined his friends at his beloved shack by the water. The idyll of this scene would make almost any song delightful but “No More” is particularly graceful.
It is based on the most popular of all Spanish melodies, “La Paloma”, a tune that, in one form or another, is one of the most recorded songs in history. After the success of “It’s Now or Never” – a song featuring new lyrics to an old melody – Elvis’ publishers wanted more of the same and called upon Don Robertson. Robertson would eventually emerge as one of the premiere songwriters for Presley. He has said that with “No More” his efforts were validated as Presley’s recording copied much of Robertson’s demo. Just a wonderfully romantic song featuring a lulling marimba.
Tomorrow is a Long Time (Bob Dylan) — Recorded 1966 in Nashville, Master is take 3. Available on Spinout (1966) and the From Nashville to Memphis (1993) box set
You should be happy to know that there are still songs like this in Elvis’ catalogue. Many of you have likely never heard this one at all. It was a dark time in Elvis World and a slate of recording sessions in the spring of 1966 were supposed to yield two singles and a Christmas record but things weren’t happening. Adding to the unlikelihood of achieving these goals was Presley’s insistence on exploring obscure titles that he simply enjoyed singing. One was a heartfelt “Beyond the Reef”, and another was a gritty “Down in the Alley”. Yet another was this Bob Dylan song that Zimmy had yet to issue officially. Elvis had heard it on folk singer Odetta’s record, Odetta Sings Dylan.
Here we see in sharp relief one of the most egregious crimes in all of Elvis History. Pause to consider how artists today are indulged in the extreme. During these sessions in search of a single, “Beyond the Reef” is discarded – understood. “Love Letters” is issued – understood. “Down in the Alley” was not considered material suitable for an Elvis single in 1966; even though its a raucous performance brimming with life owing to the celebratory mood in the studio during its recording. Not releasing this as a single was a failed opportunity that could’ve been the start of a new direction for Elvis. And a Bob Dylan composition that few were familiar with? This again could’ve been a major statement but a big part of what killed it as a single was the fact there would be no chance for Colonel’s publishing concerns to get a piece. Dig the dobro and Presley’s contemplative vocal. How long did it take to run though the three takes of this number? Such a brief but fascinating moment in King’s career. Adding insult to injury, this substantial recording ended up fleshing out – with “Down in the Alley”, actually – the Spinout album. So, “Tomorrow is a Long Time” was on the same album as “Smorgasbord” and “Beach Shack”.
Gentle On My Mind (John Hartford) — Recorded 1969 in Memphis, Master take is unknown. Available on From Elvis in Memphis (1969) and The Memphis Record (1987)
Another perfect example of a great composition that received many fine treatments but then became another thing altogether in the hands of Elvis Presley. Perhaps nobody else in history could better find the soul and emotion in any given song and then bring it out, making it distinct from other interpretations. In this tender version of “Gentle On My Mind” the listener is taken down to the rail yard and is able to truly discern the raw longing for home – and at the same time cannot deny the enticing pull of the open road. The song is marked by what I believe to be a clavinet though I cannot confirm that anybody played one that day. Bassist Norbert Putnam has put it succinctly; “He was the greatest communicator of emotion that I ever knew, from beginning to end”. Another startling example of Presley putting his own stamp on a song is coming up next.
Tomorrow Never Comes (Tubb/Bond) — Recorded 1970 in Nashville, Master is spliced from takes 13 and Workpart 1. Available on “I’m 10,000 Years Old” Elvis Country (1971) and the Walk a Mile in My Shoes (1995) box set
Quite possibly the single most underappreciated song in all of Presley’s mighty canon. Something Elvis doesn’t get enough credit for is his ability to transform another performer’s song and make it a completely unique article. “Tomorrow Never Comes” is the best example of this ability. Country legend Ernest Tubb co-wrote and released this song in 1945 and to hear his original is to hear sawdust, hillbilly country & western at its best. While Tubb’s version is fine – many say it’s his best song – it is mostly indistinguishable from other fine country recordings of the time. But Presley saw an opportunity to inject Tubb’s song with a torrent of emotion and drama. Much like his later take on “What Now, My Love”, “Tomorrow Never Comes” in Elvis’ hands starts quietly and builds to a shattering crescendo of majesty. Something else to consider is his ability to summon stunning vocal performances at will, moving from the lighthearted to the deadly serious. Listening to outtakes of this song, you hear Elvis cutting up as the band gets ready to start a take. After lightly joking, he is able to pivot and deliver this remarkable vocal performance.
Let’s Be Friends (Arnold/Morrow/Martin) — Recorded 1969 in Universal City, Master is take 3. Available on Let’s Be Friends (1970) and Double Features: Live a Little, Love a Little/The Trouble With Girls (1995)
In the unlikeliest of places. Not two weeks after wrapping his seminal recording work at American Sound in Memphis, Presley had to make the trek back to Hollywood, a place he was thoroughly done with. But perhaps the momentum was with him still and King was able to bring life to at least two recordings slated for his final film, Change of Habit. On the opposite end of the spectrum from the killer funk groove of that film’s title track is the gentle “Let’s Be Friends”.
A young Roger Kellaway (b. 1939, Oscar nom for the score of A Star is Born ) shines at the piano and King is in full tender mode. The lyric doesn’t even refer to love or romance but instead this is an encouraging ode to the ability of two to come together and help each other navigate life’s mountains and valleys; certainly a unique text for an Elvis song. I do though notice the use of the word “pretend”. To me this refers to the fact that some of the valleys simply cannot be avoided and must be endured. But through escape, some respite can be found. No chorus or bridge in this song penned by the team that wrote a clutch of tunes for Presley at this time. “There’s fun and laughter just waiting ’round the bend. Let’s find them now together, let’s be friends”. So pleasant. And this one takes me back to my youth when I would listen to the Let’s Be Friends budget LP on cassette.
City By Night (Giant/Baum/Kaye) — Recorded 1966 in Hollywood, Master is take 5. Available on Double Trouble (1967) and Double Features: Spinout/Double Trouble (1994)
I’ve decided that there is really nothing to recommend Double Trouble; it is the King Movie – along with The Trouble With Girls – that has the least to offer the viewer. All the film has is two, maybe two-and-a-half, good songs. “City By Night” is one of the “hidden gems” of the movie soundtracks that I will often point to. Interesting that this may be the only song in Presley’s catalogue that distinguishes itself because of its use of brass. In this case it is predominantly the trombone of Richard Noel, a prolific session player. The desired mood is achieved here, that of a dimly lit, smoky nightclub featuring couples commiserating in the gloom.
But Presley seems invested, too. His clandestine vocal intimates that he too is in on the secret. This gritty tune slinks with tinkling piano and the wordless humming of the Jordanaires. Climaxes with a cinematic finale. Dig the way he sings the title.
He Touched Me (William J. Gaither) — Recorded 1971 in Nashville, Master is take 4. Available on He Touched Me (1972) and Amazing Grace (1994)
Elvis Presley released his final gospel album in 1972. He Touched Me won him a Grammy and – of his three gospel records – it is the only one that can be considered contemporary. It features the late Andraé Crouch’s magnificent “I’ve Got Confidence”, “Seeing is Believing”, co-written by Red West, Jerry Reed‘s “A Thing Called Love”, “There is No God But God”, a composition from Bill Kenny, lead singer of the Ink Spots and “Reach Out to Jesus”, written by the father of Contemporary Christian Music, Ralph Carmichael (1927-2021) who had scored Nat Cole’s gorgeous Christmas record.
Bill Gaither (b. 1936) is a hard man to describe for those who do not know gospel music. Trying to find an equivalent for him in the secular world is also difficult. With his wife, Gloria, Bill has composed over 600 songs that have been recorded by numerous artists across the musical spectrum. His Bill Gaither Trio – an outfit that lasted from 1956 to 1991 – and Gaither Vocal Band have released countless albums and have won two Grammys. In 2004, the tour he staged with his Gaither Homecoming show sold more tickets than Fleetwood Mac, Elton John and Rod Stewart.
Bill wrote “He Touched Me” in 1963. Legendary gospel groups like the Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen Quartet and J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet recorded the song – as did Jimmy Durante – before Presley’s future backing group the Imperials released a version in 1969. Elvis heard this recording and decided to record it himself. It is a stirring performance that celebrates the freedom that comes from serving Jesus.
Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall (Larry Gatlin) — Recorded 1976 at Graceland, Master is take 7. Available on From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee (1976)
Everything was going downhill. Even doing that which had sustained him – making music – was becoming problematic. Elvis’ home, Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, became all the more legendary when Presley made some of his last recordings there. There was also significance added to the famed den – or the “jungle room” – in that these recordings were made in that part of the house. On my visits there, I’ve often gazed at the landing at the foot of the stairs leading up where Elvis was positioned to sing.
“Bitter They Are, Harder They Fall” and Elvis Presley having recorded it both add much to the legacy of Larry Gatlin (b. 1948), the boy from Seminole, Texas who – alone and with his brothers – scored many hits in a countrypolitan vein in the 70s and 80s. This tune with the serious and quite literary title appeared on Gatlin’s debut album, The Pilgrim, released in 1973. While other songs on this list showcase Presley’s ability to reshape a song and rephrase it in a substantial light, here is one that he left alone. I’ve often said that you can tell which songs Elvis really liked when he first heard them (“Love Letters”) as he changed them little when he took them on.
Regret. Interesting how Presley could inject such emotion into songs of regret near the end of his life. And Gatlin is no slouch at the wordplay that country music is noted for; “I told her to leave me alone. That’s what she’s done…” But the money here is the blend of Elvis’ voice with those of J.D. Sumner and the Stamps on “And I can no longer hear footsteps come right down the hall” – especially the three-tone descent on “hall”. And, eschewing commonplace verbiage, Gatlin and Presley deliver the significant title; “Here come the teardrops. Bitter they are, harder they fall”. I remember when I was young seeing the title of this song but never having heard it. I wondered how King would be able to sing that odd title as lyrics. Herein lies the wonderful quality at the heart of this composition by Larry who was 25 in ’73.
Lovely how the voices move from the end of the chorus and into more clever wordplay; “She caught me lyin’ and she caught a train and I caught a fever walkin’ home in the rain”. This is a tale of woe with a cutting, devastating finale; “But it’s over and I’m done. She left me once and for all”. Towering majesty and crushing emotion; the things that mark Presley’s recordings of this time.
So, collect these songs and listen to them and look up info on them yourself. I hope this is another good guide and a portal into the inner sanctum of Elvis Presley’s vast and magnificent catalogue. Stay tuned for more lists as we illuminate the hidden corners of this man’s musical legacy.
- Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. Back Bay Books. (1994)
- Guralnick, Peter. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Back Bay Books. (1999)
- Elvis Australia. Don Robertson: Writing for the King. October 3, 2020.