Elvis Presley is the undisputed King of Rock and Roll. He rose from humble circumstances to launch the rock and roll revolution with his commanding voice and charismatic stage presence. In the words of the historical marker that stands outside the house where he was born: “Presley’s career as a singer and entertainer redefined popular music.”
As far as his stature as a cultural icon, which continues to grow even in death, writer Lester Bangs said it best: “I can guarantee you one thing - we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”
In celebration of Presley's January 8 birthday and his contributions to rock and roll, we chose 10 essential Elvis Presley songs. Presley built arguably the most impressive catalog of recordings in rock history, so it was understandably difficult narrowing the list down to 10 essential tracks. Let us know what songs would be on your list.
Released in the summer of 1954, "That's All Right" was Presley's first commercial single and a fairly faithful version of "That's All Right, Mama," the uptempo blues number originally recorded by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. The song was recorded "live" at Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service, with Presley on acoustic guitar and vocals, Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on upright bass, and released on Phillips' Sun Records. This is arguably where the legend of Elvis Presley took root, his intensity driving the track and hinting at the Presleymania that was to come.
Presley's reworking of the song written by Sam Phillips and Junior Parker (and originally recorded by Junior's Blue Flames) was the b-side to 1955's "I Forgot To Remember To Forget." Like "That's All Right," the rollicking "Mystery Train" heralded the emergence of rockabilly, though Presley's trademark emoting carries a lament for his "baby's" departure that made for a memorable counterpoint to the arrangement.
By 1956, Presley had moved to RCA Victor, and his first release under the new label, "Heartbreak Hotel," would also be the first of many recordings to top Billboard's Top 100 chart. Although on RCA, producer Steve Sholes wanted to recapture the "Sun sound" and enlisted guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, drummer DJ Fontana, guitarist Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Kramer and three members of the Jordanaires on backing vocals for the sessions that produced "Heartbreak Hotel." Led by Presley's signature baritone, "Heartbreak Hotel" was deemed the Number One single of the year by Billboard in 1956 – an unlikely feat for a song about a near-suicidal loner.
With its swinging groove, harmonized backing vocals and Presley's famous hiccup, "Don't Be Cruel" became a sensation following its release in the summer of 1956. The recording of "Don't Be Cruel"/"Hound Dog" was Number One for 11 weeks – among the longest Number One runs in the rock era. Brooklyn songwriter Otis Blackwell (whose credits would later include "Return To Sender" and "All Shook Up," among others) composed the song, and Presley injected it with the vitality it needed to reach the top of the charts.
The title track performance of Jailhouse Rock was the highlight of Presley's third film. The movie premiered on October 21, 1957, the same day the title track went to the top of the Billboard charts, where it remained for seven weeks. Penned by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who also composed the enormously successful "Hound Dog," originally recorded by Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton), the song resonated beyond the U.S., becoming the first record ever to enter the British singles chart at Number One. Presley's charisma shined on the recording, and the song's two-chord riff is among rock's most indelible moments.
Viva Las Vegas is considered one of Presley's best movies, if not the best. The title track of the 1964 film starring Presley as Lucky Jackson alongside Ann-Margret as Rusty Martin was a lively romp thats lyrical sentiment – I'm gonna keep on the run / I'm gonna have me some fun / If it costs me my very last dime / If I wind up broke up well / I'll always remember that I had a swingin' time – was perfectly echoed in the song's frenetic percussive charge and Presley's convincing, passionate delivery.
"How Great Thou Art" was the title track of Presley's second gospel LP, released in early 1967. It was recorded in Nashville, and won a Grammy that year for Best Sacred Performance. Presley was a superb gospel singer, and this song really captured his passion and vocal range. It was a staple of his live shows throughout the 1970s.
The stirring "In The Ghetto" featured Presley's expressive, tender vocals as the vehicle for a narrative about a young boy's life of poverty in the inner-city. The song, written by Mac Davis, features suitably evocative instrumentation and became the springboard for Presley's comeback in 1969, peaking at Number Three during a 13-week run on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The 1969 American Sound Studio sessions in Memphis with producer Chips Moman found Presley artistically awakened. The resulting soul material formed From Elvis in Memphis, including the gospel-rooted highlight "In The Ghetto."
"Suspicious Minds" was one of the better tunes prepared (it was written by Mark James) for Presley's January 1969 recording dates at American Sound Studio in Memphis (the same sessions that produced "In The Ghetto"), the city that gave Presley his start in the previous decade. The song found Presley embracing a sound that owed more to soul and R&B than rock and country, as his bellowing voice powered the ballad. The effort was enlivened by backing vocals (Ronnie Milsap and Jeannie Greene) and a vibrant horn section. It would become Presley's first U.S. chart-topper since "Good Luck Charm" seven years earlier – and his 17th and final Number One hit, holding that position the week of November 1, 1969.
The driving "Burning Love" was written by Dennis Linde, and among the final rock and roll numbers recorded by Presley. Released in 1972, it featured boogie piano, horn-laden chorus, choir-style vocals, pounding drums and fretwork by virtuoso guitarist James Burton. Presley's singing infuses the song with an edginess and the "hunka hunka burning love" coda closed the song on a punchy, gospel-inspired note. The song peaked at Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 on the week of October 28, 1972.