I’ve been an “Elvis guy” since I was a kid. His story was a sad one, but what he gave us was amazing. I’ve always felt like I wanted to defend him, like people were all into his “image” but unschooled as to his recorded work.
Speaking of defending, I was planning to write a book, but maybe now instead a website, devoted to his films. They get such a bad rap but are so fun to watch. My wife and two boys always look forward to Elvis Week in January when we shut it down and watch Elvis movies. We returned to Graceland this summer (we’re just north of Toronto) and had a great trip. When I came home I found The Mystery Train Blog and have enjoyed reading and joining in.
I’ve got an older brother. He and his friends are fans of blues and blues/rock — guys like Buddy Guy, the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and other late-Sixties rockers like Pink Floyd and Creedence Clearwater Revivial.
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 or some of the lesser-known songs and even mini-eras that were cool, recordings that would help prove his place among the iconic “rockers” in history.
And what about the kids of today? Could I show them that yes, Presley had been there first, had done it better than most, and deserved to stand alongside others? Not just in terms of sales and historical significance, but also in that “cool” factor? They put our boy on stage with Celine Dion, trick up his old tunes for remixes, “duets,” and Cirque du Soleil to make him palatable to the masses – but what tracks, taken on their own merits, would prove my point and show the kids of today, or even hippie-type rockers like my brother and his friends, that the man really helped invent “cool”?
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 not like “Hound Dog,” 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 that would have to start my Cool Elvis CD. 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” qualifies for a lot of the same reasons, but this track adds something darker, sort of a Robert Johnson thing.
“My Baby Left Me” is another Arthur Crudup song, which of course ties it to the blues. Another energetic track that must have sounded so different from other offerings in 1956, delivered with sheer joy and exuberance.
“Hound Dog” would be a hard sell because it’s so iconic, but try to focus on his ferocious vocal. 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?
“Mean Woman Blues” – another blues tune with great lyrics and another ballsy vocal.
I’ve always said that “Jailhouse Rock” is maybe his best vocal. I mean, this song “rocks” and his delivery is one of the coolest single things I’ve ever heard.
“Too Much” has that beat, that tempo, that groove. And it has the way he says “take” as in “take me back, baby…”
“Trouble,” particularly the King Creole version, is maybe the best example of Elvis as a danger, as a threat to your physical well-being. On this track, he’s menacing.
I’ve heard a bootleg recording of Led Zeppelin doing “A Mess of Blues” – talk about giving a song cred. The Presley version is solid with some great piano. Again, “blues.”
All movie songs are terrible? Buried in Frankie and Johnny is “Hard Luck.” He sounds so comfortable singing the blues. Again. And the harmonica? That cat is in the pocket.
In the late Sixties, Presley again showed the world how cool he really was. Just look at him in the Comeback Special. The sit-down session should be enough to prove his coolness. “Down in the Alley” and “Guitar Man” from this era are great tunes with a bit of a new sound for him.
Speaking of movie tunes, gotta go with “Spinout.” Fantastic drumming and another great vocal: “prove” in “she’s out to prove.”
The American Sound Studio recordings are like the Comeback Special: proof enough. Specifically: “Suspicious Minds,” a fan favourite. Everybody loves it and it is maybe the first of his recordings to actually be majestic.
“Rubberneckin’” and “A Little Less Conversation.” What can I say? Remixes aside, these recordings stand up in swagger, energy and coolness with ANYTHING in rock history.
“The Power of My Love” is a great one to play for any old blues boy-type guy. This one bumps and grinds.
“I’m Movin’ On” has to be there. This is for the old school C&W fan. But I love this because it may be the song of Presley’s that most exemplifies the blend of country and blues he was famous for. The highway bounce of the verse and the soul-funk work-out of the chorus. “Move on, baby!”
Being a fan of the oldies, when I first heard Elvis sing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” I couldn’t get into it, but now I can hear that he found the heart and soul of the song and ratcheted it up – big time. Never has “Baby!” sounded so cool.
“Polk Salad Annie” benefits from a visual of Elvis performing it on stage. As a recording, though, it’s got energy to burn and humor as well. You listen with a smile. He’s digging it.
Elvis did for “Never Been to Spain” what he did for “Lovin’ Feelin’.” Punched it up and let it blast through the arena.
“Burning Love” works all these years later, like “Suspicious Minds.” Great guitar intro, great “mature Elvis” vocal with a bit of echo. Another easy sell. It rocks and everyone is down with this one.
“Aw, get on it!” And off we go to the “Promised Land.” Talk about energy. The Seventies juggernaut seems to have started here. The scene in Men in Black is actually perfect: driving really fast with “Promised Land” really loud.
A couple of tracks from this era have a great groove that was perfect for the time: “If You Talk in Your Sleep” and “I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body.” “If You Talk in Your Sleep” is down and dirty. “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” brings the funk. Solid.
“T-R-O-U-B-L-E” is another one you play for the C&W fan. Great vocal and a rollicking track. The lyrics really say “country song,” too.
I close my imaginary Cool Elvis CD the way King closed his chart career: “Way Down.” Contemporary sounding for its time, the vocal catches him at the end, lacking a bit of the old fire. But J.D. Sumner, some great piano playing, and a driving, dramatic performance make this one worthy of inclusion.
So this is the CD I’d take to poker night at my brother’s. 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.
Don’t let history, his status as an icon, the “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 ‘n’ 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.
- That’s All Right
- Mystery Train
- My Baby Left Me
- Hound Dog
- Mean Woman Blues
- Jailhouse Rock
- Too Much
- A Mess of Blues
- Hard Luck
- Down in the Alley
- Guitar Man
- Suspicious Minds
- A Little Less Conversation
- The Power of My Love
- I’m Movin’ On
- You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’
- Polk Salad Annie
- Never Been to Spain
- Burning Love
- Promised Land
- If You Talk in Your Sleep
- I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body
- Way Down