Elvis: The Ultimate Live Top Ten Hits (Part 1)

Elvis Presley rocks “Heartbreak Hotel” during taping of 1968’s ELVIS special (NBC)

I was 13 years old during Spring Break of 1988. At that point, I had about a half dozen Elvis Presley albums to my name. At the record store that week, I bought my first 2-record set. The Top Ten Hits was part of an “Elvis Presley Commemorative Issue” series that marked a decade since his 1977 death. I eventually obtained all four of the albums in the series, though I never did mail away for the special bonus album (a future eBay purchase, no doubt).

I had been collecting Elvis records for about a year at that point, and The Top Ten Hits certainly firmed up the foundation of my new obsession by containing all 38 of Elvis’ top 10 hits on Billboard‘s key US charts. These are what I now call mainstream or “general public” Elvis songs in that they are his most famous songs. Back then, these were the ones that various radio stations would still play.

The only two general public Elvis songs that failed to make the US top ten and, thus, this album were “Blue Suede Shoes” (peaked at #20) and “Viva Las Vegas” (peaked at #29). If we include posthumous releases, 1977’s “My Way” (peaked at #22) and 2002’s JXL Radio Edit Remix of “A Little Less Conversation” (peaked at #50) are also general public Elvis songs that are not present on this 1987 release. Except for those few titles and maybe “Blue Christmas,” everything else is here from a mainstream audience perspective. Outside of boxed sets, which really belong in their own category, The Top Ten Hits remains one of the most comprehensive Elvis releases to date when it comes to the general public.

I wore this record out in my 7th and 8th grade years, to the point where many of these songs became boring to me for a time. I will at some point cover this and the other Elvis Presley Commemorative Issue albums as part of my ongoing Vinyl Elvis series. Today, however, I want to use The Top Ten Hits as a jumping off point for a series of four posts covering Elvis’ best live performance of each of his hits. As is the norm here on The Mystery Train Blog, the focus will be on officially released recordings. No bootlegs.

Today’s post will feature hits included on Side A of The Top Ten Hits, all of which were studio masters on the original album.

01. Heartbreak Hotel (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 29, 1968, 6 PM Show, Burbank, CA, ELVIS-TV Special
Recorded in front of small studio audience for Elvis’ 1968 NBC television special, ELVIS, this version of “Heartbreak Hotel” rocks more than any of his other takes on the song. It is unfortunately a shortened version, though, due to being part of a medley with “Hound Dog” and “All Shook Up.” I once created a splice with the June 27, 1968, 6 PM Show version of “Heartbreak Hotel” to partially rectify this (inspired by and in the same vein as the “Blue Suede Shoes” splice on the This Is Elvis album, except starting with the June 29 “stand up” show version and ending with the June 27 “sit down” show version).

02. I Want You, I Need You, I Love You (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 5, 1956, Los Angeles, CA, A Golden Celebration
As performed on the Milton Berle Show, following a skit with the host.

03. Hound Dog (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: December 15, 1956, Shreveport, LA, Young Man With The Big Beat: The Complete ’56 Elvis Presley Masters
The finale of one of Elvis’ greatest recorded concerts, this version of “Hound Dog” is not to be missed.

04. Don’t Be Cruel (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: January 6, 1957, New York, NY, A Golden Celebration

Credit: The Ed Sullivan Show channel (YouTube)

After Elvis released “Don’t Be Cruel,” he caught an act in Las Vegas that was doing a number of his songs. The lead singer was Jackie Wilson, and Elvis liked his version of “Don’t Be Cruel” better than his own. When Elvis performed the song on his third Ed Sullivan Show appearance in 1957, he incorporated some of Wilson’s upgrades to the song. What I love about this story is that Elvis inspired Wilson, who, in turn, inspired Elvis. Incidentally, this is the infamous “from the waist up” Sullivan performance where TV cameras were ordered not to show Elvis’ hips and legs – which, of course, only added to his legend. Watch it above or over on YouTube.

05. Love Me Tender (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 29, 1968, 8 PM Show, Burbank, CA, ELVIS-TV Special
This live version, recorded for the 1968 ELVIS special, far exceeds Elvis’ original studio recording of the song from 1956. His voice is like velvet.

06. Love Me (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: June 27, 1968, 6 PM Show, Burbank, CA, Memories: The ’68 Comeback Special
This was a close call with the August 12, 1970, Midnight Show, version of “Love Me,” but I slightly prefer the raw sound of the 1968 version.

07. Too Much (hit version recorded 1956)
Ultimate Live Version: January 6, 1957, New York, NY, A Golden Celebration
This is the only live version officially released of “Too Much,” to my knowledge, so it wins by default. A decent if sloppy version, performed on the Ed Sullivan Show and broadcast from the waist up.

08. All Shook Up (hit version recorded 1957)
Ultimate Live Version: August 26, 1969, Midnight Show, Las Vegas, NV, All Shook Up
The earliest available live version of “All Shook Up,” which is closer to the arrangement of the studio recording, is March 25, 1961, but the performance is tepid compared to his 1968 and 1969 versions.

09. Teddy Bear (hit version recorded 1957)
Ultimate Live Version: January 26, 1970, Opening Show, Las Vegas, NV, The On Stage Season: The Opening And Closing Shows 1970
This live version of “Teddy Bear” was a pleasant surprise on one of my favorite FTD releases.

10. Jailhouse Rock (hit version recorded 1957)
Ultimate Live Version: June 29, 1968, 8 PM Show, Burbank, CA, ELVIS-TV Special

Credit: Vevo’s Elvis Presley channel (YouTube)

As with a few of the others on today’s list, this incredible live version of “Jailhouse Rock” was captured for the 1968 ELVIS special. It almost equals the flawless studio recording. Watch it above or over on YouTube.

If only some of Elvis’ 1957 concerts had been recorded. Perhaps ultimate live versions of “Too Much,” “All Shook Up,” and possibly even “Jailhouse Rock” would have been among them. Every now and then, new recordings are unearthed. I maintain hope that a 1957 concert will eventually see the light of day.

I pray all of you are doing well and staying healthy. Drop a note in the comments below about some of your favorite live versions of these Elvis classics.

Blessings,
TY

[Read Part 2]


“Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.”
James 1:2-4

Presley wins clash of cultures in Elvis At 21

There are over 23,000 works of art in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, spanning some 5,000 years. There is so much to see there, in fact, that it cannot be adequately covered in a single day.

Yesterday, though, my mission was to explore only 56 of those works, all created just over 55 years ago. In VMFA time, 55 years is but a second.

The traveling Elvis At 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer exhibition covers March 17, 1956, and June 30 through July 4, 1956, in the life of Elvis Presley. The images capture the young singer on the brink of fame, in the midst of a nation on the brink of change.

By March 17, “Heartbreak Hotel” is at number 15 and still rising on Billboard‘s sales chart. That evening, Elvis is to make his fifth of six appearances on Jackie Gleason’s Stage Show – a CBS variety program hosted by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Initially hired by RCA to take publicity photos, Alfred Wertheimer is along with Elvis in New York City.

Entering The Warwick shows Elvis in a moment of freedom between rehearsals and the actual show. On the sidewalk, he is alone, unrecognized, unbothered – making it one of the exhibition’s most striking photographs.

Later, in his hotel room, Elvis reads fan mail and then rips it to shreds, according to one of the exhibition notes accompanying the photos. Wertheimer asks him why. “I’m not going to carry them with me. I’ve read them and seen what’s in them. It’s nobody else’s business,” Elvis tells him.

With Scotty Moore, Bill Black, and DJ Fontana behind him, he performs “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Heartbreak Hotel” on television that night. Though Wertheimer’s images are stills, there is no doubt that Elvis is very much in motion. In Jump, his feet are not even touching the ground.

When Elvis arrives in Richmond, Virginia, 15 weeks later for two concerts at the Mosque Theater (now the Landmark Theater) on June 30, his life is already changing.

He has made a final appearance on Stage Show and appeared twice on The Milton Berle Show. The second Berle appearance has proven controversial, due to his exaggerated hip movements on “Hound Dog” – a song only recently added to his stage act. In that brief time, he has also given over 85 concerts in tours criss-crossing the country (including two other shows at the Mosque on March 22). He has even cut a new record, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” “Heartbreak Hotel” has now sold a million copies and hit number one. After a series of screen tests in Hollywood, he has been signed to a multi-movie deal. Production has not yet begun on his first film. Elvis does not plan to sing in his movies.

Most Elvis fans have seen Wertheimer’s images at least a dozen times over. It is striking, though, to see them within the context of an art museum. Who in 1956 would have ever believed Elvis would end up here? The prints vary in size, are framed in black, and fill two small halls. The exhibition is crowded with people, but there is plenty of time to examine each picture. Visitors talk softly to each other. In the background, though, I can hear that unmistakable voice:

“Welll, since my baby left me…well, I found a new place to dwell…well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street…”

It’s true that I have seen these pictures before, but there is always something new. For instance, until this exhibition pointed it out, I never noticed in the image Elvis Leaving Richmond Train Station (AKA Elvis Did Have A Pelvis) that he is actually carrying and playing a portable radio as he walks out of Richmond’s Broad Street Station (now the Science Museum of Virginia).

Elvis Leaving Richmond Train Station (Detail)

Elvis Leaving Richmond Train Station (Detail): Elvis went to Richmond for two shows at the Mosque Theater. Getting off the train, he turned on his RCA portable radio. Richmond, Virginia, June 30, 1956 © Alfred Wertheimer. All rights reserved. Original image courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Used with permission.

Several other Richmond images are included, including two at the Jefferson Hotel and six backstage at the Mosque. Of the Richmond images presented, one stands out among the rest. It is Elvis on stage in the magnificent Kneeling At The Mosque – used as the (unfortunately colorized) cover for the Close Up boxed set, among other projects.

After the welcome detour to Richmond, it is back to New York, this time for the Steve Allen Show. Wertheimer captures rehearsals for Elvis’ July 1 appearance.

“I went to the Steve Allen Show,” Elvis recalled in 1969. “They were going to tame me down, so they told me to stand still. They had me dressed in a tuxedo and singing to a dog on a stool.”

Much worse than singing to a dog, though, Elvis is also forced to perform with Allen in a “Range Round-up” skit. Andy Griffith and Imogene Coco also appear during the nearly unwatchable Western parody. “Allen signified his own importance by wearing the biggest white hat,” states Wertheimer in a note accompanying one of the rehearsal photos.

Allen’s attempts to embarrass Elvis and put the singer in his place, of course, have the opposite effects. The legend of Elvis only grows.

The next day, July 2, he records 31 grueling takes of “Hound Dog” and 28 more of “Don’t Be Cruel” at RCA’s New York studio. The single would prove to be one of his most popular. Included in the exhibition is RCA Victor Studio I, a shot of Elvis rehearsing “Hound Dog” with his band and the Jordanaires. It is literally history in the making.

Elvis Screams is a Wertheimer photo that has always jumped out at me. I’m pretty sure the first time I saw it was back in the 1980s on the old Cinemax documentary Elvis ’56. The shot goes by quickly, as part of a montage. At the time, I thought the documentary producers had made a glaring error.

To me, the photo looks for all the world like an image of Elvis singing in the 1970-1973 era. It is not often that a 1956 image of Elvis can be confused with one from 1973, yet the only mistake was, of course, mine. According to Wertheimer, the image captures the moment that Elvis accepted take 31 of “Hound Dog.” I still find it fascinating, because my eyes still see the “Aloha” Elvis in this image, despite what my brain tells me.

Another series of images are striking. Elvis returns to Memphis after the “Hound Dog” recording session and departs the train on July 4. He walks alone through a field and then down a sidewalk. No bodyguards, no hanger-ons, no fans. Just Elvis.

The impression is not completely “normal,” however, He has just left the train from a multiple-day trip. He holds only his acetates of “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Any Way You Want Me” from the recording session. No bags or other luggage in sight.

Next, we see Elvis with his father (Vernon looks positively annoyed with Wertheimer, with a “back off” look) and then with his mother. He has just moved them into a new home. Not Graceland, which is still a year away.

One of the largest images in the exhibition, Elvis plays the rebel on his Harley in No Gas In The Tank – an image which inspired one of my favorite album covers, Return of the Rocker. Surely, there is a best-selling poster to be made here.

Finally, the photo exhibition concludes with images of Elvis on stage that same night at Russwood Park in Memphis. The image that stands out most to me from the entire exhibition, perhaps because it is one I do not recall seeing before, is Elvis Onstage: Russwood. As far as the eye can see are fans. Scotty Moore is picking away on guitar, and Elvis is turning around with a look of intense joy back at the crowd behind them. You can hear the screams. You can hear the music.

“He would listen respectfully backstage to criticism from agents that wanted him to contain his movements on stage. But once Elvis got on stage, he always did it his way. He really did it his way,” states Wertheimer. His text narrative throughout the exhibition is interesting, for it reveals what the photographer thought of his subject and those around him.

It could be argued that Wertheimer spent more time with and was allowed greater access to Elvis than any other “outsider.” For all of their spectacular moments, for instance, the 1970s documentaries That’s The Way It Is and Elvis On Tour are but illusions in terms of revelations about Elvis beyond his music.

Here, in 1956, Wertheimer is able to capture everything with his lens. No one would ever get this close to the real man again. That is what makes the Elvis At 21 collection and Wertheimer’s many other Elvis photographs significant.

* * *

Feeling almost like an afterthought, though at least providing an appropriate soundtrack that can be heard throughout the experience, there is a little television and bench in the exit alcove at the end of the exhibition. The short video, licensed by Jackie Gleason Enterprises for Elvis At 21, features three complete performances of Elvis on Stage Show:

  • “I Got A Woman” (January 28, 1956)
  • “Blue Suede Shoes” (February 11, 1956)
  • “Heartbreak Hotel” (February 11, 1956)

The audio and video of the performances breathe additional life into the Wertheimer photos just witnessed.

Elvis At 21 is a simple exhibition, and that is all that is required. The works and the subject stand alone. The short video, though, leads me to wonder about the possibilities of future Elvis exhibitions benefitting from complete audio-visual integration.

* * *

I am an American, so I must admit that I looked forward to seeing what Elvis items would be available in VMFA’s gift shop almost as much as I did seeing the exhibition itself.

As we all know, Elvis merchandise can range from the sublime to the chintzy. Fortunately, most of what VMFA had to offer was closer to the former category. No Elvis potato heads, thankfully. I picked up Elvis 1956: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer (2009), a terrific hardcover that presents all of the photos and information from the exhibition.

I also splurged on Elvis At 21: New York To Memphis by Alfred Wertheimer (2006), a massive, coffee-table sized volume that explores even more of his photographs.

Jerry Hopkins’ consolidated Elvis biography and Sonny West’s Still Taking Care Of Business were available there as well, as were some lesser titles. Anachronistic considering the theme of the exhibition, the omnipresent aviator-style Elvis sunglasses that he wore in the 1970s were also available – in both gold and silver plastic, of course. There was even a stuffed “Steve Allen” style hound dog. For this occasion, I stuck with the Wertheimer books.

* * *

For anyone who is ever near Richmond, Virginia, I can always recommend the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. If you are an Elvis fan, though, then you really should try to make it out while this exhibition is still there. Elvis At 21 will be available through March 18, 2012. Museum admission is always free, while tickets for the exhibition are $8 for adults and $6 for seniors, students, and youths. There is no charge for museum members.