The Rockabilly Pioneer Who Would Be King
Four decades after his death at the age of 42, Elvis Presley's impact on music is still being felt. Here, in honor of his birthday, are 40 of the best songs he ever recorded.
"Good Rockin' Tonight"
A 1947 jump blues song that seemed to predict the birth of rock and roll. Elvis Presley's 1954 rockabilly cover lives up to the title.
"That's All Right"
Another 1940s blues song, this one was written by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. Elvis (seen here with his parents in 1937) recorded his version one night in July 1954, and it caught the attention of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips,
An early-Elvis classic written by Memphis blues singer Junior Parker, this B-side (to the largely forgotten "I Forgot to Remember to Forget") became a surprise hit on Billboard's country chart.
"Baby Let's Play House"
The essence of rockabilly. John Lennon later lifted a couple of its lines ("I'd rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man") and worked them into the Beatles' "Run for Your Life."
Elvis' first No. 1 single was inspired by a newspaper story about a man who jumped out of a hotel window ("I walk a lonely street," he wrote in his suicide note). It was a rare Top 10 hit on three charts: pop, country and R&B.
"Blue Suede Shoes"
Elvis makes Carl Perkins' rock-and-roll standard his own.
"Just a Little Talk With Jesus"
It's a far cry from "Blue Suede Shoes." But this gospel song gives you a chance to hear the Million Dollar Quartet—Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash—when they had an unplanned and now legendary jam session at Sun Records on December 4, 1956. All four are great, but 21-year-old Elvis is the one who really shines.
"I Was the One"
He sure was. Just listen.
Rock and roll exploded with this 1956 megahit, which sparked national outrage and went on to become an iconic piece of American culture.
"Don't Be Cruel"
The flip side to "Hound Dog"—but not the B-side. The single became double-sided hit, topping the charts for 11 weeks and eventually selling more than 6 million copies.
"I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"
Elvis had trouble with this one. He did 17 takes, and his record company was unhappy with all of them. Then the producer from RCA Victor did some slicing and splicing to combine two of the takes, and the result is seamless.
"Mean Woman Blues"
Elvis performs this song in 1957's "Loving You," the first movie in which he had the lead role. The lip-synching isn't very persuasive, but the sound makes up for it.
The hard-rocking title song from Elvis's next movie is another one that inspired the Beatles, who performed it frequently back when they were the Quarrymen.
"Treat Me Nice"
The B-side to "Jailhouse Rock," this one isn't nearly as well-known, but it still stands up.
What it's like to spend the holidays in Heartbreak Hotel.
"Love Me Tender"
This simple, sentimental ballad—based on a song that dates back to the Civil War—may not have seemed like a good choice for the King of Rock and Roll. But it was.
"All Shook Up"
The No. 1 single of 1967, this rock and roll classic helped turn Elvis into a global phenomenon. It was his first song to top the charts in the U.K. as well as the U.S.
"I Beg of You"
You know what they say: 50,000,000 Elvis fans can't be wrong. Here's one of the reasons.
The title song from one of Elvis' few pretty good movies. Watch him jump "like a catfish on a pole."
Elvis (seen here saying goodbye to his parents before his 1958 induction into the U.S. Army) was often backed up by the vocal quartet the Jordanaires, and on this soulful No. 1 hit, their work is outstanding.
"A Big Hunk o' Love"
Elvis found time to record this rocking single during his two-year hitch in the Army
"I Got Stung"
The "G.I. Blues" would come later. Elvis made a stop in Nashville to record this upbeat tune just before heading to a U.S. Army base in Germany.
"(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"
Awwww. Yet another No. 1 hit—on the R&B and country charts, too.
"(Now and Then There's) A Fool Such as I"
Originally released as a B-side to "I Need Your Love Tonight," this song turned out to be an even bigger hit.
"It's Now or Never"
If this 1960 single sounds operatic, there's a reason. It's loosely based on "O Sole Mio," a traditional song covered by the likes of Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
A good suggestion from manager Colonel Tom Parker, who otherwise was steering Elvis in exactly the wrong direction—away from rock and roll and toward formulaic Hollywood movies.
"Can't Help Falling in Love"
Featured in 1961's "Blue Hawaii," this stirring pop ballad became the finale for many of the King's later concerts.
"Return to Sender"
Another post-rockabilly hit. Years later, when the U.S. Post Office issued an Elvis Presley commemorative stamp, many collectors reportedly put the stamp on envelopes with nonexistent addresses, hoping they would come back marked "Return to Sender."
"(You're the) Devil in Disguise"
This was the last Elvis song to reach the Top 10 on the R&B chart, though it sounds too mainstream for that. When longtime fan John Lennon heard it, he said Elvis was "like Bing Crosby now." Still, it's a memorable tune, with smooth backing from the Jordanaires.
"Tomorrow Is a Long Time"
Presley sings Dylan—beautifully. Bob had just released "Blonde on Blonde." He called Elvis' 1966 cover of his song "the one recording I treasure the most."
"Viva Las Vegas"
Although Elvis didn't like this one enough to perform it in concert, it captures the high spirits of Vegas before the '70s, when the town seemed to swallow him whole. The song was later covered by artists ranging from ZZ Top to the Dead Kennedys, not to mention Bugs Bunny.
"Crying in the Chapel"
Released as an "Easter special" in 1965, this was Elvis' only gospel song to become a Top 10 hit.
Hard to imagine this R&B song, which Elvis revived during the NBC prime-time concert now known as the '68 Comeback Special, on the soundtrack of one of his lightweight movies. (A version with more suggestive lyrics, recorded in 1957, wasn't released until 1983.)
"Baby What You Want Me to Do"
It was like Elvis came home. Returning to his roots, he also sang this blues song by Jimmy Reed on the NBC special.
"If I Can Dream"
This was the heartfelt finale of the '68 Comeback Special, with lyrics based on the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated earlier that year. When Elvis did a studio recording of the song, his backup singers were in tears.
"How Great Thou Art"
While growing up—first in a shotgun shack in rural Mississippi and later in Memphis—Elvis regularly attended Pentecostal church with his family. He loved gospel music and often returned to it, even during his Las Vegas period. Here's a prime example.
After the huge success of the NBC special. Elvis made another comeback with this song. It was his 18th (and last) No. 1 single.
"In the Ghetto"
Another Top 10 hit from that period, this poignant single tells a story of a boy growing up poor in ghetto of Chicago. It's the closest Elvis came to recording a protest song.
"Always on My Mind"
This country ballad really resonates if you know the backstory. The King recorded it in March 1972, the month after he separated from his wife, Priscilla (seen here with Elvis and their daughter, Lisa Marie).
Late Elvis that sounds a lot like early Elvis, partly because it's a cover of a 1964 rock and roll classic by Chuck Berry.
Sometimes flattery will get you everywhere
Thunder only happens when it's raining—and this band went through a downpour
Fresh perspectives on aging in films that are genuinely moving or funny—and often both
Hit singles of the '70s and early '80s that had only one mission—to make you get up and dance
The Backwoods Barbie who became a country-pop icon
Major stars whose performances landed on the cutting room floor