By Gillian G. Gaar
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Whether you heard it on a jukebox, on the radio or at the movies, Elvis’ music left an indelible mark on popular culture. Here are a few of our favorite performances.
“That’s All Right”
(Sun Records, 1954)
Though not the first rock ’n’ roll single, it crystallized the moment when Elvis and Sun Records made their leap into history, crafting an innovative new sound drawn from the many musical influences they were steeped in. It was also the first example of how Elvis could make a cover song truly his own.
This was the track that kicked the door wide open for rock ’n’ roll. Its stark sound, coupled with Elvis’ desperate, haunted vocal, was unlike anything mainstream radio had encountered before.
(“The Milton Berle Show,” June 5, 1956)
The single sizzled, but it was Elvis’ extended performance of this song on “The Milton Berle Show” that really got the country all shook up. No one had ever seen a male singer bump and grind as Elvis did, which set a bold new standard for how male performers could move on stage.
“Don’t Be Cruel”
This number skillfully toned down the hard edges of rock ’n’ roll without losing any of the punch. The pop influence on this Otis Blackwell-penned number allowed Elvis to really swing vocally.
Most major singers eventually record a Christmas album, and Elvis was no exception. But very few of them record an original song that then becomes part of the Christmas canon, as this one has.
(Jailhouse Rock film, 1957)
You can’t hear this classic song without visualizing Elvis in the equally classic “jailhouse” outfit he wore in the best musical number of all his films — a sequence that could possibly be the first rock music video. It’s also features one of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s cleverest lyrics.
“It’s Now Or Never”
Back from his army service, ready to jump-start his career, this was the first track that fully displayed Elvis’ impressive vocal range, and how he was continuing to mature as a singer.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
Elvis was always partial to ballads. What could have become schmaltz is instead deeply heartfelt, displaying the kind of genuine warmth and sincerity generally missing from his film performances.
“Can’t Help Falling In Love”
A key song from the film that set the template for the bulk of Elvis’ ’60s movie career. This slice of mellow, even dreamy, pop might have been lightweight fluff to another singer, but Elvis’ performance gives it a greater depth.
(Elvis TV special, 1968)
Elvis’ reunion with Scotty Moore and Bill Black on his 1968 “Comeback Special” has been called “the first Unplugged.” And even though Scotty and Elvis trade licks on an electric guitar the comparison is an apt one, for the lack of full instrumentation strips his performance down to pure raw emotion, especially evident on this track.
“If I Can Dream”
(Elvis TV special, 1968)
Elvis’ passionate plea for peace and understanding provided a welcome salve at the end of one of the most turbulent years in America’s history. His majestic rendition of the song on the Elvis special re-established Elvis as a vital, relevant performer.
“In The Ghetto”
Building on the “message” theme of “If I Can Dream,” Elvis addressed America’s race issues with quiet, understated authority. It was a clear demonstration of how you didn’t need strident sloganeering to make a powerful political statement.
(“Elvis: That’s The Way It Is,” 1970)
Broken relationships were the dominant theme of the songs Elvis recorded in his final years. This song’s intensity made it a natural for live performance, and it quickly became the centerpiece of Elvis’ shows, becoming a physical, as much as a vocal workout.
(“Aloha From Hawaii” TV special, 1973)
Not many singers can stamp their own personality on someone else’s signature song, but Elvis managed to do so in front of the entire world, on his landmark satellite special. As the decade went on, it became even more poignant, as you can hear on Elvis In Concert, recorded at one of his final shows in 1977.
“Viva Las Vegas”
One of the few movie songs from the 1960s that can be called excellent (so good it’s featured in the film twice!) this track barely scraped into the Top 30 on its first release. Today this number is the unofficial theme song of Las Vegas.
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