by Chris M. Junior
As Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker loomed large in the legendary singer’s professional life. When it came to Presley’s music, though, Parker made it a point not to interfere.
Ironically, Parker played a key role in Presley recording what would become one of his biggest and most enduring hits, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” But Presley’s interpretation of the song is noteworthy for more than Parker’s involvement. In terms of chart history, Presley’s rendition -- recorded half a century ago -- capped the last calendar year in which he had as many as three No. 1 hits on Billboard magazine’s main pop singles charts.
Presley had maintained a steady Billboard presence during his U.S. Army stint thanks to a surplus of in-the-can recordings. But his return to chart domination following his March 1960 return to civilian life was the result of a full-fledged comeback effort. And there was no better place for Presley to begin his comeback than in Nashville, Tenn., at RCA’s Studio B, the site of his last formal sessions before being shipped off to Germany.
Presley’s first post-Army sessions were held March 20 and 21 at Studio B and resulted in six completed songs, according to the authoritative Ernst Jorgensen book “Elvis Presley: A Life in Music – The Complete Recording Sessions.” “Stuck on You,” the most notable of the bunch, became his first post-Army No. 1 pop hit.
On April 3, one month to the day Sgt. Presley landed at New Jersey’s McGuire Air Force Base for a press conference marking the start of his post-military career, the 25-year-old singer was back at RCA’s Studio B. According to Jorgensen’s book, RCA had an April 5 deadline to receive the master recordings for Presley’s next album. That meant Presley and the backing performers -- among them the vocal group the Jordanaires -- had a lot of work to do in a short period of time.
By about 4 a.m. on April 4, they had recorded seven songs. As Jorgensen describes in “The Complete Recording Sessions,” Presley and the musicians “pressed on” for a few more hours, “pulling songs out of the air” in order to have enough material recorded in time for RCA’s deadline. (Around the same time he needed to finish the album, Presley was about to revive his film career with “G.I. Blues.”)
Enter Colonel Parker’s contribution, which he had originally suggested in 1959, when there was a possibility Presley would record in Germany, according to Jorgensen’s book. “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” which had previously been recorded by Al Jolson and Jaye P. Morgan, was a favorite of Parker’s wife, Marie.
In retrospect, Jordanaires singer Gordon Stoker believes Presley was already familiar with the song before recording it. Typically, according to Stoker, Freddy Bienstock (who was in charge of finding material for Presley) would play demos of songs under consideration for the star. But Stoker says there was something about the way Presley “started right off the bat” singing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” that, 50 years later, he’s pretty sure Bienstock didn’t play a demo version for Presley.
One of the legendary footnotes about Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” session was the dim lighting in Studio B as the song was recorded.
“He liked for the lights to be turned down low,” recalls Stoker. “As a matter of fact, the lights were turned down low so many times, we couldn’t see our parts.”
Stoker’s recollection is the same as fellow Jordanaires singer Ray Walker, who adds that it “wasn’t anything out of the ordinary” for Presley to darken the studio while recording.
But what was out of the ordinary with regard to “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (other than Parker suggesting the song to Presley) was some crafty editing that essentially saved it from the scrap heap.
John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, remembers Studio B chief engineer Bill Porter telling him that Presley was leaning toward abandoning the song because there was a glitch at the very end of the fifth take.
But Steve Sholes, an A&R representative for RCA, had a feeling it would be a hit, so he suggested to Presley that he redo the ending. That way, Porter could splice it on and the song would be complete.
“So then they did the ending, and it was fine,” Rumble says. “Then Sholes tells Porter, ‘Bill, I want you to run this tape as far as you can before you splice the ending on.’ Porter took him at his word, and he made the splice between the syllables of the word ‘tonight.’ So ‘to’ is on the take that they were going to keep, and then the ‘night’ is the short little piece on which they recorded only the ending.”
Rumble adds, “ ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?,’ one of [Presley’s] most beloved songs, almost didn’t happen because they messed up the end.”
Presley’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (it has also been listed as “Are You Lonesome To-night?”) made its Billboard Hot 100 debut on Nov. 14, 1960. It hit No. 1 on Nov. 28, and it stayed in the top spot for six weeks; his other No. 1 pop hits in 1960 were “Stuck on You” (four weeks) and “It’s Now or Never” (five weeks).
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?” can be found on “Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight,” a four-disc Presley boxed set released last year on RCA/Legacy.
Turn to the Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records, 1950-1975, 6th Edition for complete vinyl values and identification guide for Lionel Richie and thousands of other acts.
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