By Bill Bronk
Elvis Presley, first known to the world as the hip-shaking “Hillbilly Cat,” and more colorfully as “Elvis the Pelvis,” rose to the top of the music charts beginning in the mid-1950s and easily and swiftly transformed himself into the more fitting “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” reigning supreme over his musical kingdom for a significant part of his storied life.
Recording over 700 songs, Elvis was born to sing. But there was more to Elvis than rock and roll. Whether singing ballads or raucous, up-tempo numbers, he could sing...well, just about anything and everything! Rock and roll, R&B, pop, country music, Christmas, gospel, folk...anything. He not only shared with us his soul, he put his whole heart, his whole being into everything he recorded. With his (almost) 3 octave range, he could perform spellbinding feats of vocal wizardry. He could magically bring you to another place with his ability to charm you and have you believing that he’s singing to you and you alone. Vocally, he had no fear and knew no boundaries. Nothing was impossible for him. He was a genius.... incomparable and unmatched by anyone else in the history of popular music.
Even though Elvis could masterfully sing whatever he set his mind to, in whatever genre he chose, with an endless reservoir of grit and sass, Elvis’ other innate gifts were his emotion-charged ability to turn on the sexual heat, to growl, and snap and shout with an aggressive in-your-face attitude (along with blistering tour-de-force performances), to wail and moan about being low down, lonely and bone-crushingly blue, to tug on the strings of whatever remained of a broken and bleeding heart. With deep and intense feeling, he sang the highs and he sang the lows and he sang like his life depended on it. And you believed every word. This is the stuff the Blues is about. Yeah, this too is Elvis’ turf. Elvis Aaron Presley was born to sing the Blues.
Over his almost quarter century career, Elvis recorded a rich trove of Blues gems. But RCA was inconsistent in how to handle Elvis’ Blues output...seemingly not knowing what to do with it. In 1985, they released Elvis—Reconsider Baby (aka Elvis Sings the Blues) as a 12 track CD: PCD1-5418. In blue vinyl, it was issued as RCA LP AFL1-5418. As welcome as that was, considering Elvis’ body of Blues songs, it was more a teaser than a comprehensive attempt to produce a knock-your-socks-off compilation. Perhaps it was a save face effort, in response to a 2-LP, 24 track collection, Elvis – Blue Rhythms issued in 1984 by Everest Records (West Germany). EPC 1000 was also issued in blue vinyl along with cassette EPK 1000.
Together, the 26 (different) tracks on the two collections is a reasonable representation of Elvis’ Blues material. But Elvis relished singing the Blues, and as any Elvis fan knows there’s a heck-of-a-lot more Blues stuff in his catalog. Enter Time Life Music (via BMG/RCA) in 1998...who, 13 years after Elvis-Reconsider Baby, released Elvis—The Elvis Presley Collection (07863-19407-2), a 26-CD collection encompassing every aspect of Elvis’ recording output. Included in one 31 track set were two CDs (both numbered R-406-08) which focused just on the Blues. Accounting for duplicates, Time-Life added 19 additional Blues songs for a total of 45 different tracks on the three Blues collections.
In 1992, BMG/RCA issued the 5 CD box set Elvis – The Complete 50s Masters (07863 66050-2). Disc 1 captures, in addition to 12 other 50s tracks, 18 of Elvis’ Sun Record tracks....including 5 tracks which are included in the above collections: “Tomorrow Night”, “When It Rains, It Really Pours”, “Trying to Get to You”, “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” and “Baby Let’s Play House”.
I’m no authority on the Blues. But if I (out-of-the-blue) was gifted by the BMG/RCA bigwigs with the opportunity to produce a comprehensive compilation of Elvis’ Blues material, I would include all 45 of the songs noted above, but I wouldn’t stop there. How about we round it off to an even 50...and include the following.... which would be right at home in such a collection: “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight” from Sun Records, “New Orleans,” another powerful Blues song from the “King Creole” movie and “Blue Christmas.” It may have started out as a Country/Pop song in 1948, but once Elvis got hold of “Blue Christmas” in 1957, well, you know the rest of the story.
Selecting the right key for a song depends on the vocal range of the singer and the mood to be established, among other considerations. That said, I’ve read that the keys of E, A, G (along with C and D) are most commonly used in Blues songs. The Blues is meant to be emotional....and the lyrics are often biting, raw and riven with jealousy, hurt, loneliness and longing. When Elvis sang the Blues, you know he meant business. So, when it comes, especially, to affairs of the heart, with Elvis, you get the full range of emotion from a wide range of keys. The fare doesn’t come cheap. When you climb onto Elvis’ Blues train, that’s what you paid the man for...and that’s just what you’re gonna get. And there are no refunds!
For Elvis fans, this would be one helluva collection to own! Here’s all 50 Elvis’ Blues sides alphabetically by decade, including the keys used on the original recordings:
1950s: “Anyplace Is Paradise”(Db), “Baby Let’s Play House” (E), “Blue Christmas” (E), “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (E), “I Need You So” (F), “I Want to Be Free” (E#), “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (A), “Mean Woman Blues” (C), “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” (A), “My Baby Left Me” (A), “Mystery Train” (E), “New Orleans” (C), “One Night” (E), “One Night of Sin” (E), “Reconsider Baby” (E), “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (F), “So Glad You’re Mine” (E), “Tell Me Why” (C), “That’s All Right” (A), “Tomorrow Night” (E), “Trouble” (C), “Trying to Get to You” (E), “When It Rains It Really Pours” (C).
1960s: “A Mess of Blues” (C), “After Loving You” (D), “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” (E), “Baby What You Want Me to Do” (E), “Big Boss Man” (G), “Down in the Alley” (Eb), “Fever” (Cm), “Give Me the Right” (C), “Hi-Heel Sneakers” (Eb), “I Feel So Bad” (E), “I Want You With Me” (C), “It Feels So Right” (Eb), “Like A Baby” (E), “Little Sister” (E), “Memphis Tennessee” (G), “My Babe” (E), “Stranger in My Own Home Town” (E), “Stuck On You” (G), “Such A Night” (E), “Tiger Man” (E), “Wearin’ That Loved On Look” (F), “What’d I Say” (E).
1970s: “Got My Mojo Working/Keep Your Hands Off Of It” (G), “Just A Little Bit” (E), “Merry Christmas Baby” (E), “Shake A Hand” (A), “Steamroller Blues” (E).
The Blues is not for everyone, certainly not for the faint of heart. When it comes to the Blues, Elvis spares nothing — using every ounce of emotion he can muster — to deliver to us the storm that’s brewing inside his heart, his mind and his soul. Elvis was born to sing the Blues. Amen to that!