Silky-smooth and warm-hearted, this song tells a tale of love that chills me every time: “I’d rather live in his world…than live without him in mine.” This is to Motown as Bonnard is to the Impressionists; it incorporates the innovations but adds the veneer of a later decade. The Pips in the background echo the moves of the Temptations, but their vocals don’t merely echo the lead singer, they advance the story! Gladys: “LA…grew too much for the man.” Pips: “…too much for the man – he couldn’t make it.” Gladys: “…..superstar” Pips: “A superstar, but he didn’t get far.” The instrumentation is unsurpassed. The chorus of strings flows and swells, then the Memphis horns punch in, eliminating any threat of mawkishness. Then from her controlled narrative voice, Gladys erupts at the end with a guttural “I got to go, I got to go” that just makes you wish she didn’t. Let that train keep rolling on. “Woo-hoo!”
This is the first song whose opening bars made me run to my room, close the door and sing along – yes, often in front of the mirror – pretending, or hoping, to be a rock star. I am not ashamed: Elvis had that effect on many, and Don’t Be Cruel is the quintessential Elvis. That five-note introductory guitar riff raises the speed from zero to sixty in four bars, just in time for Elvis to strut: “You-u-u know I can be found…” The Elvis yodel that set hearts aflame makes its presence felt: “Baby it’s just you I’m [glottal stop]-thinkin’ of.” Words are slurred – “believemeyouknowyou’llhave me” – but they’d be covered by the screaming anyway. The Jordanaires in the background are at their best, with staccato fillers behind the words of the verse, then a dreamy “ooh-we-ooh” following the King’s subdued “don’t be cruel.” And before you know it – in two minutes flat – it’s over, and you can’t wait for the radio to play it again.
B Side: The Elvis Oeuvre
For someone universally acknowledged as the King of Rock’n’Roll, with more records sold and #1 hits than anyone, give or take the Beatles, Elvis is conspicuously absent from the radio airwaves, and has been for 30 years. Granted, most oldies stations don’t go back beyond Motown, and “classic” tends more toward 20 years ago, not 50. Granted, a two-minute record doesn’t “fit” the modern playlist (but cf. the Ramones); and Elvis songs weren’t kept alive by being danceable. But with all those millions of people still buying Elvis memorabilia and visiting Graceland, you’d think that somewhere they’d play his music.
Elvis’s oeuvre can be divided into four distinct periods. There is early, Primitive Elvis, captured in the Sun Sessions (his greatest record), when we hear the genius who combined white country-and-western with black rhythm-and-blues to produce the raw, honest, urgent sound that propelled rock’n’roll. Then Elvis is cleaned up – adding the Jordanaires in the background, for instance – for a more commercial, but still urgent sound that is Classic Elvis. It didn’t get any better than Love Me, Too Much, All Shook Up, Don’t – and the song I liked most to “croon,” I Want You, I Need You, I Love You. Then Elvis loses a bit of steam, or gets co-opted by his terrible movie career and puts out records that are still good but don’t have that rock’n’roll intensity, songs that are carried only by his voice, a period I call Pro Forma Elvis: Stuck On You, Can’t Help Falling In Love, Good Luck Charm. Finally, there is the Revival Elvis. Seven years after Return to Sender he reappears with In the Ghetto, a new sound influenced by the Sixties. Popping pills, fighting his weight, getting divorced and living a screwy existence, trying out country, gospel, cabaret, Elvis still delivers some nice songs: Kentucky Rain, The Wonder of You, My Way, and one of my obscure favorites, True Love Travels on a Gravel Road. He should be played more often.
A sprightly guitar is joined by a pedal steel that wails then meanders through the song introducing this happy parable of musicians abandoning pop, folk and classical (?), respectively, to hop on the country bandwagon – “the whole world has gone country,” by the end. There’s an insistent backbeat that relates to rock, but the happy sound and clarity of the lyrics are country endemic. And what fun are all the near-rhymes: “Village-privilege,” “Vegas-ages,” “composition-children.” The song consciously offers a bridge for us rockers to the world of country: “they’re not as backward as they used to be.” A fiddle countermelody and honky-tonk piano add to the tapestry. After everyone is indoctrinated – “look at them boots” – the song rambles along for another 60 seconds of spright before sliding out with my favorite Alan Jackson expression, “We gone!”
Sidebar: Country Rock
There has always been an overlap between “country” and “rock,” with numbers like Sonny James’s Young Love and Guy Mitchell’s Singing the Blues topping my personal charts alongside Fats Domino and Little Richard. I had a thing for Buck Owens in college; but, Ringo Starr homage aside, that was still hee-haw country. It was getting hooked on Randy Travis’s Deeper than the Holler that turned me onto the potential likability of new country. Then I “discovered” Garth Brooks, Reba McIntire, Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dixie Chicks. I could now, without missing a beat, come up with a companion Country Top 25 that wouldn’t span as many years or emotions but would be full of songs that were, at their time, my favorites. Like Trisha Yearwood’s She’s in Love with the Boy, Chad Brock’s She Said Yes, Kenny Chesney’s How Forever Feels, Sara Evans’ Suds in the Bucket, and Alan Jackson/Jimmy Buffett’s Five O’Clock Somewhere. And while I’m on the subject of crossover music, there is another middle ground, somewhere not quite rock, not quite country, that maybe is called “urban folk,” where we find Nancy Griffith, Emmylou Harris, John Gorka and a host of others who have also added so much pleasure to my “rock” years.
It is hard to think of another under-three-minute pop song that draws one more quickly or more surely into its ethereal world of lost romance. After years of rapt listening, I have only the vaguest idea what the singer is singing. Something about a “sign that points one-way” and “your name and mine inside a heart upon the wall,” clearly Rimbaud-like images that find a way to haunt us, though they’re so small. The lush orchestration never lets up: it starts at intense then, two-thirds through, there is a crescendo before the final verse that ratchets the angst even higher. But it is the ultra-nasal vocal that, finally, vaults Renee into the pantheon. In my mind’s eye I see the lead singer, fronting the string section with his mournful delivery, his heart breaking, his lips never moving.
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