22. Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley

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.

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