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The Originals Vol. 13 – Elvis edition 1

January 8th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

After a three-months absence, The Originals are returning. I must admit to having been discouraged from continuing it after more than half of the previous instalments were DMCAed by Blogger. Happily, the deleted posts were all backed up and are available here. So we resume this series of the lesser known original songs of hits with the first of what may end up to be three or four Elvis Presley specials, the first of them timed to coincide with our man’s 74th birthday.

Roy Brown – Good Rockin’ Tonight.mp3
Wynonie Harris – Good Rockin’ Tonight.mp3

Elvis Presley – Good Rockin’ Tonight.mp3

Some say that Good Rockin’ Tonight was the proto Rock ‘n’ Roll record. Of course, any claim of inaugurating Rock ‘n’ Roll is impossible to validate because the genre was the result of a musical evolution (and it is still evolving). What can be said is that the song, and most certainly Wynonie Harris’ 1948 cover, was influential in that evolution. Another vital element in that evolution was the advent of Elvis Presley’s stardom. Good Rockin’ Tonight was his second single, following his cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s Alright Mama. So it is faintly ironic that Presley’s version draws more from Brown’s 1947 jump blues original (deleting, however, the by then outdated litany of R&B figures) than from Harris’ R&B cover.

It was not the most popular of Elvis’ early tunes; his still mostly country audience was still unsure about the influence of what was then called “race music” on the future legend’s sound. In those embryonic days of Elvis’ stardom, his most popular song seemed to be the flip side of That’s Alright, Blue Moon Of Kentucky.

Also recorded by: Rick Nelson (1958), Pat Boone, James Brown, Shakin’ Stevens and The Sunsets (1972), Jerry Lee Lewis (1979), Gene Summers (1981), Contraband (1991), Paul McCartney (1991)

Carl Perkins – Blues Suede Shoes.mp3
Elvis Presley – Blues Suede Shoes.mp3

It is difficult to pinpoint at which point Elvis became a superstar, or with which hit. He was a local star as soon as his debut single hit the Memphis airwaves, and a regional star soon after. Arguably, his nascent stardom was not built so much on hit recordings than on his incendiary performances delivered on intensive tours. On these tours, he often shared a bill with his Sun labelmates Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

It was on one such tour in November 1955, in Gladewater, Texas, that Cash gave Perkins the idea for a song (in return for Perkins inspiring the title for Cash’s future hit I Walk The Line), based on a catchphrase by one C.V. White, an African-American GI Cash had served with in West Germany. White, the story as told by one of Cash’s GI friends goes, was about to go out for the weekend when another soldier accidentally trod on White’s black army issue shoes, whereupon White exclaimed: “I don’t care what you do with my Fräulein or what you do with whatever, but don’t step on my blues suede shoes.” The joke, obviously, was that White was not actually wearing such shoes (which, in any case, where not in fashion), but regulation issue army shoes. Soon after, Perkins was at a dance when he saw a young man being visibly upset with his pretty date for stepping on his, you guessed it, blue suede shoes. Sufficiently inspired, he immediately wrote the lyrics on a paper potato sack, giving birth to one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s great classics.

It may have been the first true crossover record; it certainly was the first to chart simultaneously in the pop, country and R&B charts, in early 1956. As the song was rising in the charts, Perkins was laid low by a serious car crash on the way to performing his hit on the Ed Sullivan Show. While he was recuperating, he heard former Sun labelmate Elvis announcing on the Milton Berle Show that his next single would be Blues Suede Shoes, which he proceeded to perform, as he would twice more before releasing the single. Although Perkins was unable to promote the song further, it went on to sell more than a million copies. By arrangement, Elvis waited until Perkins’ version had peaked. Released so soon after Perkins’ hit, Elvis’ version reached no higher than #20 on the charts. Yet, public consciousness associates the song more closely with Elvis than with its author, possibly because he performed it several times on television, and riffed on the footwear in a few skits on these shows.

Perkins, whose career or health never really recovered from the car crash, was philosophical about Elvis scoring the more lasting hit, saying that Presley had the image and the looks, and he did not. He surely was less placid about not receiving writer’s royalties until a court found in his favour in 1977.

Also recorded by: Roy Hall (1956), Boyd Bennett and His Rockets (1956), Cliff Richard and The Shadows (1959), Bill Haley and His Comets (1960), Conway Twitty (1960), Eddie Cochran (1962), Dave Clark Five (1965), Beacon Street Union (1968), John Lennon (1969), Ross McManus (1970), Albert King (1970), Johnny Halliday (1971), Jimi Hendrix (1972), Johnny Rivers (1973), Dean Reed (1976), Merle Haggard (1977), Ry Cooder (1982), Toy Dolls (1983), The Residents (1989), Lemmy & The Upsetters (1990), Medicine Head (1994), Agents & Scotty Moore & DJ Fontana (2001) a.o.

Glen Reeves – Heartbreak Hotel.mp3
Elvis Presley – Heartbreak Hotel.mp3

Elvis’ national breakthrough hit was written by Thomas Durden and Mae Boren Axton (school teacher, mother of Hoyt Axton, some-time associate of “Colonel” Tom Parker, manager of Hank Snow and “Queen Mother of Nashville”), with Elvis specifically in mind. Durden got the idea for the song when he read about a Florida man whose suicide note ended with the elegiac line: “I walk a lonely street.” Durden and Axton had asked their friend Glen Reeves to help write the song. Reeves declined but did record the demo in what he believed to be Elvis’ style. Presented with the demo, Elvis insisted that this should be his first single for RCA (the deal with whom Axton had mediated).

Elvis’ version (which featured Chet Atkins on guitar) is structurally little different from Reeve’s demo, and even the vocals don’t depart much from Reeve’s template. Still, Presley received an utterly undeserved co-writer credit, apparently at the insistence of Parker as a reward for recording the song in first place. One has to admire that bastard’s nerve. Durden defended the added credit by saying that Presley’s take changed the song substantially from the original. Mr Durden clearly was a more gracious individual than most of us.

Also recorded by: Stan Freberg (1956), Connie Francis (1959), Conway Twitty (1960), Scotty Moore (1964), Buddy Love (1964), Sha Na Na (1969), Albert King (1970), Ross McManus (1970), Frijid Pink (October 1970), Delaney Bramlett (1971), Johnny Halliday (1974), John Cale (1974), The James Gang (1975), Johnny Farago (1976), Suzi Quatro (1977), Merle Haggard (1977), Tanya Tucker (1978), Ronnie McDowell (1978), Ral Donner (1979), Willie and Leon (1979), The Vandals (1982), The Residents (1989), The Chipmunks (1990), Dread Zeppelin (1990), Neil Diamond & Kim Carnes (1992), Billy Joel (1992), Lynyrd Skynyrd (1994), El Vez (1999), Lemmy & Friends (2000), Helmut Lotti (2002) a.o.

Smiley Lewis – One Night Of Sin.mp3
Elvis Presley – One Night.mp3

The dentally-challenged Smiley Lewis (who featured earlier in this series with I Hear You Knocking) was an influential R&B singer who never accomplished legendary status. And then Elvis even emasculated his R&B hit about the attraction of a desperate one-night stand. Where Smiley in 1956 asked for one night of sin, Elvis a year later went for the more ambiguous and less sexual “one night with you” (which might, for all we care, be spent holding hands). Elvis also recorded a version with the original lyrics, which went unreleased until a few years ago, when it appeared on a box set.

Lewis’ version was a hit on the R&B charts, but failed to crack the pop charts. Written by Dave Bartholomew and Dave King, One Night was among the many Elvis songs which his label, RCA, held over for release while he was in the army. It finally came out in 1958, as a double A-side with I Got Stung, and reached #2 on the US charts, and in 1959 #1 in the UK.

Also recorded by: Fats Domino (1961), Johnny Farago (1967), Albert King (1970), Jackie Brown (1971), Tami Lynn (1971), Shakin’ Stevens and The Sunsets (1972), Fancy (1974), Mud (1975), Ronnie McDowell (1978), José Feliciano (1983), Joe Cocker (1989), Billy Ray Cyrus (1994), Helmut Lotti (2002)

Hank Snow – (Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I.mp3
Elvis Presley – A Fool Such As I.mp3

Canadian-born country icon Hank Snow can be described as one of the most significant men in Elvis’ career. As a youngster, Elvis was a big fan of country’s two big Hanks — Williams and Snow. Their music influenced the young Presley, who did regard himself as a country singer, with pretensions towards white gospel, before the term Rock ‘n’ Roll gained currency (which did not prevent the wife-beating gospel singer Ira Louvain from calling an initially admiring Elvis to his face a “white nigger”, or a variation thereof).

It was Snow who gave Elvis a supporting slot at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, the mecca of country music. And it was Snow who cultivated Elvis when Tom Parker wanted to sign the young singer. Indeed, the clean-cut Snow persuaded Elvis’ mother, Gladys, that her son would be well looked after under a new management which would include his tutorship. Driving home after the decisive meeting, a pleased Snow mentioned to Parker that they would earn good money from managing Elvis. With the ink on the contract barely dry, Parker instructed Snow to read it: it made no mention of Snow whatsoever. The “Colonel” had pulled his first vicious trick as Elvis’ manager.

The Elvis cover of Snow’s 1952 song A Fool Such As I (which Snow co-wrote with Bill Trader and first appeared as a single b-side), was released in March 1959 and was a US #2 and UK #1 hit. While Jo Stafford enjoyed a hit with it a year after Snow’s recording, it is most probable that Elvis was inspired by Snow’s more mournful (and, it must be said, superior) version.

Also recorded by: Jo Stafford (1953), Tommy Edwards (1953), The Bell Susters (1953), The Robins (1953), Eddy Arnold (1956), Bill Haley and His Comets (1959), Jim Reeves (1959), Petula Clark (1960), Doris Day (1963), Davy Kaye (1964), Bob Dylan (1967 & 1969, released in 1973), Rodney Crowell (1978), Ral Donner (1979), Peabo Bryson (1981), The Residents (1989), Bailie & the Boys (1990), Don Walsere (1998), Anne Murray (2002), Raul Malo (2007), Batmobile (2007), Josh Ritter (2008) a.o.

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  1. W
    January 8th, 2009 at 15:23 | #1

    An exceptional post! I knew some of the originals, but I’d never made the Smiley Lewis or Hank Snow connections, and I certainly didn’t know the story behind Heartbreak Hotel. Thanks. W.

  2. February 16th, 2009 at 11:00 | #2

    that’s an amazing story… i had no idea that there was such dirty business from that fake colonel even then….
    living and learning,
    dugg

  3. February 16th, 2009 at 12:18 | #3

    I would have loved to see Hank Snow’s face when they were sitting in the car and Parker told him to read the contract. The feeling of having been used and ripped off, and the bastard who did that sitting right next to you, and you can’t say anything. I bet you could hear Snow’s heart sink, the sound of the Coyote falling off a cliff in the hunt for the roadrunner.

  4. April 13th, 2009 at 14:07 | #4

    Wonderful post. I’m afraid I ripped off your Glen Reeves track, for a post I did on “Heartbreak Hotel.”

    11 Versions!
    http://shellgrowback.blogspot.com/2009/04/multiple-mondays-heartbreak-hotel.html

  5. Mike
    November 6th, 2015 at 07:09 | #5

    Another “One Night” cover: Roy Head, who in 1976 was trying to break into the country market while still retaining some of his blue-eyed soul.

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