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Presley’s Jukebox: Bob Dylan, Bobby Darin, Rick Nelson, Jerry Butler Shine on “Elvis Heard Them Here First”

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Though Elvis Presley rose through the ranks of Sun Records alongside artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins (his fellow members of the “Million Dollar Quartet,” if you will), Elvis and Jerry Lee differed from Johnny and Carl in that they primarily leaned upon the songs of others.  Cash and Perkins predated the pop-rock singer/songwriter revolution of the next decade, and in fact, harkened back to an older tradition in country and blues of performing your own material.

Yet by the time the King of Rock and Roll came out of the army, returned from Hollywood and reinvented himself on the concert stage, much had changed.  Armed with their guitars, Bob Dylan and The Beatles had proved that singers didn’t need a cadre of professional writers to craft their songs, whether from New York’s Brill Building or Nashville’s Music Row.  Soon, “singer/songwriter” would enter the lexicon, upping the emotional ante for these “confessional” writers.  “Covers” of existing hits were largely the province of adult-aimed “MOR” singers like Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis.  Where did this leave Elvis Presley?  Ace Records makes a compelling case with the new compilation Elvis Heard Them Here First that Presley simply continued to do what he had done all along: synthesize strains from a wide range of genres and songs into material that was always uniquely “Elvis.”

The 24-track compilation is based on Ace’s You Heard It Here First series, which presents original versions of songs made famous by other interpretive singers.  Producer Tony Rounce acknowledges in his introductory essay that the playing field was rather wide.  Even during those early Sun years, all but three of Elvis’ recordings on the label were of previously-performed songs.  Rather than limiting himself to one era, Rounce collects songs recorded by Elvis between his 1959 return from the Army and his death in 1977.  The disc avoids the overly familiar (Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” etc.) and offers up a fascinating journey through the records that just might have inspired Elvis to turn in some of his best vocals.

What songs will you hear?  Hit the jump!

Some of these songs, indeed, came from the ranks of the Brill Building.  Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had supplied Presley with many of his signature songs, are represented here with the original versions of “Bossa Nova Baby” (Tippie and the Clovers), “Girls, Girls, Girls” (The Coasters) and the truly unknown “Three Corn Patches” (T-Bone Walker, produced by Stoller himself).  Buddy Kaye and Phil Springer, whose catalogue stretched back to the 1940s, wrote “Never Ending” for Roger Douglass, issued by Elvis in 1964.  (It was the flipside of a cover of The Drifters’ “Such a Night,” not heard here!)

Probably the most famous songs in this impressive array are Mark (“Suspicious Minds”) James, Wayne Carson (“The Letter”) Thompson and Jordan Christopher’s “Always On My Mind,” heard here in its original recording by Brenda Lee; Mickey Newbury’s own recording of his “American Trilogy”; and Ray Peterson’s original of Baker Knight’s dramatic “The Wonder of You.”  The most wonderfully unlikely choice here may be “Fairytale,” a country pastiche written and first performed by The Pointer Sisters!  But Elvis’ songbook was always eclectic and frequently soulful.  Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive,” co-written with Philadelphia International’s Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and arranged by Thom Bell and Bobby Martin, gets an airing.

Elvis also didn’t overlook the singer/songwriters who were putting many professional songwriters out of business.  Tony Joe White’s “For Ol’ Times Sake” sits alongside Danny O’Keefe’s “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues” in an early version by The Bards.  You’ll also hear a song by none other than Bob Dylan.  Such is Dylan’s regard for the Ace team (with whom he previously collaborated on three volumes of Theme Time Radio Hour selections) that he consented to the inclusion of his original version of “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” recorded in 1963 but not issued until 1971 on his Greatest Hits Vol. II and a promo single.  Elvis committed the song to tape in 1966, and it’s been posited that Elvis knew the song from the recordings of either Odetta or Ian and Sylvia.  Dylan, for his part, has long treasured Presley’s rendition.

Elvis Heard Them Here First includes an indispensable 18-page booklet with track-by-track annotations and some impossibly rare label scans.  It’s available now from Ace, and you can order below!

Various Artists, Elvis Heard Them Here First! (Ace CHCHD 1332, 2012 – Amazon U.S./U.K.)

  1. I Want You with Me – Bobby Darin (Atco LP 1001, 1960)
  2. The Girl of My Best Friend – Charlie Blackwell (Warner Bros. 5132, 1959)
  3. Bossa Nova Baby – Tippie and the Clovers (Tiger 201, 1962)
  4. I’m Comin’ Home –Carl Mann (Philips International 3555, 1960)
  5. The Wonder of You – Ray Peterson (RCA 7513, 1959)
  6. Girl Next Door – Thomas Wayne (Fernwood 122, 1959)
  7. Find Out What’s Happening – The Spidells feat. Billy Lockridge (Monza 1122, 1964)
  8. Never Ending – Roger Douglass (Mercury 72017, 1962)
  9. Girls, Girls, Girls (Part 2) – The Coasters (Atco 6204, 1961)
  10. Long Black Limousine – Vern Stovall (Crest 1080, 1961)
  11. If I’m a Fool for Loving You – Bobby Wood (Joy 285, 1964)
  12. Stop, Look and Listen – Rick Nelson (Decca LP DL-74608, 1964)
  13. Tomorrow is a Long Time – Bob Dylan (Columbia LP KG-31120, 1971)
  14. Guitar Man – Jerry Reed (RCA 47-9152, 1967)
  15. Always on My Mind – Brenda Lee (Decca 32975, 1972)
  16. Only the Strong Survive – Jerry Butler (Mercury 72898, 1969)
  17. Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues – The Bards (Jerden 907, 1969)
  18. True Love Travels on a Gravel Road – Duane Dee (Capitol 2332, 1968)
  19. I’ve Lost You – Matthews’ Southern Comfort (Decca LP DL-75191, 1969)
  20. Three Corn Patches – T-Bone Walker (Reprise LP 2XS 6483, 1973)
  21. Pieces of My Life – Charlie Rich (Epic LP PE-33250, 1974)
  22. For Ol’ Times Sake – Tony Joe White (Warner Bros. LP BS-2708, 1973)
  23. Fairytale – The Pointer Sisters (Blue Thumb 254, 1974)
  24. An American Trilogy – Mickey Newbury (Elektra 45750, 1971)

Written by Joe Marchese

April 24, 2012 at 15:12

9 Responses

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  1. Although I understand where you are coming from when you say music fans began demanding that singers also be their own songwriters, I think this point is often overblown and does not represent reality. Covers were NOT limited to M-O-R singers. Many or most soul artists primaily recorded songs by other writers, and numerous rock acts did as well.

    If there ever was an emphasis on singers doing their own material, it had more to do with royalty arrangements and the singer’s management than it did with popular tastes. I really think that the music public did not care who wrote a song. It was whether that song appealed to them, for whatever reasons

    Kevin

    April 24, 2012 at 15:30

    • Thanks for reading, Kevin. Certainly miles of ink have been expended on tomes looking at the singer/songwriter revolution and how it affected the music industry and the craft of professional songwriting, and I’m not going to spend any more time going into that here. But I appreciate your insights. Of course, Dylan and The Beatles weren’t the first to record their own songs; in addition to those artists in the country and blues traditions (as I mention above), Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer all recorded their own contributions to the Great American Songbook. And of course The Beatles, Dylan, etc. didn’t put a definitive end to young singers recording songs written by others.

      But there’s no denying the impact that singer/songwriters had on interpretive singers and professional songwriters alike. Rock writers (you know who they are) created a bias that still does exist today. While you’ll find plenty of covers of existing songs on albums by young jazz/vocals singers or “Top 40” pop singers, it’s much harder to find a new “rock” act relying on songs written by others. Writers and fans alike would doubt that singer’s “authenticity.” I don’t agree with this; it’s also something for another venue to explore how the advent of the singer/songwriter put out of work many “professional songwriters” who possessed the craft many of the new breed lacked. But you were far more likely to find a cover of “Spinning Wheel” on a Sammy Davis Jr. or Jack Jones album than on one by Lennon, McCartney, Dylan, Mitchell or Taylor. (And that’s no knock on those singers or any other; anybody reading this knows the depth of my affection for popular singers and the Robert Goulets and Andy Williamses of the world.) Demands were simply different of these young, guitar-wielding creators, and their material was often becoming too personal to be “believably” covered by others, as well. Even Sinatra, arguably the greatest intrepretive singer of all time, struggled during this period of which I speak above, recording Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and other songs that some might have considered ill-advised.

      Again, sometimes it’s difficult not to generalize. And so while I stand by the accuracy of my statements above, know that I appreciate and recognize all of the exceptions to “the rule.”

      Joe Marchese

      April 24, 2012 at 16:33

  2. It’s my experience that people who don’t like Elvis will seize on the fact that he didn’t write his own songs as evidence that his music is bad, but I don’t necessarily see a causal connection. One might argue that a singer-songwriter as an individual has a greater overall talent than Elvis did, but in listening to some of the outtakes and rehearsals that the Presley estate has released through the FTD label, one can hear just how much of Presley’s musical instinct was entirely his own, either by how he would arrange (and re-arrange) a song in the studio to make it his own, or in the Hollywood sessions, where it is all too apparent the extent to which the soundtrack producers would–not always successfully–reign in his performances. Granted, Presley was not a songwriter, but he certainly wasn’t a musical hack.

    That said, this looks like a cool CD–I haven’t heard most of these tracks.

    Hank

    April 24, 2012 at 22:57

    • Indeed, Hank. Well said. The art of interpretive singing is every bit as much a valid and distinct art as that of songwriting. Some are great songwriters, some are great singers, and some are both. I’ve never understood the rap of “he lacks authenticity” as aimed at an Elvis or the other rock-era figures who relied on outside songs. I think you’ll dig this CD as much as I did; there’s some fantastic material on it, and it’s instructive to see just how much Elvis shaped the songs to his own unique personality and style.

      Joe Marchese

      April 24, 2012 at 23:15

    • Some elitists didn’t like Elvis just because he was so damn popular.

      Quite often, an artist is popular because he is great.

      Kevin

      April 27, 2012 at 14:28

  3. This is a good collection. I am old enough to remember watching Matthews Southern Comfort sing I’ve Lost You on the BBC. They had a pleasant sound but disappeared quite quickly. I do not doubt it but I am surprised that Stop Look And Listen was a cover of a Ricky Nelson original. I had assumed it was movie pap.

    Howard Jackson

    April 25, 2012 at 06:23

  4. This is an interesting CD. Elvis consistently takes what is largely uninspired material and transforms it, as an interpreter of songs he was unsurpassed. However no one seems to have noticed that the Charlie rich version of Pieces of my life, is NOT the same song that Elvis recorded. I’m amazed that ACE let that one through quality control.

    Karl Evans

    April 25, 2012 at 14:13

    • ACE sent me a new disk with the correct track!

      Dave

      April 26, 2012 at 07:36

  5. Excellent collection indeed! Even though I beg to differ regarding the Dylan track: I’m sure Presley heard “Tomorrow Is A First Time” first by Odetta, on the RCA album “Odetta Sings Dylan”, released in 1965. The similarity to Presley’s version of “Spin Out” (1966) is striking! And Dylan’s 1963 live version was not released until 1971, as correctly noted.

    Cheers

    Martin Schaefer (Basel, Switzerland)

    Martin Schäfer

    November 1, 2014 at 05:57


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