The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In March of 1958, Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army. He could’ve probably gotten out of it, but Col. Tom Parker, his manager, convinced Presley that a stint in the Army could be good for his image. Presley had plenty of offers to serve in the Special Services, staying in nicer housing and traveling around the world to entertain troops. Instead, possibly because he didn’t like the idea of anyone else profiting off of his performances, Presley decided to serve as a regular GI. Presley spent most of his two years in the Army stationed in West Germany. During his time as a serviceman, Presley mourned the death of his mother, met his 14-year-old future wife Priscilla, and got hooked on pills. He also knocked out exactly one recording session, and that’s where he made “A Big Hunk O’ Love.”
By the late ’50s, pop music was moving away from simplistic urgency of Presley’s older records. A whole new generation of teen idols was coming up, grinning and simpering, singing about crushes over lush orchestral flourishes. In that context, “A Big Hunk O’ Love” is almost shocking in its intensity. It’s a pretty standard rockabilly number, with a whole lot of hammering piano and a few wiry guitar stabs. And Presley sounds almost ferally horny: “Don’t be a stingy little mama / You’re ’bout to starve me half to death / Well, you can spare a kiss or two and still have plenty left.”
“A Big Hunk O’ Love” isn’t one of Presley’s better rockers. Those lyrics haven’t aged especially well, and Presley seems to be coasting more on persona than on actual vocals. The song doesn’t evoke anything. But it’s fun, largely because of backing singers the Jordanaires, whose cartoonish exhortations push the song to another level. (This was their first time recording with Presley, and they’d stay with him until his death.) Presley wouldn’t return to this sound much in his post-Army career, so this is a final wail from the young, hungry, threatening version of Presley. It’s a shame he went out on a pretty good song instead of a great one, but a pretty good song is still a pretty good song.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Residents’ self-consciously creepy art-rock version of “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” from the 1989 album The King & Eye: