In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing 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.
The young Elvis, the vengeful sex-demon who took the country by storm in the mid-’50s, was the best Elvis, the one who changed the world and completely rewrote the rulebook of American popular song. But that version of Elvis could’ve never recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and made it work. The Elvis of 1960 — the one who’d spent time in the Army, who had mainstream pop and film stardom in his sights and who could seemingly hit #1 anytime, at will — was the one who needed to make “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” He’s the one who found a way to exploit every drop of juice that the song ever had.
Like a lot of the songs that hit #1 in 1960, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” was an older song, though the version of it that Elvis took to #1 has essentially erased all previous versions from the pop memory. The Tin Pan Alley songwriters Roy Turk and Lou Handman wrote it in 1926, and vaudeville star Al Jolson had a hit with it in 1949. The mid-song spoken-word monologue was there from the beginning. Presley made it sound like he improvised it mid-take.
Elvis had recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” at the request of Col. Tom Parker, his manager; it had been a favorite of Parker’s wife’s. When Elvis got done recording it, he was convinced he hadn’t done it justice; he wanted it thrown away. The producers knew better. There’s echo on Presley’s vocal because an engineer left it on by mistake, but that echo lends a ghostly power to the spare, serene arrangement.
Presley had recorded plenty of ballads before, but “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” still ranks as one of his starkest, quietest songs. At first, he sounds broken and vulnerable, his voice tenderly reaching for its upper registers. It’s a soft seduction, but it abruptly becomes something else. The text of the song is Presley asking to rekindle a romance, but Presley’s reading says something else. On the spoken-word bit, he intones, “Honey, you lied when you said you loved me, and I had no cause to doubt you / But I’d rather go on hearing your lies than to go on living without you.” And the way he clamps down on “you lied” makes it plain that this is a revenge song. It’s not reconciliatory. It’s bitter as hell.
I haven’t seen a lot of Presley’s movies, but he did a better acting job on that bridge than in any of the actual movies I’ve seen. It’s a powerful piece of pop theater, and it showed that Elvis could bring the same sense of charged, sexy danger to drippy pop ballads that he brought to the rockers that made him famous in the first place.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Val Kilmer singing a sexy-consumerist take on “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in the 1984 movie Top Secret!:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” that Sam Kinison once sang on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, replacing the song’s subtext with, um, text by making the spoken-word passage into one of his unhinged rants: