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.
It should’ve been formulaic. It was formulaic — deeply so, at least on paper. Six months before “Surrender,” Elvis Presley had landed one of his biggest-ever hits with “It’s Now Or Never,” an Americanized version of an old Neapolitan ballad. So with “Surrender,” he merely did the same thing again, taking another old Neapolitan ballad (this one called “Torna A Surriento”) and having it reworked for his own voice.
The assignment went to Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, the same team behind the Drifters’ “Save The Last Dance For Me,” and they pretty much just turned it into a simplistic seduction song: “Let us take this night of magic and make it a night of love.” Boom. Money in the bank. This was deep schmaltz-mode Elvis, during a period when he could fart into a bag and chart at least as high as #8 with it. So “Surrender” was a total no-brainer. Of course it was going to sell. And it did. Obviously.
And yet “Surrender” is a weird song. The arrangement is like a Latin jazz version of a James Bond theme. It’s grand and sweeping and orchestral, but it just keeps jumping around, never settling still. Elvis sells it, but he doesn’t tap into any emotional truth in the song, the way he’d just done on “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” “Surrender” doesn’t have a deeper emotional truth like that. Instead, Presley hams it up, hitting all his affectations as hard as he can, sounding like a cartoon version of himself while the Jordanaires, his regular backing singers, do Western-movie ahhh-ahhhs around him. It’s not an all-time Elvis song or anything, but Presley took something that should’ve been a simple cash-in and made it into a resounding goof. Good on him.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Anna Calvi’s winningly deranged cover of “Surrender,” the B-side to her 2011 single “Blackout”: