Even people who don’t like Elvis Presley can probably name some of his best-known songs—“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Me Tender,” “Suspicious Minds.” And the standard overview of his career runs something like this: hip-swiveling hillbilly wildcat brings rock ‘n’ roll to the masses, is tamed by a stint in the U.S. Army, goes on to make a series of lousy movies, and descends into a world of schmaltz in Las Vegas, before years of ill health lead to his untimely death at age 42.
The truth, as always, is more nuanced. There was more to Presley than rock ‘n’ roll even from the beginning. There were actually some gems among the movie songs (“Viva Las Vegas,” “Return to Sender”), and until he got bored with the routine, he was one the most exciting performers to appear in Las Vegas. Classic radio and best-of collections tend to highlight the same numbers over and over again. But this is a man who recorded well over 700 songs in a variety of genres like rock, pop, R&B, country, blues, gospel, and folk. And when he had a song worthy of his talents, he invariably turned in a superlative performance.
In an effort to continue exploring the catalog of this prolific, canonic artist, here are 10 of the best forgotten Elvis songs ripe for rediscovery.
Presley recorded some extraordinary songs when he launched his career at Sun Records—classics like “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” and “Good Rockin’ Tonight.” But he always had an affinity for ballads and slower numbers, as well. And his rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” is positively spooky, his voice soaring up to an unearthly falsetto. The soft beats of a horse walking along make it seem as if Presley’s stranded out on a lonesome prairie late at night, especially because his version drops the verse that gives the song a happy ending.
The live performance of this song that Presley performed during his Aloha From Hawaii concert in 1973 is better known. But it’s the 1966 studio version that really emphasizes his skills as a vocalist in a beautifully restrained performance. This song about a departed loved one is especially poignant when you realize that original songwriter Kui Lee died of cancer six months after Presley recorded his cover (the Aloha From Hawaii concert was a benefit for Lee’s cancer fund). And check out the lovely female backing vocals on the final line.
Presley liked to boast that he knew every religious song ever written. He tried to join a gospel group before striking out as a solo singer, and after his concerts he’d frequently unwind by singing gospel songs and hymns with his friends until dawn. What’s especially notable about this number is how Presley easily transitions from being the lead singer in the first part of the song, to slipping into the background after the instrumental break, letting lead tenor Gordon Stoker take over.
Presley’s “Memphis Mafia” buddy Red West was also a songwriter. Working from a title given to him by Presley, West crafted this tender number that’s more than just a simple love song; the lyrics are broad enough that it could just as easily refer to a mother as to a romantic partner. Presley was very close to his own mother, who died in 1958, and his close friends said Presley was never the same afterwards. Certainly the pain of being separated from a loved one is apparent in his vocal here.
Presley loved vamping on a number that felt like it was never going to end: For reference, check out his version of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” from his 1968 “comeback” TV special, Elvis. Two years later in Nashville, Presley and his band got down and dirty with this Joe Babcock tale of a man on the run from the law. Presley gets through the verses in two minutes, then carries on for another three minutes wailing away on the chorus. It’s absolutely exhilarating.
As the ‘70s progressed, Presley recorded an more and more melancholy songs that wistfully looked back on better days. He might’ve dropped the line “I got my pills to ease the pain” from this Danny O’Keefe number, but for the recently divorced Presley, lines like “You play around, you lose your wife / You play too long, you lose your life” still cut deep. In comparison to the more histrionic arrangements of songs in his live shows of the era, this number is stripped back and spare, with Presley in a thoughtful, reflective, and sad mood.
In December 1973, Presley entered Stax Studios in Memphis and recorded his last great rocker. Presley had been covering Chuck Berry’s songs since the 1950s, and had previously recorded a terrifically fun version of “Too Much Monkey Business” in 1968. On “Promised Land,” the band is cooking from the first downbeat, fueling a rollicking performance, and Presley delivers the lyrics at an equally rapid-fire pace. It was the last Memphis studio session of his life; his final sessions were held in Graceland’s Tiki-themed den later dubbed the Jungle Room.
After almost of decade of making second-rate movies with forgettable songs, Presley finally had a batch of great material to work with when he entered American Studios in Memphis in early 1969. He recorded hits like “In the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” during the sessions, along with other great lesser-known fare, like this track. The opening chord from an organ makes you think this might be one Presley’s beloved gospel songs. But no, it’s a funky number about suspected infidelity. Despite his protestation that “I know there’s been some carryin’ on,” Presley’s delivery is so jaunty, it doesn’t sound like he’s terribly upset about it. This is the sound of a singer happily getting back into the groove.
Presley had already shown an affinity for the songs of Arthur Crudup, with the R&B musician’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” his first release on Sun Records in 1954. A year and a half later, he cut this song during his debut sessions with RCA, and it marks the first time Presley and his band really started to gel in the studio, from the opening of snap of D.J. Fontana’s drums to Bill Black’s descending bass line to and the galloping swing of Scotty Moore’s guitar. When Presley’s vocals come in, bubbling over with excitement, it’s simply irresistible.
Presley must’ve been surprised at Bob Dylan’s success. Here was a performer who wasn’t a conventional singer by any standard, and who exhibited a dismissiveness of the media that Presley—who deferentially addressed interviewers as “sir” or “ma’am”—must’ve found shocking. Yet, Presley turned in an absolutely compelling performance of Dylan song on the Spinout soundtrack before the original songwriter even recorded himself. Presley first heard the song on the album Odetta Sings Dylan and imbues his version with heartfelt emotion that’s completely missing from the movie songs he was recording at the time. In fact, Dylan later cited this version as one of his favorites.