From: 28th Anniversary Issue, Summer 2005
by Phil Arnold
Suppose you got to help create a list of the Top 500 Rock & Roll songs of all time. Bet you’d have lots and lots of Elvis hits in there. I know I would.
Well, the folks at Rolling Stone Magazine would not. Elvis had a few high spots in their survey, but his overall total seemed low. In all fairness, we do have to thank Rolling Stone for presenting the list in their December 9, 2004 issue. It was a wonderful thing for this old rock fan and many others to read and think and reminisce about.
This not the first time Elvis fans have been disappointed at The King’s representation on a major list of top songs. Three years ago, VH1 presented their Top 100 rock songs of all time (complete with music video clip on each one). Elvis got some recognition, but not what you’d expect. Let’s take a look at what these very credible music enterprises had to say about Elvis’ songs, and where they reside in the galaxy of the greatest.
SONGS IN THE TOP 10
Rolling Stone – 0 VH1 – 0
That was tough to take. Not one Elvis song in either Top 10. Of course, the competition was very tough, with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, John Lennon and others taking a position in the top 10. Both polls had great songs selected on their lists, although they had some significant differences. I’d have trouble disagreeing with any of the choices. There just wasn’t any Elvis in there!
SONGS IN THE TOP 20
Rolling Stone – 1 VH1 – 1
They each pick one… but not the same one. VH1 rates “Jailhouse Rock” as #18, while Rolling Stone has “Hound Dog” at #19. These classic old songs both deserve that recognition, or better. But, there are other equally good Elvis songs that should have been there, too.
SONGS IN THE TOP 50
Rolling Stone – 2 VH1 – 2
Come on! Only 2 Elvis songs in the Top 50 of all time. That’s just wrong. All VH1 could add was “Hound Dog” at # 31. Rolling Stone added “Heartbreak Hotel” at # 45. Out of the Top 50 rock songs, they found only three Elvis recordings between them: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Sorry, they are all Top 20 material, at least.
SONGS IN THE TOP 100
Rolling Stone – 5 VH1 – 4
Rolling Stone gets on board with “Jailhouse Rock” at #67 and adds two new titles: “Mystery Train” at # 77 and “Suspicious Minds” at # 91. It’s easy to agree with these picks. We can be pleased Rolling Stone’s Top 100 recognized both a song from Elvis’ early work at Sun Records and also a staple of his later jumpsuit years. “All Shook Up” is mentioned for the first time at #68 on the VH1 poll, and they gave a belated nod to “Heartbreak Hotel” at #71. Between the two polls, there were just six different Elvis songs selected in the top 100. That’s not enough.
SONGS IN THE TOP 500
Rolling Stone –11
Next up was another Sun disc, “That’s All Right (Mama),” at # 112. That’s a good pick, but this was followed by the poll’s second-biggest mistake: “Don’t Be Cruel” at only # 197. I can’t believe it. There can’t be too many members of the selection committee who were around in 1956, and had that song in their 45 collection. If they had, “Don’t Be Cruel” would be Top 20, maybe Top 10.
Rolling Stone rated “All Shook Up” at # 352. Give me a break. “All Shook Up at # 352??? The song stayed # 1 on the charts for twelve straight weeks. How could they possibly make a mistake this big? At least VH1 had it at # 68.
The first Elvis ballad to appear was “I Can’t Help falling In Love” at # 394. Next came “Blue Suede Shoes” at # 423. Carl Perkins’ version came in at # 95, making “Blue Suede Shoes” the only song to be in the Top 500 by two different artists. Frankly, I think a good argument could be made for Perkins’ version being in the Top 20.
The last Elvis song to make the Rolling Stone list was “Love Me Tender” at # 437.
My initial anger at the lack of respect given to Elvis songs in these polls has now been tempered by a new realization. It wasn’t the songs that made Elvis special. It was Elvis. His looks, his clothing, his voice, his stage persona. He was the total package and probably would have succeeded even if he had recorded lesser material.
In spite of this handy justification, it’s still fun to think where we would put Elvis recordings in the Top 500 rock & roll songs of all time. “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock” would squeeze into the Top 10 somewhere. “Heartbreak Hotel,” “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel” belong in the Top 20. “That’s All Right,” “Mystery train,” and “Suspicious Minds” would be in the Top 50. “Love Me Tender” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love” would be joined by another ballad, “Loving You,” in the Top 100. Certainly the next 400 places would include “Teddy Bear,” Blue Suede Shoes,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” and “Burning Love.”
Adding it up, our revised list would have two Elvis songs in the top 10, five in the top 20, eight in the top 50, eleven in the top 100, and eighteen in the top 500. Now that’s more like it.
If it was up to this writer, the Top 500 would also include three personal favorites. “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” featured the movie Jailhouse Rock, is arguably the best song Elvis recorded that was never released as a single. “Reconsider Baby” from the album Elvis Is Back is considered by many to be Elvis’ best blues recording. And “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” is simply the best rock & roll Christmas song ever.
There were six songs selected to the Top 10 in both polls: “Like a Rolling Stone”/Bob Dylan, “Satisfaction”/ The Rolling Stones, “Respect”/Aretha Franklin, “Imagine”/John Lennon, “Good Vibrations”/Beach Boys, and “Hey Jude”/Beatles. The polls were done years apart by different all-star juries, which gives credence to the outstanding quality of these songs. The biggest Top 10 discrepancies were “What’d I Say”/Ray Charles (# 10 Rolling Stone, # 41 VH1), and “Hotel California”/Eagles (# 6 VH1, # 49 Rolling Stone)
The selection committee for the Rolling Stone Top 500 seemed to be especially fond of 60’s music, choosing 202 hits from this decade. The 70’s were next with 144 selections. The 50’s were only the third best decade with a puny 71 picks. That’s not enough. It’s painfully obvious that not many of the judges were around and listening to music in that decade. They missed dozens of outstanding songs on their list.
In yet another tribute to the genius of Sam Phillips, Sun Records provided five of the Top 100 songs. The honored songs were: “I Walk The Line”/Johnny Cash, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”/Jerry Lee Lewis, “Mystery Train”/Elvis Presley, “Blue Suede Shoes”/Carl Perkins, and “Great Balls Of Fire”/Jerry Lee Lewis. And “That’s All Right” was close behind at # 112.
Chuck Berry challenged Elvis with the second most 50’s songs on the list. Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Little Richard and Bo Diddley followed, but Fats Domino was way under represented (eight Top 10 hits, only two songs on the list)
Every song on Rolling Stone’s list received a critique narrative, which enabled the magazine to fill forty-one pages of the issue. It was also interspersed with fifty-six full-page advertisements and numerous partial pages, so it was a good marketing move.
Here’s some of what they had to say about the Elvis songs.
Hound Dog: “With snarling vocal authority, precision rockabilly jump and slashing lead guitar by Scotty Moore, Presley transformed the song’s blues changes and put-down rhyme into a declaration of independence… “ (For my money, everything Elvis recorded in the 50’s was a declaration of independence.)
Heartbreak Hotel: “… what Sun Records founder Sam Phillips called a ‘morbid mess’ went on to become Presley’s first Number One hit and million selling single, thanks in part to Scotty Moore’s steely guitar and a thumping bass from Bill Black.” (Would it have hurt to give some kudos to DJ Fontana, too?)
Jailhouse Rock: “The King… sang it as straight rock & roll, overlooking the jokes in the lyrics and then introducing Scotty Moore’s guitar solo with a cry so intense the take almost collapses.” (I’ve gone back and listened to that part of the song again several times, and I still don’t know what that writer was talking about.)
Suspicious Minds: “Recorded between four and seven in the morning, during the landmark Memphis session that helped return The King to his throne, ‘Suspicious Minds’ is Presley’s masterpiece.” (But only # 91 on their list.)
That’s All right: “Recorded in a shockingly fast, lusty new style, the single was the place where race and hillbilly music collided and became rock & roll. … and the world changed.” (When the magazine sang the praises of their top pick, ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ they said, “no other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time.” (Baloney! “That’s All Right” did all that and more. It changed the world, remember?)
Don’t Be Cruel: “… his take on this blues song, “Don’t Be Cruel,” backed with “Hound Dog,’ became a double-sided hit on the pop, R&B and country charts.” (But that was only good enough for # 197 on your list.)
All Shook Up: “Presley fell in love with the tune the first time he heard it. The song went on to sell 2 million copies.” (Not enough to get it higher than # 352. Their biggest slight to an Elvis song.)
I Can’t Help falling In Love: “… this was no vacation for Presley. It took him twenty-nine takes to nail his exquisitely gentle vocals.” (Rolling Stone accompanied this narrative with a nice picture of Elvis.)
Blue Suede Shoes: “Perkins’ single got to Number Two, but Presley’s peaked at Number Twenty.” (Carl’s version was better, but Elvis did a major improvement when he re-recorded the song for the movie, “GI Blues.”)
Love Me Tender: “It represented a brand-new sound for The King. He sang in his softest voice, accompanied by his own acoustic guitar.
Rolling Stone magazine had no trouble referring to Elvis as “The King” in most of their song critiques. We wish they had treated his songs with more respect in their list; but let’s face it, the key to Elvis’ success was Elvis himself, not just his recordings.
© 2005 Philip R Arnold
Contributing Editor Phil Arnold is a big Elvis fan and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org