Though Elvis Presley rose through the ranks of Sun Records alongside artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins (his fellow members of the “Million Dollar Quartet,” if you will), Elvis and Jerry Lee differed from Johnny and Carl in that they primarily leaned upon the songs of others. Cash and Perkins predated the pop-rock singer/songwriter revolution of the next decade, and in fact, harkened back to an older tradition in country and blues of performing your own material.
Yet by the time the King of Rock and Roll came out of the army, returned from Hollywood and reinvented himself on the concert stage, much had changed. Armed with their guitars, Bob Dylan and The Beatles had proved that singers didn’t need a cadre of professional writers to craft their songs, whether from New York’s Brill Building or Nashville’s Music Row. Soon, “singer/songwriter” would enter the lexicon, upping the emotional ante for these “confessional” writers. “Covers” of existing hits were largely the province of adult-aimed “MOR” singers like Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. Where did this leave Elvis Presley? Ace Records makes a compelling case with the new compilation Elvis Heard Them Here First that Presley simply continued to do what he had done all along: synthesize strains from a wide range of genres and songs into material that was always uniquely “Elvis.”
The 24-track compilation is based on Ace’s You Heard It Here First series, which presents original versions of songs made famous by other interpretive singers. Producer Tony Rounce acknowledges in his introductory essay that the playing field was rather wide. Even during those early Sun years, all but three of Elvis’ recordings on the label were of previously-performed songs. Rather than limiting himself to one era, Rounce collects songs recorded by Elvis between his 1959 return from the Army and his death in 1977. The disc avoids the overly familiar (Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” etc.) and offers up a fascinating journey through the records that just might have inspired Elvis to turn in some of his best vocals.
What songs will you hear? Hit the jump!
Some of these songs, indeed, came from the ranks of the Brill Building. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had supplied Presley with many of his signature songs, are represented here with the original versions of “Bossa Nova Baby” (Tippie and the Clovers), “Girls, Girls, Girls” (The Coasters) and the truly unknown “Three Corn Patches” (T-Bone Walker, produced by Stoller himself). Buddy Kaye and Phil Springer, whose catalogue stretched back to the 1940s, wrote “Never Ending” for Roger Douglass, issued by Elvis in 1964. (It was the flipside of a cover of The Drifters’ “Such a Night,” not heard here!)
Probably the most famous songs in this impressive array are Mark (“Suspicious Minds”) James, Wayne Carson (“The Letter”) Thompson and Jordan Christopher’s “Always On My Mind,” heard here in its original recording by Brenda Lee; Mickey Newbury’s own recording of his “American Trilogy”; and Ray Peterson’s original of Baker Knight’s dramatic “The Wonder of You.” The most wonderfully unlikely choice here may be “Fairytale,” a country pastiche written and first performed by The Pointer Sisters! But Elvis’ songbook was always eclectic and frequently soulful. Jerry Butler’s “Only the Strong Survive,” co-written with Philadelphia International’s Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and arranged by Thom Bell and Bobby Martin, gets an airing.
Elvis also didn’t overlook the singer/songwriters who were putting many professional songwriters out of business. Tony Joe White’s “For Ol’ Times Sake” sits alongside Danny O’Keefe’s “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues” in an early version by The Bards. You’ll also hear a song by none other than Bob Dylan. Such is Dylan’s regard for the Ace team (with whom he previously collaborated on three volumes of Theme Time Radio Hour selections) that he consented to the inclusion of his original version of “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” recorded in 1963 but not issued until 1971 on his Greatest Hits Vol. II and a promo single. Elvis committed the song to tape in 1966, and it’s been posited that Elvis knew the song from the recordings of either Odetta or Ian and Sylvia. Dylan, for his part, has long treasured Presley’s rendition.
Elvis Heard Them Here First includes an indispensable 18-page booklet with track-by-track annotations and some impossibly rare label scans. It’s available now from Ace, and you can order below!
- I Want You with Me – Bobby Darin (Atco LP 1001, 1960)
- The Girl of My Best Friend – Charlie Blackwell (Warner Bros. 5132, 1959)
- Bossa Nova Baby – Tippie and the Clovers (Tiger 201, 1962)
- I’m Comin’ Home –Carl Mann (Philips International 3555, 1960)
- The Wonder of You – Ray Peterson (RCA 7513, 1959)
- Girl Next Door – Thomas Wayne (Fernwood 122, 1959)
- Find Out What’s Happening – The Spidells feat. Billy Lockridge (Monza 1122, 1964)
- Never Ending – Roger Douglass (Mercury 72017, 1962)
- Girls, Girls, Girls (Part 2) – The Coasters (Atco 6204, 1961)
- Long Black Limousine – Vern Stovall (Crest 1080, 1961)
- If I’m a Fool for Loving You – Bobby Wood (Joy 285, 1964)
- Stop, Look and Listen – Rick Nelson (Decca LP DL-74608, 1964)
- Tomorrow is a Long Time – Bob Dylan (Columbia LP KG-31120, 1971)
- Guitar Man – Jerry Reed (RCA 47-9152, 1967)
- Always on My Mind – Brenda Lee (Decca 32975, 1972)
- Only the Strong Survive – Jerry Butler (Mercury 72898, 1969)
- Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues – The Bards (Jerden 907, 1969)
- True Love Travels on a Gravel Road – Duane Dee (Capitol 2332, 1968)
- I’ve Lost You – Matthews’ Southern Comfort (Decca LP DL-75191, 1969)
- Three Corn Patches – T-Bone Walker (Reprise LP 2XS 6483, 1973)
- Pieces of My Life – Charlie Rich (Epic LP PE-33250, 1974)
- For Ol’ Times Sake – Tony Joe White (Warner Bros. LP BS-2708, 1973)
- Fairytale – The Pointer Sisters (Blue Thumb 254, 1974)
- An American Trilogy – Mickey Newbury (Elektra 45750, 1971)