Tue August 2, 2011
How 'Love Me Tender' Trumped the 'Aura Lee' and Reno Brothers
By Rob Grayson
Memphis, TN – Elvis Presley's charmed run in 1956 included Billboard chart-topping songs for 25 of the 52 weeks. He followed Heartbreak Hotel with I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, and the double-sided number one single Hound Dog and Don't Be Cruel. Then he actually knocked himself out of the top spot with his next record. The new number one was originally penned by the writing team of W. W. Fosdick and George R. Poulton in the 1800's, but you won't find their names in the credits. And, the people whose names are in the writing credits didn't write the song. To sort all this out, let me begin with a personal discovery.
In music class back in elementary school, we learned a Civil War era song called Aura Lee. This tripped my "stolen music" circuit breaker, because I knew this melody by a different name and verbiage altogether. I knew it as Love Me Tender, and when I got home, I made a beeline for the record. Sure enough, in the songwriting credits below the title, I saw Elvis Presley and Vera Matson. I probably would have been more amazed to know that neither Elvis nor Vera wrote the song, despite the silver words printed on the black label to the contrary. To find the story behind those silver words, our next stop is the silver screen.
Movie producer Hal Wallis had Elvis come to Hollywood for a screen test in March, 1956, and signed a deal for seven pictures over seven years. Not being an exclusive contract, and with no Hal Wallis project on the table, 20th Century Fox signed Elvis up to debut in their movie The Reno Brothers. Elvis jumped at the chance to do a serious dramatic role with no singing. That, of course, didn't last long. It was the film's musical supervisor, Ken Darby, who retooled the Aura Lee tune with the Love Me Tender lyrics. In accordance with the Presley machine way of doing things, 50 percent of songwriting royalties went to Elvis, so he was credited. And Darby says he gave his wife, Vera Matson the other half credit because, as Ken explained, "She didn't write it either."
Elvis' regular band members weren't allowed to record the songs for the movie because, it was thought, they were a rock and roll band, and couldn't play "country" music. In their place, the Ken Darby Trio provided the backing. The session took place August 24th, 1956, on the Fox sound stage, capturing Love Me Tender and a couple of other movie songs. While he was in Hollywood, Elvis and his regular band had a recording session at Radio Recorders, filling out some material for his second album and next single.
On September 9th, a little over a month before the movie's release, Elvis sang Love Me Tender on his first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. The next day, advance orders made the single a million-seller before it was even released. This also assured that we would be seeing not The Reno Brothers, but Love Me Tender when the movie hit the screens.
So, with Love Me Tender succeeding the 11-week, chart-topping run of Hound Dog and Don't Be Cruel, Elvis held the lead spot for 16 consecutive weeks. This achievement wouldn't even be tied until 1994 by Boyz II Men, and not topped until Usher's 19-week stint in 2004.
For the two-week period from October 20th through November 3rd, with Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel and Love Me Tender, Elvis had the top two singles in the nation. That wouldn't happen again until the 60's with the Beatles and the 70's with the Bee Gees.
Aura Lee was a popular vehicle for different sets of lyrics, from West Point's Army Blue to Allan Sherman's ode to the polio vaccine.