The Memphis Sound
Tue December 13, 2011
It's Lonesome At The Top
In 1960, America was on the verge of exploring the new frontier, getting ready to pass the torch to a new generation. Who would imagine that two of the year’s biggest hit melodies would be written in 1898 and 1926? And, who would imagine that they would both be recorded in the same session?
The session was Elvis Presley’s second visit to RCA’s Studio in Nashville since his return from the army. Beginning the evening of April 3, 1960, it ran into the morning of the 4th. The first number one hit of the night was the third song recorded, “It’s Now Or Never,” which, as we know, was built on the melody of “O Sole Mio.” penned in 1898. Elvis had a time hitting the high notes on the end, and engineer Bill Porter offered to have them record just the ending and splice it onto one of the previous takes. Elvis said, “I’m gonna do it all the way through, or I’m not gonna do it at all,” then nailed it on the next pass
The cast took a break for Krystal burgers at midnight, recorded another four songs, then reconvened at 4 AM for the final five tunes. “Are You Lonesome Tonight” had been a hit for Henry Burr in 1927, and Al Jolson in 1950. A favorite of manager Colonel Tom Parker’s wife, Marie, it was added to the night’s slate at Tom’s request. To set the mood, all the lights were dimmed in the studio, and Porter was instructed to roll tape. Mind you, this was a follow-up to the up tempo number that started off the set, “Such A Night“, so the console was set up for another raucous rocker. All the instruments were miked, lots of echo at the ready, but the engineer was blindsided with a ballad with light instrumentation and the surprise feature of a spoken middle section. Bill was concerned that Elvis sounded like he was at the back of a cavern, but assumed it would all be fixed on the next take, so the tape kept rolling, with a performance marred by a slight flaw on the ending. However, as it turned out, there wouldn’t be a second take.
Well, actually, they were a couple of lines into a second take when everyone stopped and Presley told producer Steve Sholes that he couldn’t do the song justice. Elvis instructed Sholes to just throw it out altogether. In the control room, out of Presley’s earshot, the producer told the engineer to record a pickup to fix the ending note, then after everyone left, splice it to the end of the first take and send it to along later.
Thus was the next number one Elvis record literally saved from the trash can.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” set what was, up to that point, a new record for an Elvis debut, entering the charts at number 35. Two weeks later it began a run of six weeks as the final number hit of 1960.
Elvis was succeeded at number one by Bert Kaempfert’s instrumental, “Wonderland By Night.” The Billboard Book of Number One Hits” points out that Bert Kaempfert was the only chart-topping artist to have a direct hand in the careers of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Frank Sinatra. Elvis recorded a song Kaempfert wrote, “Wooden Heart,” for the movie G.I. Blues. Kaempfert was the first producer to record The Beatles, backing singer Tony Sheridan on the single “My Bonnie.” And Sinatra’s recording of Kaempfert’s “Strangers In The Night” would knock The Beatles “Paperback Writer” out of the top spot in the summer of ‘66.
Elvis released his sixth movie, Flaming Star, in late December of ‘60. If you’ve ever wondered why Colonel Tom didn’t let Elvis take on more movies with serious dramatic roles, here’s your answer. An anemic box office response to a non-singing dramatic Elvis movie with no soundtrack record assured that the Colonel would revert to his one-word script, “No,” whenever someone approached him with a similar idea in the future.