5 February 1960 saw the first edition of The Telegraph newspaper’s weekend edition, The Sunday Telegraph, and a fortnight later, police had to break up a demonstration outside the Belgian embassy in London. The protest was over the murder of the ex-Prime Minster of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba.
For the majority of that month, Elvis was at number 1 for the sixth time with his version of Are You Lonesome Tonight?. This ballad had been written back in 1926 by vaudevillians Roy Turk and Lou Handman, and was a hit for a number of artists, including Vaughan Deleath, Gene Austin and Al Jolson. Colonel Tom Parker rarely told Elvis what to sing, but asked him to record it because his wife, Marie, loved Austin’s version. Elvis, backing singers the Jordanaires and his band had finished recording his comeback album, and 1960’s best-selling single, It’s Now Or Never and decided to record Parker’s request at 4am on 4 April. When it came time for him to record the vocals, Presley asked everyone to leave the studio and told co-producer Chet Atkins to turn the lights out. Perhaps embarrassed by the spoken word part, he wasn’t happy, and told Steve Sholes to throw the tape away as he couldn’t do it justice, Sholes, Atkins and engineer Bill Porter disagreed, and eventually everyone was happy. Depending on which story you believe, that sound you hear at the end (only really discernible with earphones) is either Elvis accidentally knocking a chair over in the dark, the Jordanaires bumping into their microphone stand, or one of the producer’s stapling a contract together.
To my ears, Are You Lonesome Tonight? is the King’s best number 1 since Jailhouse Rock, three years previous. It’s a beautiful song, and Elvis is in fine voice. It must have been quite something to listen to him recording in the dark. The Jordanaires are also used well, their voices used to create a comforting sound rather than smothering the song, which happened on occasion. Unfortunately, the spoken word section, with a reference to William Shakespeare’s As You Like It does date and spoil the song somewhat, but fair play to him for recording the lyrics in full. When he powers through the song’s ending though, it’s quickly forgotten about, and the result is one of Elvis’s most memorable, soulful love songs. When this hit number 1, Elvis became the first act to have the number 1 single and album (the soundtrack to his movie GI Blues)
It soon became a staple track in his live sets, and featured in the 1968 comeback special, Singer Presents… ELVIS. It also featured in his first Las Vegas show the following year, and it was around this time that the famous ‘laughing version‘ was unofficially recorded. Fifty seconds in, Elvis kills the mood by changing the lyrics from ‘Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?’ to ‘Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?’ The rest of the song descends into farce, with backing singer Cissy Houston gamely soldiering on while Presley becomes unable to continue, laughing until the song’s climax. Whether this happened for a bit of fun, embarrassed by the spoken word section or because he was out of his head isn’t clear, but it’s an enjoyable, infectious outtake, and it’s nice to hear Elvis not take himself seriously. This version even charted in 1982. Sadly it is clear by the time of this posthumous televised performance of Are You Lonesome Tonight?, recorded a couple of months before his death, that drugs were having a big effect. It’s a tragic sight to see a bloated, sweaty Elvis rambling before the song’s start, and spouting gibberish during the song, but, despite the fact he would soon be gone, when he puts the effort in, his voice sounds as great as ever.
Written by: Roy Turk & Lou Handman
Producers: Steve Sholes & Chet Atkins
Weeks at number 1: 4 (26 January-22 February)
Singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole – 31 January
Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor – 16 February
Politicians Angela and Maria Eagle – 17 February
Footballer Justin Fashanu – 19 February
Actress Imogen Stubbs – 20 February
Cricketer Stan Nichols – 26 January