Before the U.S. Army shipped Elvis overseas in 1958, he recorded a bundle of tracks to be parceled out as singles in his absence. The intent was to keep him in the pop music scene so that he would still have a career when discharged – even the King of Rock and Roll couldn’t survive a two-year disappearance from the popular consciousness. (That “A Big Hunk o’ Love” managed to hit #1 as late as August 1959 proves the savviness of that business decision.) “Good Luck Charm” could be easily mistaken as a relic of these sessions, especially given the very un-rock and roll sound of his post-“Stuck On You” number ones. Yet the fact that “Good Luck Charm” was recorded in 1961, not 1958, puts Presley in the same bind as Connie Francis – this is the sound of an artist whose enormous popularity shielded them from noticing that the pop audience was moving on to something else.
The difference between Presley and Francis, though, is that Elvis had changed his sound. His threepreviousnumber ones sported the influence of the European ballads and arias that he had discovered while posted in Germany, each one more baroque and melodramatic than the last. But once you’ve released a hit single featuring a rambling, faux-Shakespearean spoken-word monologue, there isn’t much higher on the bombastometer you can go. So like so many bands who follow a bloated sophomore album with a stripped-down, back-to-basics “return to form,” Elvis sought refuge grounded in the sound that had initially made him famous. But, as many of those bands have found, it’s difficult to recapture that raw spark once you’ve lost it. Which isn’t to say that “Good Luck Charm” is bad – it’s perfectly capable – but compare it with “A Big Hunk o’ Love” and the latter has a vitality, a freshness, that the former lacks. This is Elvis treading water as much as it is a return to his roots.
Like Francis’s “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You,” “Good Luck Charm” signals the end of Elvis’s reign atop the pop charts – with one exception, which scraped in during the twilight hours of the ’60s. He would continue to record some great singles, many of which charted high – “Return to Sender,” “Blue Christmas” and “Viva Las Vegas” among them – but these would be overshadowed by his decreasingly meritorious movie career and the mediocre-to-terrible singles that soundtracked it, many of which actually were leftovers from his pre-Army sessions. But unlike Francis, the King of Rock and Roll would successfully rejigger his sound – and, with it, reclaim his throne at the top of the Hot 100. 6
Hit #1 on April 21, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
69 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 7.11% through the Hot 100
Ray Charles’s versions of standards and country hits are records
Elvis continues his string of Euro-tinged pop songs with another pop reworking of a turn-of-the-century Neapolitan song – the previous being “It’s Now or Never.” While “Surrender” isn’t as novel or successful as that single, neither is it as embarrassing as “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Elvis again plays the Latin lover while showcasing his voice’s astonishing versatility. But the problem is that it’s not quite as thrilling as it feels like it should be. The piano charges forward, and the castanets clatter, but there’s no real “this is it!” moment. The closest point is Presley’s operatic “Be mine forever/Be mine tonight!” Finally, we hit the peak the whole song has been promising – but that’s the song’s end. I’m all for restraint in pop songs that build into great passionate statements, but it can’t be a valley that suddenly explodes into Mount Everest. “Surrender” is still enjoyable, but it’s missing that qualcosina. 6
So far on No Hard Chords, the King has managed to keep a nice solid score of 7 for his Hot 100 hits. Neither “A Big Hunk o’ Love,” nor “Stuck on You,” nor “It’s Now or Never” are among Presley’s very best songs, but they’re all worthy entries at the top of the charts. And then comes “Are You Lonesome Tonight.” The part of the track that’s actually the song is sentimental but not bad. It has a pretty melody well-served by Presley’s aching voice. But the bulk of the single is a bizarre, spoken word piece of Shakespeare-referencing bad poetry that goes on forever: “Now the stage is bare, and I’m standing there, with emptiness all around,” he whimpers as he stretches an already thin metaphor to the breaking point. It would be understandable if the single were released during Elvis’s bloated Vegas years, but while he’s still young and (relatively) rocking, it’s an unusual choice, to say the least. 5
Hit #1 on November 28, 1960; total of 6 weeks at #1
42 of 965 #1’s reviewed; 4.35% through the Hot 100
“Stuck On You” may have lacked some of the verve of Elvis’s pre-army hits, but he abandoned rock and roll entirely for his next #1, “It’s Now or Never.” Presley had heard Tony Martin’s 1950 hit “There’s No Tomorow,” based on the Neapolitan aria “‘O Sole Mio,” while stationed in Friedberg, Germany and commissioned new lyrics on his return to the U.S. While he had been serving in the army, pop chart rock and roll had gone soft. Chuck Berry was in jail, Jerry Lee Lewis had scandalized the public by marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Little Richard became a Christian evangelist. Rock and roll’s fan base had always been teenagers, but younger teen idols crooning a sanitized version of rock were in large part replacing the rootsier innovators. In order to compete, Elvis had to tone down his image a bit, to appeal both to the softer tastes of the teen audience as well as to adults. Presley had recorded ballads before like “Love Me Tender,” but “It’s Now or Never” was his attempt to reach out to the easy listening crowd who would likely remember Tony Martin’s hit from a decade earlier. “It’s Now or Never” was also Presley’s attempt to validate himself as something more than the hip-swiveler who drove teenagers crazy with his black music. Not only did he have a great voice for rock and roll, but he had a great voice period. The vibrato is perfectly measured, the timbre is rich and he nails the high note at the end of the song. It’s no wonder that his next two #1’s are of the same ilk (one even borrows its ethnic arrangement). “It’s Now or Never” was Elvis meeting his audience’s parents, proving that he wasn’t as bad as everyone said and that he was worthy of their time and affection. 7
Hit #1 on August 15, 1960; total of 5 weeks at #1
34 of 964 #1’s reviewed; 3.53% through the Hot 100
“Stuck On You” was Elvis’s comeback hit after his two-year stint in the U.S. Army, although RCA had continued to release singles while he served overseas. “Stuck On You” rocks, but it’s a little slicker and less boisterous than his previous #1, “A Big Hunk o’ Love.” Not that army life necessarily tamed him – Presley had already been alternating rockers with softer tracks like “Love Me Tender” since his career began, which helped him cross over to the mainstream so successfully. “Stuck On You” isn’t a ballad like “Love Me Tender,” though. It’s actually strikingly similar to 1957’s “All Shook Up,” with its moderate tempo, piano-based arrangement and chorus hinging on the use of a dramatic pause. But “Stuck On You” is just slightly slower, and the piano’s a little more restrained. Still, even given a relatively laidback number, Elvis mops the floor with the Mark Dinnings and Frankie Avalons who had topped the charts during his absence. “Stuck On You” may not be one of Elvis’s top-shelf songs, but it was enough to prove to any skeptics that he still had it. 7
Hit #1 on April 25, 1960; total of 4 weeks at #1
28 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 2.91% through the Hot 100
“A Big Hunk o’ Love” hasn’t really persisted as part of the Elvis Canon, at least not to the degree that previous #1’s such as “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock” or the trio of 1960 chart toppers to be discussed have. It’s a pretty standard rockabilly-blues number, the type Presley had cut while at Sun Studio a few years earlier. It’s suprisingly raw, with a clattering piano and unhinged vocal more reminicent of Jerry Lee Lewis’s pre-Myra Gale Brown singles of 1957-58 than with Presley’s contemporaneous hits. “A Big Hunk o’ Love” is a barn burner while playing, but its energy is the only real memorable thing about it. Still, it’s a tribute to Presley’s musical charisma and the thrilling distinctiveness of this “real” rock and roll that even an average Elvis single is more exciting than most of the hits sharing space on the charts. 7
Hit #1 on August 10, 1959; total of 2 weeks at #1
17 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 1.77% through the Hot 100
A rundown of every #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, starting from the top (1958) and progressing in order. Ratings on a highly subjective 1-10 scale. Comments perpetually open. Supposedly published weekly.