Elvis Presley is as much a rock n' roll hero as a folk tale. So larger than life was his presence, and so broad his appeal, it seems too easy to overlook Presley the person and Presley the artist. "Elvis Presley: The Searcher," an upcoming two-part HBO documentary, attempts to put both in perspective. Directed by Thom Zimny and produced by Jon Landau and Priscilla Presley, the work looks at what inspired and drove Presley to create. Today, Presley songs such as "Hound Dog" and "Jail House Rock" are instantly recognizable, his sex appeal remains undeniable, and his tragic ending raises many difficult to answer questions about fame, fortune, and addiction. But here, inspired by "The Searcher," we undertake a quest of our own: Highlighting five songs that showcase Presley's artistic breadth.
"Tomorrow Is a Long Time"
Don't take our word for it. None other than Bob Dylan, the original composer, referred to Presley's 1966 rendition of the song as "the one recording [among the covers] I treasure the most." It was treated almost as a toss-off. Presley's interpretation appears on the soundtrack to the less-than-enthusiastically received film Spinout and hit at a time when Presley's career appeared to be on the downturn. The story goes that Presley became introduced to the song via a recording by blues singer Odetta. Presley's take is pure Americana. With restrained acoustic instrumentation – largely built around a guitar and tambourine – the scaled-back arrangement feels folksy in its sparseness and bluesy in its mournfulness. It serves as a showcase for Presley's voice, and he gives it a graceful gospel reading, transforming the early 60s Dylan cut into a should-be standard.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
A popular narrative holds that Presley invented rock n' roll. But the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Joe Turner, among others, paved that road. That's not to discredit Presley's work. Take this 1960 recording of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" The ballad, dating to the 1920s, was often given schmaltzy, orchestral readings. Presley ignores all the fluff, and, like he did with many of his recordings, puts the emphasis on voice and instrumentation. But even here, in a romantic slow-dance, Presley renders the genre uncharacterizable. Drawing from blues, country, and gospel – note the swooning backing choir – Presley isn't out to invent so much as synthesize. His voice hits multiple tones on simple words such as "tonight," and the frugal, late-night feel could probably today be classified as R&B. He may not have known or intended it, but such a merging of American musical styles essentially redefined what it meant to be "pop."
When Presley recorded this song, he was about three years removed from his divorce to Priscilla. His health had long been deteriorating. In 1976, a year in which Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" and its slight disco flourishes dominated radio, Presley's vocal-first and vocal-heavy recordings could certainly be ruled as being out of popular favor. Yet anyone who thought Presley couldn't deliver a knockout should've listened to "Hurt." On this 1954 R&B song originally performed by Roy Hamilton, Presley absolutely lays into the tune. The opening alone proves devastating. Presley stretches out the first line – "Hurt, so hurt, to think that you lied to me" – to nearly 20 seconds, fully embodying the pain and anguish of the message. The dramatic and animated reading makes it impossible to discern the boundary between the performer and the person.
"That's All Right"
A 1954 recording for Sun Records – one that helped define Presley's raw and vivid work for the label – "That's All Right" shows Presley as the leader of a crack rock n' roll combo. Scotty Moore's selective yet inflamed approach to the guitar brings equal bits bite and restraint. Bill Black's bass provides the requisite hip-shaking groove. There are no drums, but this upbeat take on Arthur Crudup's blues howler still feels so decidedly fresh, fast, and new that a backbeat isn't needed. On this early example of rockabilly – too accelerated and loose for a straight blues, and Presley's vocals too intense and ferocious to be labeled country – the improvised passion of everyone involved blares through the speakers. Presley's tenor comes across feral and unchained, and Moore and Black struggle with chasing it or over-taking it. That's tension, and that's rock n' roll.
"Trouble / Guitar Man"
This show-opening – and show-stopping – medley hails from Presley's 1968 broadcast "Singer Presents ... Elvis," now more commonly known as the '68 Comeback Special. It's also the first cut on the three-disc/two-LP accompaniment to "The Searcher," and with good reason. To understand Presley is to not just study his recordings for Sun and RCA. It requires more than marveling at his stylistic diversity from blues-inspired hound to pop crooner. Presley's appeal rests heavily in the art of live performance. Well-dressed and usually well-mannered offstage, Presley didn't look the part of a rock n' roll rebel. On stage, however, the leash came off, and Presley got wild. You hear it in his lashing of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Trouble," and again in his red-hot and explosive take on Jerry Reed's "Guitar Man." One blues song, and one country song, here roughed-up and mashed-up to be something unmistakably Elvis.
Photo courtesy of HBO