What is Elvis’s most famous ballad? If you were an Elvis impersonator looking to slow things down on stage, to which song would you turn? I’d say either ‘Love Me Tender’, ‘Always on My Mind’, ‘The Wonder of You’, or, perhaps most likely, this.
Are You Lonesome Tonight?, by Elvis Presley (his 6th of twenty-one #1s)
4 weeks, from 26th January – 23rd February 1961
Are you lonesome tonight, Do you miss me tonight, Are you sorry, We drifted, Apart? This is a country-tinged record – I mean, ‘lonesome’, come on! – during which you can imagine Elvis sat on a hay-bale, gently strumming, as the embers of the evening’s fire grow weak. It’s also perhaps the most minimalist #1 yet: no drums, no bass – just a guitar, some mellow backing vocals from The Jordanaires, and Mr. Presley.
I feel that Elvis, throughout much of his career, struggled to keep things subtle. Just look at those jumpsuits for a start… He had some really beautiful, low-key moments early on (his version of ‘Blue Moon’, for a start) but come his post-army days he was becoming ever more a fan of the semi-operatic, belt-em-out at full volume type hits (see ‘It’s Now or Never’). But he really does hold back here, purring the lines like a lovesick cat. Every so often he adds a bit of oomph – shall I come back… again? – but he quickly reigns it in. And this gentle approach really teases out the emotion in each line. I’ve always loved the Do the chairs in your parlour, Seem empty, And bare? Do you gaze at your doorstep, And picture me there? line. It’s kinda deep – a step above your usual rock ‘n’ roll love song.
And then… Oh my. Elvis talks. I wonder if… You’re lonesome tonight… Elvis couldn’t half talk. I make this only the second #1 to have featured a spoken-word section, after Pat Boone’s ‘I’ll Be Home’. And this isn’t just a couple of lines we’re talking about here. In a three minute record, Elvis talks for well over a minute of it. That’s more than a third of the song, people! Only The King could have gotten away with it. He ‘quotes’ Shakespeare, and describes a love in three acts… It’s amazing, and it peaks when his voice goes all serious, like a disappointed teacher: Honey, You lied when you said you loved me… But no matter how upset he is, he just can’t get over this woman. If you won’t come back to me, Then they can bring the curtain down…
I struggle to believe that someone like Elvis had to spend many lonesome nights over the course of his life, without specifically choosing to; but he sells it here. He sounds heartbroken and vulnerable. Legend has it that he recorded this track at 4am, alone in the studio with all the lights out. And you can believe it, you really can. Contrast ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ with Cliff’s most recent chart-topper ‘I Love You’ – another simple-as little love song. But where that came off as cheesy and trite, this one comes off as timeless, and will actually make your spine tingle if you let it. This record is all about Elvis: The Voice. And that’s true star quality. Sorry Cliff.
‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ has a history that goes way beyond the 1960s, and beyond Elvis. Add this to ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, ‘It’s All in the Game’, ‘Mack the Knife’ and countless other songs from earlier in this countdown, as being originally written and recorded decades before. In this case it dates from 1926. Though – and I’m being kind here – Elvis’s version makes those from the twenties sound pretty darn lightweight. BUT. If you think I’m finally, six number ones into his UK chart career, giving The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll the credit that he deserves then to you I say this: ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ may be his best chart-topper so far (yes, I’m going there) but his next #1, not too long from now, will not be ‘lonesome’. Oh no. It will be genuinely loathsome.