197. ‘Crying in the Chapel’, by Elvis Presley

Well, well, well. Look who’s back. The man with the most #1 singles ever (then and now), whose every release was once guaranteed several weeks at the top of the British pop charts, assumes his rightful place. Bow down to The King.

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Crying in the Chapel, by Elvis Presley (his 15th of twenty-one #1s)

1 week, from 17th – 24th June / 1 week from 1st – 8th July 1965 (2 weeks total)

He’s taken a break from his ever-diminishing run of lame movie-soundtracks, to get all holy on us. Elvis does gospel. You saw me crying in the chapel, The tears I shed were tears of joy… he croons, over a simple guitar strum – reminiscent of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ – and a tinkling piano – reminiscent of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. I know the meaning of contentment, Now I’m happy with the Lord…

This is by far the most overtly religious chart-topper yet. In fact, the only others to have referenced The Almighty and his Gang were ‘Answer Me’, way back in 1953, and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, from Christmas 1957. But this isn’t a preachy, buttoned-up number. This is Elvis we’re talking about, and he’s in his element. He whispers, he purrs, he croons, while the way he lowers his voice for the …just to sing and, Praise the Lord… line would get even the most pious of nuns a little hot under the collar.

No, Elvis is enjoying himself here. I once read a description – I can’t remember where – of Elvis’s gospel records as being sung as if ‘The King was trying to blow the pearly gates from their hinges’. You can imagine him striding up to God and asking him to make some room on the throne…. But not here. Elvis keeps it low-key on this disc. Actually, his vocals aside, it’s pretty dull. I always skipped this one back when I had his Greatest Hits on heavy rotation.

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But it is in keeping with what has been a very eclectic 1965. We’ve had ballads, country-pop, Latin soul, some cabaret-pop and some Phil Spector Wall of Sound gloss. And now some gospel. While it’s easy to say ‘well, only someone like Elvis could take this to #1’, bear in mind he hasn’t been drowning in hit records recently. This is his first chart-topper for two years; while he won’t reappear again until the 1970s. His recent hits before this one included ‘Bossa Nova Baby’ (#13) and ‘Do the Clam’ (#19). This record got to the top for reasons beyond Elvis’s fading star-power. Maybe it was Christian-power…? Church-goers heading out in force to get what is basically a hymn-in-disguise to the top of the charts? It worked for Cliff in the ‘80s and ‘90s…

It would also be remiss to suggest that Elvis was attempting some kind of reinvention here. He was always, in fairness, a deeply religious man, and had released his first gospel album, ‘His Hand in Mine’, years before. (‘Crying in the Chapel’ was actually recorded way back in 1960, but for some reason never saw the light of day until five years had passed.) He’d go on to release several more before his death, including the seminal ‘How Great Thou Art’ in 1967. Nope, it seems that this was simply one of his few gospel singles that caught on with the general public. It’s a million miles away from the swinging sixties, and you know what, that’s fine for a couple of weeks.

It’s interesting, looking at Elvis’s discography, to see how he seems to have been much more appreciated by British audiences come the mid-sixties. Between ‘Surrender’ in mid-1961, and now, he scored just one Billboard Hot 100 #1 – ‘Good Luck Charm’. Across the Atlantic he racked up seven, including this one. You can’t help but feel that Britain got this the wrong way around – all the early classics, your ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, were US chart-toppers. Whereas in the UK we waited until the ‘Rock-a-Hula-Baby’ phase to go truly Elvis-mad. Definitive proof of this, if it were needed, can be found in the fact that the abominable ‘Wooden Heart’, a 6-week UK #1, didn’t see the light of day in the States. The Americans got that one spot on!

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80. ‘One Night’ / ‘I Got Stung’, by Elvis Presley

Elvis would like a night with you. One night, with you, Is what I’m now prayin’ for, The things that we two can plan, Would make my dreams come true… How could you resist?

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One Night / I Got Stung, by Elvis Presley (his 3rd of twenty-one #1s)

3 weeks, from 30th January – 20th February 1959

I bemoaned the fact that our last #1 promised raunch but failed to deliver. Here, though… Well, Elvis doesn’t let us down. We’re calling out names, demanding helping hands, and worrying about a love that’s ‘too strong to hide’ (Oo-er. Does he mean he can’t hide his feelings; or a more physical manifestation of his amour…?) Lyrically, this is a cousin of Johnnie Ray’s barnstorming ‘Such a Night’, with the listener left in no doubt about what the singer intends to do all night. Except Johnnie had had his night and was wallowing in the memory; Elvis is still waiting and praying.

The highlight of this song is the bridge, where Elvis really lets loose: Always lived, A very quiet life, I ain’t never, Did no wrong… Now I know, That a life without you, Has been too lonely too long… It’s such an accepted fact – that Elvis Presley had a great voice – that you take it for granted. And if you picture him in his later years, when his throat was all clogged up with junk food and prescription drugs, you might wonder if he really did have that wonderful a voice. But listening to those lines, the way he snarls and howls, you realise that he was indeed a very fine singer. Listening to him like this, amongst his 1950s contemporaries, he really does stand out. He sounds like a modern rock star, while his peers often still sound clipped and plummy. His only true rival in the voice stakes, from the eighty numbers ones we’re covered so far, is the aforementioned Mr. Johnnie Ray.

Beyond the voice, however, this is a pretty simple record. A guitar, a bass and some drums. I haven’t really listened to it in years, and had misremembered it as being rockier, somewhat heavier. It’s something I’ve mentioned already, how these ancient records sound much more lightweight than you expect – probably thanks to bass heavy, headphone filling modern pop.

And ‘One Night’ brings to an end our mini-run of ‘one’-hit wonders topping the charts. Because, frankly, Elvis Presley is the polar opposite of a one-hit wonder. He’s the most-hits wonder, this being his 3rd of twenty-odd number ones. Actually, ‘One Night’ was also his 20th number one single, what with it hitting the top on re-release in 2005. It’s nice to think – lazy sod that I am – that I can just copy/paste this whole post when we arrive at January 2005. Which should be sometime in 2027, if I keep up my current pace… I’ll be in my forties… That’s not a daunting thought at all…

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To the other song, then, on this double ‘A’ disc: ‘I Got Stung’. I complained when covering Connie Francis’s recent double ‘A’-side that the insipid flip side (‘Carolina Moon’) failed to in any way live up to the corking ‘Stupid Cupid’. No such worries here, though. Elvis ain’t takin’ it easy…It begins with an exclamation: Holy smokes and snakes alive I never thought this could happen to me! Hello! Yes! We’re awake!

I know my Elvis, but I wasn’t so familiar with this little rocker. It’s simple enough: girl as honey bee; guy gets stung. There’s a rollicking piano, a chugging rhythm (the bass here being really deep and pretty scuzzy), lots of uh-huh-huhs and oh yeahs. This is what you might imagine an Elvis record sounding like if you had never really listened to him before.

Well now don’t think I’m complainin’, I’m mighty pleased we met, But you gimme, One little peck on the back o’ my neck, And I break out in a cold, cold sweat… There’s a great balance in these words – they’re down-home American enough without ever sounding corny. I’d transcribe more of them if I could, but El is mumbling away here. They’re possibly the most difficult-to-make-out lyrics we’ve met so far on this countdown. And it’s also the shortest record we’ve encountered: he races through several verses, bridges and choruses in a little under one minute fifty.

And so – Holy smokes and snakes alive! – our third meeting with The King careers to an abrupt end. Uh-huh-huh! Yeah! Done. Our night with Elvis is over. He might call you again; but he probably won’t…

19. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray

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Such A Night, by Johnnie Ray (his 1st of three #1s)

1 week, from 30th April to 7th May 1954

For the first time since beginning this blog, we arrive at a song that I know. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the way I’d heard ‘Secret Love’ without realising, or in the way I knew ‘I Believe’ because of it’s chart domination. I know this song, I actively listen to it, and I love Johnnie Ray.

It’s a jaunty (that word again), quick-tempo song with a simple enough riff and some ‘ooby dooby’s in the background. Nothing too unusual there. But what makes it, and elevates it to a classic, are Ray’s vocals. Like Doris Day before him there’s an effortlessness to his voice that draws you in and yanks you along. But his voice is nothing like the clean-cut, honeyed tones of Miss Day. ‘Such a Night’ isn’t being sung here – it’s being ridden, it’s being humped… it’s being performed.

Ray has help in this performance from some seriously risqué lyrics. This is the story – and let’s remind ourselves that we are writing here about a record that topped the charts in April 1954 – of a one-night stand.

            It was a night, Ooh what a night it was, It really was, Such a night… It was a kiss, Ooh what a kiss it was, It really was, Such a kiss…. Just the thought of her lips, Sets me afire, I reminisce and I’m filled with desire…

This is pretty saucy stuff right here. It starts out as a kiss in the moonlight, but suddenly…

            Came the dawn, And my heart and her love and the night was gone… But I’ll never forget that kiss in the moonlight, Ooh, such a kiss, Ooh, such a night!

It’s clever really. Obviously they couldn’t go writing a song with lyrics that touched on anything more than kissing, but are we really meant to believe that they just kissed all the way till sunrise? By the end, given the way Ray is ooh-ing and aah-ing, the answer is pretty obvious. Ain’t no kiss ever that good. The BBC, and various radio stations across the world, responded by banning the record. The first example, then, of a song’s infamy equalling a #1 hit? See also: Serge Gainsbourg, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, anything by Eminem…

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But wait, it gets even better. While the song is about a woman, and all the pronouns female, Johnnie Ray was gay. Those are gay ‘oohs’ and ‘aaahs’ and ‘mmms’, sitting at the top of the UK Singles Chart. In 1954. When that sort of thing was very much illegal, and gay men were being hunted, prosecuted and made to choose between jail or chemical castration. Now, that is something.

This is rock ‘n’ roll. OK, the music here is more jazzy, swing, whatever, but I am putting it out there that this is the first rock ‘n’ roll record to ever make the top of the charts. This is rock ‘n’ roll in all but name, surely? That’s what makes this idea of the pre-rock era so difficult to figure out, why it’s so hard to label this strange era in popular music.

Johnnie Ray will go on to hit the top spot a couple more times, so I will wait until then to write more about just how amazing he was, and how it’s a crime that he doesn’t sit alongside Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly et al in the pantheon of ’50s music greats (*spoiler alert* him being gay might have had a lot to do with this.) I will, though, take the chance to recommend Elvis’s own version of ‘Such a Night’, recorded several years later. Remember a few posts ago, when I said that drums rarely define a record? Well, the King’s version of this record is one of the exceptions.

But, for now, let’s end by simply being thankful that this gloriously raunchy track sneaked a week at #1, ghosting in amongst all the schmaltzy easy-listening that preceded and followed it. Ooh. Aah. Mmm. Yes!