With the upcoming release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, I’ll be marking the occasion by reviewing all of Elvis Presley’s 18 #1 hits on Billboard including 11 that topped pre-Hot 100 charts and 7 that topped the Hot 100 after its 1958 inception.
Elvis Presley- “Don’t Be Cruel”
HIT #1: August 18, 1956 (b/w “Hound Dog”)
STAYED AT #1: 11 weeks
Looking at the lyrics to “Don’t Be Cruel” will make you realize just how different of a time the ‘50s were when it came to relationships. At its core, it’s another song about Elvis being all crazy for a girl wanting her to call him on the telephone when she’s not around, forget about the things he said that made her mad, and think of him all the time reminding her in the main hook “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.” All of that seems pretty standard but then at the end, Elvis is offering marriage because as he puts it, “Then you’ll know you’ll have me/And I’ll know that I’ll have you.”
Reading this from a 2022 standpoint, proposing marriage right away in a relationship doesn’t seem like a good idea for a lasting relationship but in 1956, people grew up fast often getting married very quickly and very young. Elvis was singing about what lots of people in that time probably would have done and in the process helped to give him one of his biggest songs ever.
“Don’t Be Cruel” was one of the earliest hits for Otis Blackwell, a songwriter who would become a big collaborator on future Elvis songs. A native of Brooklyn, Blackwell had tried to make it as a songwriter and performer in New York where he got his big break in 1952 winning a talent show at the storied Apollo Theater which landed him a record deal with RCA before getting switched over to Jay-Dee the next year. For a few years, Blackwell wasn’t having much success until 1956 when Little Willie John scored a big R&B hit with the Blackwell penned “Fever” which would become more well know later when the jazz singer Peggy Lee covered it in 1958. When Elvis was in the studio one day to record “Hound Dog,” he and his team listened to some demos since they needed to have a B-side and when they heard Blackwell’s demo for “Don’t Be Cruel,” they apparently went crazy for it that the song was bumped to the A-side.
As a song, “Don’t Be Cruel” is a nice little mid-tempo shuffle, a lazy afternoon kind of vibe, complete with a sticky Scotty Moore guitar riff intro and backing vocals from The Jordanaires who do those “bop bop” interjections that border on sounding irritatingly fake to me which is my main complaint about the song. As Elvis sings about his obsession with this girl, he doesn’t sound like he’s taking it all that seriously delivering the song with a lighthearted wink. Overall, “Don’t Be Cruel” isn’t an Elvis song I gravitate to a whole lot but it’s a fine song nonetheless.
“Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” were both on their own major smashes going to #1 on various Billboard charts of the time. Nowadays, chart historians count “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” as one double-A-sided single on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. There, both songs were #1 together for 11 weeks, a very hard feat to pull off in those days. After the Hot 100 was established in 1958, it would take Boyz II Men’s 13-week chart-topper “End of the Road” in 1992 to end the “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog” longest-running #1 song record. Even though the Elvis single charted before the Hot 100 existed, those same chart historians still count it when talking about “End of the Road” breaking the record.
With this chart performance, there was no doubt Elvis was the absolute biggest star in America and he wouldn’t have to wait too long to get his next #1.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the version of “Don’t Be Cruel” that the Judds recorded with the Jordanaires in 1987 and which became a Top-10 hit on the country charts:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: During their late-‘80s comeback, Cheap Trick recorded a cover of “Don’t Be Cruel” which they released in 1988 as the follow-up to their #1 hit “The Flame.” Here’s the video for Cheap Trick’s version:
(Cheap Trick’s “Don’t Be Cruel” peaked on the Hot 100 at #4, the group’s last Top-10 hit. It’s a 5.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Debbie Harry, someone who’s been to #1 several times as a member of Blondie, covering “Don’t Be Cruel” for a 1994 Otis Blackwell tribute album: