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- “Love Me Tender”
HIT #1: November 3, 1956
STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks
Before he got big as a singer, Elvis Presley had always wanted to try his hand at acting. Inspired by legends like Marlon Brando and James Dean, acting was something Elvis seriously studied and wanted to perfect. Once he got big in 1956, Elvis’ manager Col. Tom Parker was more than happy to fulfill his wishes of being an actor getting him screen tests and a deal with Paramount. But where Elvis wanted to have more serious roles planning to debut with Katherine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker, Col. Parker, being the business person he is, was dead set on movies being a brand extension of the Elvis empire with lots of music and little regard to plot or quality.
These days, we’re used to pop stars making jumps into acting to varying degrees of success. Ultimately, what you learn from these moves is that the kind of looks and skills required to be a successful pop star doesn’t necessarily translate well to the movies. Looking at Elvis in the ‘50s, you can certainly understand why an acting career would have been a great move. Alongside looking great, he just commands your attention when performing, the kind of presence that would work great in a movie. I personally haven’t sat down to watch any of the 31 movies Elvis put out between 1956 and 1969 but from what I can tell, those movies did capitalize on his big celebrity and presence but not in a way that gave you a great indication of his talents as an actor.
Elvis and many others at the time knew how bad a lot of these movies were but for a good while, they were legitimate hits making lots of money at the box office and in soundtrack sales. To Col. Parker, as long as those movies kept generating money then there was no messing with the formula often putting out up to three films a year. It got to a point where by the ‘60s, movies were all that Elvis was doing after he stopped performing for much of the decade.
His first film role found him in The Reno Brothers, a western set during the Civil War. Unlike the rest of his films, Elvis was not billed as the main star, something the Col. would be very adamant about going forward. But he was big enough of a presence in the movie that he wrote and performed four songs for the movie including “Love Me Tender,” a ballad that fitting with the setting lifts its melody from the Civil War era song “Aura Lee.” The song wound up getting so popular that The Reno Brothers was changed to match the song title and on the pop charts helped Elvis replace himself at #1 after 11 weeks of the double A-sided “Don’t Be Cruel” b/w “Hound Dog.”
Lyrically, “Love Me Tender” is Elvis asking for full love and devotion from his special someone with lines that look like they come straight out of a Hallmark card, “Love me tender, love me true/All my dreams fulfilled/For my darling I love you/And I always will.” I normally find myself averse to this kind of cliché-ridden devotion song but here it works for me. A big part of it is Elvis himself who’s one of those singers that can make even the tritest and overused expression sound meaningful and profound. True to the song’s title, Elvis sings “Love Me Tender” with lots of tenderness and sensitivity in his voice. When he sings about how this person makes his life complete and will always love them, I believe him.
The production on “Love Me Tender” is a big change from previous Elvis songs in how sparse it sounds. Even “Heartbreak Hotel” wasn’t this sparse. Unlike the rest of Elvis’ songs, Elvis did not record it with his usual band as Love Me Tender’s producer David Weisbart wouldn’t allow them to record with him for the movie and brought in members of the Ken Darby Trio to record with Elvis on the film’s soundstage at 20th Century Fox. Aside from Elvis, the song’s carried by an acoustic guitar and comforting backing vocals that largely stay in the background of the mix giving space for Elvis’ singing rather than overwhelming him. This turned out to be the right move here helping to bring more attention to his delivery and lyrics.
“Love Me Tender” got its national debut a few weeks before its single release when he made his debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan had been firmly against having Elvis on his top-rated family variety show but he soon proved too big to ignore booking Elvis on for three shows the first being on September 9th. In introducing “Love Me Tender,” Elvis noted how big of a departure it was for what he had been doing up to that point while going into corporate promotion mode for the movie. The stage is dark as Elvis sings with some girls in the audience screaming and swooning before letting out their excitement at the end. 60 million Americans wound up watching Elvis’ first Ed Sullivan performance, over 80 percent of the TV audience at the time.
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard quoting a bit from “Love Me Tender” on his 1999 track “Cold Blooded”:
(Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s highest-charting single as a lead artist is 1999’s Kelis collab “Got Your Money” which peaked at #33. As a guest, he peaked at #15 with 1998’s Myá and Pras collab “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are).” He also participated in the remix for Mariah Carey’s massive 1995 #1 “Fantasy” which didn’t count in its chart success but is just as well known and as much of a banger as the original.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the largely faithful cover of “Love Me Tender” that Norah Jones recorded for the 2004 movie The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement:
(Norah Jones’ highest-charting single, 2002’s “Don’t Know Why,” peaked at #30.)