Random Tracks: Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”

With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, I’m 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- “Jailhouse Rock”

HIT #1: October 21, 1957

STAYED AT #1: 7 weeks

Listening to the endless number of Elvis hit songs, many of them come across as fine or good enough but haven’t really grabbed me. A big part of this reaction is simply me not being into a lot of the early rock and roll music. I had learned about Elvis as a kid knowing some of his big songs and the impact he had on music and pop culture but for someone who grew up more on the Beatles and classic rock, Elvis and much of ‘50s rock and roll can sound mild compared to what came after. 

Of course, this reaction is bound to happen when you grow up long after the period when everything that came after sounds more exciting and current. But on some songs, you can still feel the raw excitement that many kids felt in the ‘50s when Elvis exploded in popularity and became a controversial sensation. Case in point, “Jailhouse Rock” which might just be my all-time favorite Elvis song.

“Jailhouse Rock” comes from Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, the legendary songwriting team that had enjoyed big success the year before with Elvis’ cover of “Hound Dog” a song the duo initially wrote for Big Mama Thornton. The two were approached to write songs for Elvis’ latest movie initially titled The Hard Way but for whatever reason didn’t give any songs. It wasn’t until Lieber and Stoller were locked in a hotel room by the head of their publishing company that they eventually came up with four songs for the movie including what would become its title track written for its big dance scene.

In Lieber and Stoller’s words, “Jailhouse Rock” is a song about inmates playing music together describing how everyone in the prison was dancing to the jailhouse rock. Throughout the song, the duo uses names like Spider Murphy, Little Joe, Shifty Henry, and Sad Sack to describe various inmates which were apparently taken from real-life people. There’s also the third verse which hints at a gay encounter, “Number forty-seven said to number three/“You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see.”” Considering this was the ‘50s, it’s pretty funny to me that Lieber and Stoller managed to sneak in this kind of reference on a major hit song. 

Listening to Elvis on the song, he doesn’t sound like he understands the implication of that line or any of the other lines which is why the song works so well. From the moment he starts singing, Elvis is nothing but on fire the whole way through delivering the song with a whole lot of raucous energy exhibiting the kind of urgency and excitement that Elvis wouldn’t really do a whole lot of after this song. He’s just bulldozing his way through the song and it’s easily the greatest Elvis has ever sounded. Musically, “Jailhouse Rock” goes a lot harder than most ‘50s rock and roll with its ominous snare roll and guitar slide anchoring much of the song along with a chaotic yet simple guitar solo. 

While the song lives on as one of Elvis’ biggest known songs, the performance montage in the Jailhouse Rock movie also plays a big part in the song’s success, perhaps the earliest example of how music and image can work together. Some might even consider “Jailhouse Rock” the first ever music video. In the scene, we see Elvis and a bunch of cell mates all doing dance routines on a cell block set before going over to a table as Elvis sings. That performance clip has arguably contributed a lot to Elvis’ legacy. When you look Elvis up on Wikipedia, the main image you’ll see is him on the Jailhouse Rock set. In elementary school, I had a fun music teacher who taught my class about Elvis and I remember very clearly her showing us the Jailhouse Rock clip. It’s the kind of thing you watch and don’t forget.

Of course, “Jailhouse Rock” was another monster hit for Elvis going to #1 on all the various pre-Hot 100 Billboard charts and most notably became the first song to debut at #1 in the UK, a remarkable feat considering this wouldn’t start happening in America on the Billboard Hot 100 until 1995. Even more amazing, “Jailhouse Rock” went back to #1 in the UK after a re-release in 2005. Not long after the song’s success, Elvis put out a Christmas album which by all accounts is the best-selling Christmas album of all time totaling sales in the US of over 17 million copies and giving us his perennial classic “Blue Christmas.” (Thanks to the recent surge of Christmas songs on the Hot 100, “Blue Christmas” has managed to peak so far at #33 after Christmas 2020.) Even after a year of nonstop success, Elvis was not anywhere near ready to slow down.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the ending of the 1980 classic The Blues Brothers where John Belushi and Dan Akyroyd play “Jailhouse Rock” for a group of inmates with guest stars including #1 artists Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin joining in on the action:

(James Brown, the only other guest star to my knowledge in the clip who has charted on the Hot 100, peaked at #3 with 1965’s “(I Got You) I Feel Good.” It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Queen performing a harder rocking cover of “Jailhouse Rock” at a 1981 concert in Montreal: 

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 1997 episode of Oz, a whole show about gay encounters in prison, where one of the inmates describes his failed execution as an acapella version of “Jailhouse Rock” is sung:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Eminem and CeeLo Green rapping and singing over a chopped-up sample of “Jailhouse Rock” on “The King And I,” their song for the Elvis movie soundtrack:

(Eminem has already appeared in The Ones of the ‘10s while CeeLo Green has peaked at #2 twice as a member of Gnarls Barkley with 2006’s “Crazy” and as a solo artist with 2010’s “Fuck You.” “Crazy” is an 8. “Fuck You” is a 10.)

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