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- “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
HIT #1: November 28, 1960
STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks
Back in the summer of 2018, me and my family took a vacation to Nashville exploring a lot of its rich music history. One of the places we went to was the RCA Victor Studio where lots of greats recorded but one artist in particular who loved recording there was Elvis Presley who recorded basically many of his greatest hits at the studio while signed to the RCA Victor label. While in one of the studios, our tour guide talked about Elvis recording “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” the gentle acoustic ballad that dominated the Hot 100 at the end of 1960. The tour guide talked about Elvis recording the song with the lights off and to get us in the mood of the original recording session turned the lights off in the studio as the song played. In that moment, you can almost feel the magic that was felt almost 60 years earlier when Elvis and his band recorded in the very same space and created another classic.
Before Elvis got a hold of it, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” already had a life of its own for over 30 years. It dates back to 1927 when it was written by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Roy Turk and Lou Handman and quickly became a hit for various artists including the Blue Barron Orchestra in 1950 becoming a Top 20 pre-Hot 100 Billboard hit. The song found its way to Elvis’ manager Col. Tom Parker who brought up the idea of Elvis singing it since it was his wife’s favorite song. Recorded in the early morning at the end of a long session, Elvis didn’t feel good about his take but his producers kept recording him until they got it right.
In Elvis’ hands, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” is a very quiet and sparse song anchored by a softly strummed acoustic guitar along with quiet drums and oohing backing vocals from the Jordanaires doing their best to sweeten up the song. Elvis sings the song in a very soft and delicate falsetto while indulging in some deep bellows but never getting in the way of the music as he sings to a woman he’s broken up with on how she’s doing now. In the second half, Elvis does a theatrical spoken word bridge comparing their relationship to a play that wants to see his partner again but makes it clear that they can move on if she wants to. Like with the rest of his ballads, Elvis here sells the hell out of this song with all its naked vulnerability in a way that can be seen as acting. There’s also a lot of echo on Elvis’ voice which was put on by accident but it turned out to be one of those happy accidents in recording giving more weight to his delivery.
Elvis had recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in April 1960 right off of his return from the Army but the label didn’t want to release it right away. RCA didn’t think this sparse ballad would look good for his image even though he had made similar sounding songs that were big such as “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t.” Eventually released in November, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” wound up being worth the wait with orders for the single reaching high numbers and in terms of weeks at #1 became Elvis’ biggest song in the Hot 100 era and he still wasn’t done yet.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Val Kilmer singing a version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” in 1984’s Top Secret:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2007 movie The Game Plan where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sings “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”: