Presley had 19 No. 1 singles, but some of his most well-known tunes never made it to the top spot. Some of those are quite surprising.
Billy Watkins/The Clarion-Ledger
MEMPHIS — Forty years after his death, Elvis Presley remains a global icon. As the years pass, it’s perhaps too easy for Elvis’ image to obscure his artistry. In Memphis, especially, Elvis the revolutionary artist, the “sing all kinds” boundary smasher and the versatile vocalist shouldn’t be forgotten. To celebrate his music, here are our picks for his 40 greatest recordings:
1. “That’s All Right” (1954): Originally written and recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946, this is Elvis’ first single, recorded at Sun Studio on July 5, 1954. It’s nothing more than “the great wedding ceremony,” the product of four men messing around in a small room on Union Avenue and remaking global culture. And while you can argue whether Elvis was the first to blend pre-existing styles into this new thing called rock ‘n’ roll, his synthesis of country and blues here sounds more effortless and more complete than any of his contemporaries, or his inheritors. It clocks in at under two minutes and sounds so simple, so inevitable now. But its grace still startles. — Chris Herrington
2. “Mystery Train” (1955): A 1953 number recorded by bluesman Junior Parker and the Blue Flames, and produced by Sam Phillips for Sun Records. Elvis reinvented it in the same room two years later for his final Sun single, imbuing the song with a deeper Americana. The song’s first line, “Train I ride, sixteen coaches long,” had turned up in tunes by the Carter Family and Leadbelly, among others. Elvis’ rendition — faster and somehow more haunting than Parker’s original — augured big changes. — Bob Mehr
3. “Hound Dog” (1956): “Hound Dog” was first recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and was a No. 1 rhythm & blues hit in 1953. But the song is synonymous with Elvis, whose version sold 10 million copies and spent 11 weeks atop the pop chart. Thornton stood something like 10 feet tall and could drop whole armies with a stare; when she sang a song, it stayed sung. But don’t buy the myth that her original was superior to Elvis’ cover. Essentially acting as his own producer, he swapped out words, souped up the tempo and created, as cultural critic Greil Marcus…