Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #11

Elvis Presley – Don’t Be Cruel

Anyone who knows when I was born and is capable of inter­preting a calendar will right about now be calling ballshit on my framing of “Don’t Be Cruel” as a classic song of my youth. To that, I have three comments (well, four):

  • The first time I became aware of Elvis was during my youth. (This creates a lot of leeway: I’m coming for you, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. Hell, even Mozart (a.k.a. the first pop star) isn’t safe.)
  • Elvis has never stopped being popular, and thus his songs are classics of everyone’s ­youth.
  • Women are born with all the eggs they will have in their lifetimes (well, maybe), so when this song was released in 1956 a significant chunk of my DNA was just hanging around waiting to become me. Science!
  • Finally, this is my blog. The only rules are my own.

Now, to our story.

Possibly the first album I claimed ownership over (but didn’t actually own) was a 1973 compila­tion called “Elvis”. It had a blue cover with yellow lettering, and until writing this, I had long believed it was a K-Tel compilation. It was packed with 20 of his biggest hits, and I think I loved every one of them. But the song I loved best was the first track on the A side of disc two: “Don’t Be Cruel”.

By the end of the 1970s, I had stopped listening to Presley, having moved on to that other Elvis who claimed to be King. That’s never really changed even to this day. But I still remember those songs well, and get a small spark of joy when I hear one without warning.

When my father passed away in 2007, he didn’t leave much in the way of a material legacy for his four offspring. As it was, I only wanted one thing: his Fender guitar. It wasn’t worth anything (his was a mass market axe), and I couldn’t play. But a love of music was one of the few things we had in common, and I guess that was a factor. 

Flash forward to Christmas 2009, and my future wife bought me guitar lessons as a present. I attended for several months, then started law school and had little time for much else over the next few years. My guitar has sat in its case, neglected, pretty much ever since. But the one song I had started learning to play was an Elvis tune. Taken off an album called “Elvis ‘56”, I had never heard “Too Much”  before, even though it had been a #1 hit. It’s a good song for a beginner – straightforward strumming of some basic chords without much in the way of changes. I wasn’t a bad student, even with my aging digits and sluggish reflexes, thanks to having a pretty good ear, and I was actually getting the hang of playing it before I packed my guitar away. And that “Elvis ‘56” album is pretty great.

But it still can’t top “Don’t Be Cruel”. It opens with Bill Black’s thumping double bass, and if you don’t immediately recognize it, that can only be because you haven’t listened to pop radio at any point in the last 65 years. The backup singers create atmosphere with their bop-bops and aah’s, and that deep bass never lets up, paired with a simple drum beat, driving through as Elvis presses on to the end, seeking his girl’s undying love. 

It isn’t his greatest vocal, and he is downright minimalist when it comes to clear articulation (now that I’ve read the lyric sheet, I know how many of these I misheard). He fully commits to the song, with a hint of pathos to his hopeful romanticism. He starts out saucy, despite the pleading in the words – even when Elvis is begging a girl, he never stops being cool. He then does what every cool guy does when a girl is blowing him off: he ups the ante, with Mr. Confident thinking the solution to his problem is to get her to marry him. This is a false hope, and there is a slight hitch in his voice towards the end, as he realises “maybe this isn’t going to work out”, with the now clear and earnest delivery from Elvis and doo-doo’s of the last chorus sending a chill along your spine (or neck into the upper shoulders in my case).

It’s a classic for good reasons, and the uncomplicated production allows the musicianship to shine through. Great music doesn’t need to be fussy. It just needs to grab and hold your attention, and there were few equal to Elvis in doing just that.

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