Sunday, February 8, 2015

Are You Lonesome Tonight? - Ten Facts, Ten Covers

Every once in a while, I like to gather up a variety of takes on one popular song.  I got the idea from one of my favorite music bloggers, Any Major Dude with Half a Heart, who calls it a "song swarm."
One of Elvis Presley's biggest hits actually predates Elvis' recording of it by more than three decades.   Are You Lonesome Tonight? was originally written in 1926 by composer Lou Handman and lyricist Roy Turk.  It was immediately popular, with several early recordings within a year or so of its publication.     

1.  Are You Lonesome Tonight? is not nearly the oldest song Elvis made into a huge hit. The music for Love Me Tender is from a Civil War era ballad called Aura Lee.

2. According to Elvis legend, Presley recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight? at the insistence of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.  It was reportedly a favorite of Parker's wife.

3. Are You Lonesome Tonight? was the title of a 1985 British play about the life of Elvis Presley. Released the same year as Les Miserables, it did not have the staying power of that far more famous show.  A later Broadway show, All Shook Up, was a "jukebox musical" that featured Elvis songs in an original story having nothing to do with The King.

4.  The spoken word interlude ("Someone said all the world's a stage...") was introduced later, but still predates Elvis' version.  See the Blue Barron link below.

5. "All the world's a stage..." is the beginning to a well-known speech in Shakespeare's As You Like It.  After that familiar phrase, the spoken-word section of the song is quite loosely adapted from the original.

6. Speaking of loose adaptations, the underrated 1982 movie Top Secret! (from the same team of writer-directors who gave us Airplane! and The Naked Gun) featured an Elvis-like singer (played by Val Kilmer) getting mixed up with Eastern European spies.  In that film, Are You Lonesome Tonight? is reworked into a jingle for Macy's.

7. The earliest recording of the song is thought to be by Bob Haring and The Cameo Dance Orchestra.  However, no copy of that recording survives today.

8.  Elvis recorded his version in a totally dark studio.  Near the end,  Elvis stumbled into a chair, knocking it over.  Supposedly, that sound can be heard on the recording if you listen closely enough.

 9. Are You Lonesome Tonight was also the title of a 1992 TV-movie starring Jane Seymour and Parker Stevenson.  According to its IMDB description, "A rich wife who is searching for her missing husband, seeks help from a private eye and her husband's call girl."

10.  Among the cover artists not mentioned below are Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Connie Francis, Donny Osmond and Pat Boone. The song has been translated into many languages, including Serbo-Croatian.

For those familiar only with the Elvis hit, it's somewhat jarring to hear the song preserved in the tinny, over-enunciated, static-filled sound of those old 78rpm recordings.  Born as Harry Haley McClaskey, Henry Burr was a Canadian tenor who (by his own estimate) made more than 12,000 recordings in his lifetime, under a variety of pseudonyms.  His is one of the earliest surviving recordings, but there are several others also available from that era
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Henry Burr 1927)

In an era before mass media, "covers" of songs could get distorted almost beyond recognition.  In 1936, the original Carter Family recorded their folk version of the song with a substantially different melody:
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Carter Family 1936)

The version that was probably the biggest influence on Elvis' take was this one from 1950 by Blue Barron and His Orchestra.  For one thing, it was the first recording that introduced the spoken-word interlude that became standard after Elvis incorporated it for his version  In this one, the vocalist (Bobby Beers) and the speaker (John McCormick) are two different people.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Blue Barron and His Orchestra 1950)

Country music legends Homer and Jethro were recording parodies of popular hits before Weird Al Yankovic was even born.  Sometimes lost in the often corny silliness was what good musicians they were.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Homer & Jethro 1960)

"Answer songs" are essentially the music world's version of sequels.  Usually obscure novelties, they approach a hit record from a different perspective, often a gender reversal.  From 1960, here's Dodie Stevens with her answer to Elvis.
Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight (Dodie Stevens 1960)

Billy Vaughn was a musician and bandleader whose specialty was instrumental covers of old standards and popular songs. He and his orchestra were preposterously prolific from the late fifties through the sixties, releasing dozens and dozens of albums.  His take on our song is pretty typical of his light, breezy style, starting in a traditional vein before becoming looser halfway through.
Are You Lonesome Tonight (Billy Vaughn 1961)

To break up the monotony of his live performances, Elvis would sometimes sing alternate comic lyrics to his popular hits, often dissolving into giggles at his own antics.  Long popular as underground, bootleg tracks, one such version of Lonesome, recorded at a 1969 Vegas concert, actually got a commercial release as part of a 1980 tribute box set.  BTW, the solo obligato heard over Elvis' spoken word section is by Cissy Houston, the mother of Whitney. 
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Elvis Live in Vegas 1969)

Sam Kinison was a popular standup comic of the late 80s and early 90s whose promising career was cut short by a fatal 1992 car crash.  Known for his high-energy, screaming rants, he could also display a good (if not great) singing voice.  Both are on display in this appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Sam Kinison 1986)

The soundtrack to the 1992 film Honeymoon in Vegas used modern artists covering various Elvis tunes.  (A current stage version of the film features original songs.) Most sounded a lot like the Elvis originals, but Bryan Ferry created a moody, haunting version of Lonesome quite different than the usual approach.
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Bryan Ferry 1992)

Finally, one of the better modern takes on this 88-year-old standard is performed by Kacey Musgraves from a live 2013 performance at the Grand Ole Opry.  Note the impressive steel guitar interlude!
Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Kacey Musgraves 2013)

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