The Lasting Icon: Elvis Presley and his 30 #1 Hits

By Daniel Garrett

Elvis Presley
30 #1 Hits
Compilation produced by David Bendeth
RCA/BMG, 2002

Elvis Presley combines style and emotion, effrontery and tenderness, convention and innovation; and his tragedy may have been that despite his fame, money, and travels, he did not stop being a small-town American boy. Whatever else one says about him and his music, he made music that sounds good and is fun. Some—not all—of his songs are very good, but more than a few would be disposable—if they were sung by someone else, if they had not become already part of entertainment history; and that is true of the songs collected on 30 #1 Hits.

Some of the songs collected on 30 #1 Hits are rock music standards, and some have nothing to do with rock: they are pretty songs of popular music, such as ballads, the kind of music the generation before Elvis Presley would like and that even now appeals. Sentimentality, no matter the alternatives, no matter the ridicule it receives, seems timeless (that is to say, impossible to kill, despite some of our best efforts). In the ballad “Love Me Tender,” derived from a Civil War ballad, “Aura Lee,” one hears a bit of a church choir and also elements that remain evergreen. “All Shook Up,” one of his early hits, has a rhythm of simmering heat. “It’s Now or Never” is sweet, as is “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” a song that was previously recorded by an earlier generation’s icon, Al Jolson. Some of Elvis Presley’s songs were translations or interpretations of German and Italian songs. (Of course, one hears the blues and also rhythm and blues—African-American song forms—in his work too.) Elvis Presley was an idol of my parents’ generation, but he was also of interest to me and the children I knew. How could he not be? He was one of the most beautiful and charismatic—and energetic—performers of the twentieth century.

Hearing Elvis Presley’s songs again, I become aware that a song can break your heart—and it’s not always the song you think it is going to be or for the reason you expect. A song can remind you, as it has me, of a time when you were younger, when you took much for granted, and you can weep at that kind of innocence, even though innocence—or ignorance—came to cause you so much pain.

Elvis Presley was a transgressive figure—publicly, personally—but he did not own his own transgression: what his transgression meant seems to have been beyond his consciousness. (That is not as strange as it sounds. We often want to change the world, to change the attitudes and taste of others, and to become part—a beloved and respected part—of the world as it is: we have contradictory hopes.) Was the problem that Presley was allowed to embody nothing but youth, sex, and success? His voice is almost too rich for “In the Ghetto,” a song appealing to liberal hearts on behalf of the black poor (his sympathy is unrestrained). Presley is more likely to be identified with “Burning Love,” the song—very sexy—in which Presley declares himself “just a hunk, a hunk of burning love.”

The Elvis Presley songs that remain alluring and powerful are the ones we know well: “Heartbreak Hotel,” with the low-voice verses and high-voice choruses, both sensual, and the bluesy piano; the confident, pleasing, humorous, and youthful “Don’t Be Cruel”; the rhythm music—with its claps, fast drumming, and guitar—and the words of dismissal in “Hound Dog”; “Love Me Tender”; “All Shook Up,” about nervous infatuation (Presley’s natural phrasing is very attractive); the appealingly rough and enthusiastic “Jailhouse Rock,” with one line quickly following another about pleasure despite circumstances, a common theme in popular music; “Return to Sender,” in which sound seems to become the drama, the emotion (the surprise, disappointment, and determination); “In the Ghetto”; “Suspicious Minds,” with its torturous love and mistrust; and “Burning Love.” Elvis Presley’s sound is lively—one of immediacy: he does not sound as if the past is his concern, but as if he is completely in the present. Elvis Presley is the lasting icon.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for, Hyphen,, Option, and, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.