It's four a.m. in the RCA studio in Nashville, 1960. Young Elvis Presley, just back from his stint in the army, asks the legendary Nashville producer and musician Chet Atkins to turn down the lights in the room and he starts to croon an old song that was a hit for jazz singer Gene Austin in 1927, as a favor for his manager Col. Tom Parker, who had never before asked his young protégé to record any song. Besides, Presley liked it and, according to the second volume of the seminal Presley biography Careless Love, the Unmaking of Elvis Presley, the Colonel believed it had the potential to be a hit again. Presley, knowing the meaning that the song held for the older man and his wife, asks for the tape to roll. With just an acoustic guitar, brushed drums, bass, and the Jordanaires on discreet backing vocals, Presley begins the old song, bumping the microphone stand in the darkened room during the take. The engineer rolls back to start again and Presley asks the RCA executive in the room if he could just forget about the tune, claiming that he could not do the song "justice." RCA man Steve Shoals, recognizing the hit in the making, blamed the mistake on the Jordanaires and nonchalantly asks Presley to at least get one take all the way through. That first full take, bumping stands and all, is the recording that went to number one for Elvis Presley and went on to become one of his signature tunes.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" from Elvis Golden Records, Vol. 3 (1963) was written in 1926 by a couple of vaudevillian writers -- lyricist Roy Turk and composer Lou Handman -- who, between the two of them, wrote songs like "I'll Get By," "Walking My Baby Back Home," and "Bye Bye Blackbird," material covered by everyone from Eddy Cantor to Billie Holiday to the Ink Spots. Elvis stretches out from his R&B and country roots here as he takes on the European-flavored pop ballad with a style that somehow manages to capture the Ink Spots -- in his use of falsetto, a spoken middle section, and such phrasing as "to a bright a-summer day" -- and Mario Lanza, in his diaphragm-powered baritone. Clearly Presley was becoming more ambitious to take on some of his other influences; he was an open-minded and voracious record collector and listener. To many fans of his earlier rock & roll and rockabilly records, this song and others like it signaled the beginning of the end, or "the Unmaking of Elvis Presley," as Guralnick so perspicaciously put it. To many others, it was indicative of a restless artistic soul, eager to embrace other musical flavors.
This is a tender, perhaps even sugary ballad, to be sure, but it is also full of soul and intense and intimate power. Presley holds back, delivering the vocal in a restrained, almost whispered falsetto, only allowing a glimpse at the power of his voice on the first halves of such lines as "shall I come back again?" before reigning himself back in. The singer knows the lover is indeed lonesome, with a "heart filled with pain." He believes he has her in the palm of his hand, allowing her to say the word: to forgive and forget. The track can not be accused of being overly polished, arranged, or produced; one can indeed hear knocks -- on stands and on the acoustic guitar -- and there is an uneven quality to the recording. It is, though, one of those performances that can usually only be attained on the first or second take -- the kind of raw, inspired power that performers like Bob Dylan have always tried to capture in studio recordings. Even the spoken word middle section -- which was most likely taken from Al Jolson's 1950 recording -- feels right, a part that could easily fall into parody, which it did indeed do as Presley could no longer seem to pull it off with a straight face in his later years, substituting silly lines like "without any hair" for "the room is bare." But on the recording, this old-fashioned, almost Victorian song is injected with a heightened sense of sexual urgency and potential emotional breakdown; the ultimate sort of makeup song. And Presley is quite aware that he is out on a limb here; vulnerable, opening up, which is why he cleared the studio of all but people directly related to the recording and darkened the room before singing it. It is evident that when he sang/spoke the line "and now the stage is bare, and I'm standing there/With emptiness all around" that it was exactly such a setting in which he pictured himself. It is a ghostly image, haunting the singer just like the thought "do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?" He wonders if he is already a ghost. "Honey, you lied when you said you loved me," comes one of the next lines. "And if you won't come back to me, then they can bring the curtain down," the singer's voice quivering slightly. He is through being sweet. In the short course of three minutes, the narrator has transformed from an intimate, reassuring presence -- albeit a sexually charged one -- to a man just barely in control of himself. There is a malevolence present that is not even hinted at by Jolson or versions that came after Presley's -- from Frank Sinatra (who does not even attempt the spoken part on his 1962 All Alone) to Sonny James; even tough old Merle Haggard, on My Farewell to Elvis (1977), sounds more tender than simmering. It is one of Presley's darkest moments, literally and figuratively.