Jun 04

ELVIS PRESLEY – “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Popular13 comments • 3,392 views

#112, 28 January 1961

Elvis takes a 1926 Al Jolson hit and turns it into one of his most audacious No.1s – a production so sepulchral that he had the studio lights turned off to do it and an utterly commanding performance. From a distance the record seems a piece of irredeemable kitsch – its hushed strum, measured delivery and wodge of mock-oratory point to a track taking itself far, far too seriously. But actually listening to its 3 minutes 7 seconds I find “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” completely believable. Its quietness is a clever stroke – it demands reciprocal silence, it makes me pay attention to a thrillingly direct Presley performance. The assertive severity of the arrangement means Elvis can be restrained, never really having to let his voice loose until the very final verse: instead he can use it to perfect a tone of polite disdain for his fickle lover.

And then we get the wonderful spoken word passage, in which the King turns positively Presidential. The curt “Honey – you lied” turns the song from a matter of heartbreak into a matter of honour, and as Elvis works through the theatrical metaphor I’m left amazed that he never won respect as an actor. (Maybe giving him Shakespeare to do instead of Blue Hawaii would have worked!). And as in many of the best revenge songs, the singer doesn’t just hurt here; he smoulders too.



  1. 1
    Joe Williams on 29 Aug 2005 #

    I prefer the live ‘Laughing Version’, where Elvis says ‘now the stage is bare, and I’ve lost all my hair’ then spends the rest of the song falling over laughing while the band play on. Probably off his head on barbiturates at the time, but genius all the same.

  2. 2
    wichita lineman on 3 Sep 2008 #

    The Presidential line is a great observation in a faultless review. Bill Clinton always reminded me of Elvis when he was on form, only not as convincing. It’s a breath-catching spoken word part – can anyone think of a better one on Popular? Pat Boone? Johnny Nash? Windsor Davies?

    As for acting, in 1961 Elvis blew one of his best chances to get taken seriously with Wild In The Country. He’s the bad boy bouncing between between Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld, and Millie Perkins (tough choice, I know, must’ve killed him). But his uppers habit plays havoc with his performance, rushing every line in a pretty decent film. It was also spoilt by the tacked on ending, but Elvis set himself up for a decade of Clambakes with his pill-popping.

    The theme was a phantom number one, too, but a decidedly underwhelming one.

  3. 3
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    #1: that must be a different “Laughing Version” to the one which went Top 30 in ’82 wherein Presley sings “do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?” before corpsing through the rest of the number, mainly I think provoked by the rather off-key backing vocal (“Sing it baby!”).

  4. 4
    Mark G on 4 Sep 2008 #

    My guess is he’s mis-remembered it, but it does raise an interesting side-issue….

    When the first version of something nails it as an ‘act’, where he actually does deliver his lines cleverly and hits all the cues..

    Ten years on, delivering this every night, the resonance long gone, but people still want to hear it, I guess all the live versions by now would be ‘iwonderifyrlonesmtonight…ynosmeoncesdthewldsastage…yaddayada….’ style.

  5. 5
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    When are RCA going to give Having Fun With Elvis On Stage its richly deserved reissue on CD? Forty minutes of “well…wellll…weeeelllll…” and “someone gimme a towel”; it’s his late masterpiece.

  6. 6
    Mark G on 4 Sep 2008 #

    I’m still waiting for the (re)issue of “Poison Ivy League” where Elvis calls for direct action (by poisoning) against the class and privilege inherant in the US college education system…

    (And I’m not even exaggerating!)

  7. 7
    DJ Punctum on 4 Sep 2008 #

    “How can they flunk, they’re so full of bunk!”

  8. 8
    crag on 13 Apr 2011 #


    Edna O’brien, novelist(1987)

    Alan Bleasdale, playwright (1991)

    Sally Anne Field, actress (1993)

    Willard White, Opera singer (1999)

    Patricia Cornwell, novelist (2002).

  9. 9
    Ken Shinn on 26 Mar 2012 #

    “Look at these little red things in my pants here!”

  10. 10
    hectorthebat on 1 Mar 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 9
    Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles (USA, 2003) 501
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee

  11. 11
    lonepilgrim on 10 Mar 2014 #

    the first thing that Elvis’ monologue reminded me of is Bob Dylan’s ‘Last thoughts on Woody Guthrie’. There’s a particular sense of American poetry that releases the music in everyday language and Elvis’ performance is perfectly judged. Another 6+ in the recent 1961 poll

  12. 12
    chrisew71 on 28 Mar 2018 #

    Works in spite of itself. Feels like it should be a trainwreck, but Elvis and the thoughtful production pull it all together.

  13. 13
    Gareth Parker on 9 Jun 2021 #

    I have to say I find this one to be an utterly painful listen. Sorry but a 1/10 from me.

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