Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The #1 Elvis hit that Elvis hated




It was the last Top 10 pop hit that Elvis Presley had during his lifetime. Critics heralded it as Elvis's great return to rock 'n' roll. It became a #1 pop hit in Cash Box and a Top 40 country hit on the Billboard country chart. But Elvis hated it and performed it only a couple of times. The song? The 1972 hit "Burning Love." 

Producer Felton Jarvis pushed Elvis to record "Burning Love," a song that recently had appeared as an album cut on an LP by R&B great Arthur Alexander. Elvis didn't like the song and didn't want to record it but cut it anyway at Jarvis's urging.

Mark P. Bernardo, in his book Elvis Presley: Memphis, says that Presley at that time was moving away from rock toward "bittersweet, melancholy ballads" because of his breakup with Priscilla, so he wasn't inclined to record rockers such as "Burning Love." But people close to Elvis said that Elvis's dislike of the song involved more than just its rock orientation.

For example, "Memphis Mafia" member Jerry Schilling said, "Elvis—who had close to a photographic memory when it came to books, scripts, lyrics—always insisted that he needed a lyric sheet to perform 'Burning Love.'"

"Elvis didn't want to record 'Burning Love,' didn't like it when he had recorded it, and sang it as rarely as possible afterwards," wrote Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Elvis.

Why was Elvis so unenthusiastic about this song that had revived his commercial fortunes? If you watch a lyric video of the song, I think it's pretty easy to see why. I like this song, but it sounds like it was written in five minutes. The lyrics have no logical order—you could rearrange the lines randomly without significantly altering the meaning, because most of them restate the same thought in different ways. The rhyme scheme is almost nonexistent, and it's hard to tell where the singer is supposed to put the stresses. In Elvis' version, you can hear on a few lines where he struggles to fit the line to the rhythm of the song. The song also weirdly repeats the word "flaming."


"Burning Love" was written by Nashville songwriter Dennis Linde, who recorded a version of it himself. Linde's voice, on his version, reminds me a bit of Loudon Wainwright, but some people think he sounds like John Fogerty. You might expect the songwriter's version to be definitive, but even Linde seems to struggle with where to place the stresses on some lines. (Listen to the "it's hard to breathe" line, for example.)

Whatever Elvis thought about the song, it was enthusiastically hailed by fans as a return to his rock 'n' roll sound, and the "hunk o' hunk o' burnin' love" refrain recalled Elvis's 1959 hit "A Big Hunk O' Love." And in this live performance, Elvis appears to perform the song in its entirety without lyric sheets or teleprompters.