This song was written in 1926 by Tin Pan Alley songwriters Roy Turk and Lou Handman. It was a hit in 1927 for a number of artists including Vaughan Deleath (A female despite the name), Henry Burr and Gene Austin. In 1950 it was revived by the bandleader Blue Barron with his vocalist Bobby Beers, and Al Jolson cut a version in 1953. Elvis' manager Colonel Parker asked him to try the song because it was a favorite of Parker's wife, Marie.
Elvis did not believe he could do the song justice and asked for the tape to be thrown out. Steve Sholes, the RCA producer at the recording session, believed the recording would be a hit and directed its release.
Elvis had the studio lights completely turned off while recording the song. As he finished, Elvis blundered into a chair, knocking it over, and the sound can be heard if you listen to the record on headphones.
Elvis' arrangement is generally considered closest to the arrangement of Blue Barron and his Orchestra. Elvis' narration is modified from the original narration of the Blue Barron release (which was later copied by Al Jolson).
The famous "Laughing Version" came from a 1969 Las Vegas performance unofficially recorded, and was released years after Elvis' death.
Producer Bill Porter drenched the first take in echo by mistake but didn't say anything because he figured there would be more attempts. However, all they did was record the end part over again due to a mistake on the guitar and what the listener hears is basically take one.
Had Elvis waited just a little longer to record this, it could have ended up being a Connie Francis hit. Francis told DISCoveries Magazine: "One day in 1960 I was going through my collection of Al Jolson and Judy Garland records, and I played Al's 'Are You Lonesome Tonight.' I said, 'Daddy, come listen to this. I could make it a No.1 song.' He agreed and I called Don Costa in to do the arrangement. I said, 'I'm more excited about recording this song than anything I've ever cut.' We were in the car on our way to New York when the radio played Elvis' 'new single,' 'Are You Lonesome Tonight.' Can you believe that? I was literally on my way to the studio to record it. How do you like that? Elvis even did the recitation part just like Al Jolson did."
Elvis' version spent six weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 between November 1960 and January 1961.
During the song's last week at #1 on the January 2, 1961 chart, Dodie Stevens debuted at #98 with a reworking titled, "Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight." Her reinterpretation eventually reached #60.