One of the more woebegone songs ever written, "Are You Lonesome Tonight" finds Elvis asking his ex if she's alone and miserable, thinking about the good times they had and waiting for his return. We never get her side of the story, but can surmise that he's the one left cold and lonely.
This song was written in 1926 by the 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 Al Jolson, and by the bandleader Blue Barron with his vocalist Bobby Beers. Jaye P. Morgan (also a female singer) had a minor hit with the song in 1959, reaching #65. Her version is likely the one Elvis was most familiar with.
Elvis recorded it when his manager, Colonel Parker, asked him to try the song because it was a favorite of Parker's wife, Marie. It was a huge hit, spending six weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 between November 1960 and January 1961. Turk and Handman would have earned enormous royalties, but they were both dead by the time Elvis recorded the song.
Most of Elvis' version is a spoken section where he describes the relationship in terms of a play, with the couple falling in love in Act 1. In Act 2, something goes wrong and her love for him dries up. He's left on the empty stage, wondering when the curtain will fall.
The spoken section isn't in every version of the song, but Blue Barron and Al Jolson included variations of it in theirs.
Elvis recorded this song at the end of an all-night session at RCA Studio B in Nashville that started on April 3, 1960. He recorded eight songs before taking on "Are You Lonesome Tonight" in the early morning of April 4.
Elvis was a transgressive rocker, but around this time he recording oldies. His previous single, also a huge hit, was "It's Now Or Never
," which used the melody from the old Italian song O Sole Mio
Elvis welcomed this change in direction, seeing it as a way to broaden his musical horizons and adapt different styles. It worked out well for him: He gained many new fans and retained most of his old ones.
Performing in Las Vegas on August 26, 1969, Elvis had some fun with this song, changing the line:
Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?
Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?
From there, he gets a case of the giggles and laughs his way through the rest of the song. This became known as the "Laughing Version
"; it was unofficially recorded and released years after Elvis' death. The female backing singer who keeps singing as Elvis struggles to regain his composure is Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston's mother.
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."
When this song took off, at least five answer songs by female singers flooded the market. Dodie Stevens, Linda Lee, Ricky Page, and Thelma Carpenter all released versions called "Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight," keeping the same lyrics but changing the perspective. Jeanne Black released a completely different answer song called "Oh, How I Miss You Tonight." Carpenter's version (#55) and Stevens' (#60) both charted.
This earned Grammy nominations for Best Performance By A Pop Single Artist and Best Vocal Performance Single Record Or Track, Male, but lost in both categories to "Georgia On My Mind
" by Ray Charles.