Background and Vocal Summary: +++Elvis Aaron Presley is one of music’s most notable vocalists. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis grew to express musicality at a young age and started out professionally in a rockabilly trio with lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. Elvis then quickly rose in local stardom to the point where it warranted his departure from the group and starting of a solo career. From that point on, it was history; Elvis would have hit after hit (18 of which would reach number 1 in the US) and appear in numerous movies. Today, of course, he is debatably the largest icon of the 20th century, having sold the most records of any solo artist and having been credited as a source of inspiration by numerous musicians to follow. +++Though not a technically proficient singer per se, Elvis had a pleasant baritone voice that fit in wonderfully with his music. In the ’50s, he was much brighter tonally and was able to put his own mark on songs such as “Money Honey” and “Blue Suede Shoes”. This era was more than likely the point in which he had the most range at his disposal. Come the late ’60s, Elvis’ voice matured and he became much more adaptable in his interpretations, able to master calm ballads with tender midrange singing, hard rockers with gritty belting, and anything in between. This is oftentimes considered his vocal peak overall. As the ’70s wore on, however, Elvis gained a very rich tone that was good for ballads and other midrange songs. Despite this, one will note that the mass majority of his highest singing can be found in his ’70s performances of songs such as “Hurt”, “An American Trilogy”, and “How Great Thou Art”; this was the era in which Elvis would oftentimes attempt to push his upper range to its highest recorded limits, despite it having more potential earlier on. He would also go for some of his lowest notes during this era in songs such as “Jailhouse Rock” as well as low growl notes in “I Got A Woman”. Though his voice often had less power and his health began to fail near the end of his life, he still managed to captivate audiences up to his last shows in 1977. +++Overall, Elvis needs no introduction; to this day he goes down as one of the most influential music artists of all time and one whose charisma and melding of genres has affected people long after his own time. In this, he is truly timeless as an icon and as a voice. Though he himself was lost far too early, his recorded legacy is still with us and gives us a wonderful look into an unforgettable era of popular music.
The following is a visual representation of Elvis’ range.His lowest note, F♯1, and his highest note, F♯5, are labelled red. Middle C (C4) is labelled gray for reference.
Vocal Timeline: 1953 – 1955: Elvis’ earliest recordings feature him with a very light tone, certainly the lightest it would ever be, with more potential in his upper range than he would have later on. Even this early in his career, his recordings for Sun Records were often huge local hits that gave him a fair following. This led to his first live performances in the southern U.S. states which all have him in wonderful shape vocally.
1956 – 1959: During his first few years with RCA Victor, Elvis’ voice saw its first glimmer of maturity. He sounds very refined and handles more challenging songs such as “A Big Hunk o’ Love” and “Trouble” wonderfully whilst maintaining a great presence in ballads such as “Love Me Tender” and “Don’t”. This is his trademark era for most people and it isn’t hard to see why; he acquired most of his hits during these years and his voice at this point is often what people think of when they think Elvis.
1960 – 1967: This timespan is what is often referred to as Elvis’ “movie years”. The mass majority of albums he recorded during this timespan were merely for films that he was in. This, of course, wore down on his interpretations to the point where he sounds quite bored a lot of the time. This isn’t to say he didn’t have any good performances from then, though; he made a few non-movie albums during this era such as Elvis Is Back! and How Great Thou Art, both of which have him in wonderful voice and with equally wonderful interpretive skills. Not to mention hit singles such as “It Hurts Me” and “Surrender”, which show that his range was still wholly intact.
1968 – 1970: Despite the mid to late ’50s being Elvis’ most recognizable era, many would argue that this brief period in his career should be regarded higher from a vocal standpoint; never was Elvis more versatile vocally and a more entertaining live singer. His voice was the most powerful it had ever been and ever would be, able to breathe new life into older songs such as “One Night” and “Hound Dog” as though he had never sung them before. There seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do during these few years.
1971 – 1975: After such an amazing era for Elvis was unfortunately a much longer era of vocal inconsistencies and general weakening. Not to say there weren’t good times (just hear his Madison Square Garden shows from 1972), but regardless, after his peak came a general downhill progression. His upper register was often quite strained and nasal, he would find himself slurring lyrics, and he would often subject his audience to quite questionable behavior caused by prescription drug abuse and his depression as a result of his divorce. Performances from this era only rarely shined above mediocrity.
1976 – 1977: The last two years of Elvis’ life were truly abysmal performance-wise. Never before had he sounded weaker and more strained or looked more bloated and uncomfortable. The mass majority of the time, any of his attempts at his hits would come off as quite pushy and overall, any issue to be had with the 1971 – 1975 shows were only magnified here. It is worth noting, however, that he had one last gleam of greatness in late 1976, where he somehow managed to surpass all of his issues and put on some amazing shows as well as successfully take on some of the highest singing he’d ever muster in stride. Come 1977, though, he fell right back into the rut he would die in; his last few shows in June of that year proved to be debatably the worst shows he had ever put on. Despite this, however, his fans still adored him and his concerts would still often be rendered sold out.
Below is a Spotify playlist of fifteen songs in no particular order that I personally think would constitute some of Elvis’ “best” performances. Of course, it’s up to interpretation, but in my research of his discography these stuck out as particularly impressive.