Catherine Rankovic’s essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Progressive, Natural Bridge, and Delmar. She teaches writing at Washington University and in the St. Louis Writers’ Workshop.
Jun 01 2001
I Want You, I Need You, I Love You
Recorded at RCA Studios, Nashville, April 14, 1956
Ho-ho-hold me close,
hold me tight,
make me thrill
let me know
Elvis Presley’s original guitarist said that the name “Elvis Presley” first sounded to him “like a name out of science fiction.”
where I stand
from the start—
Presley decided to become a singer at age nine. As a teenaged fan of doo-wop and gospel, he fashioned two voices for himself, both a portentous baritone and a playful, spirited version of a country tenor’s bawl.
In 1953, soon after high school graduation, Presley, eighteen, auditioned for a spot in a gospel group called the Songfellows. They told him he sang flat and had no ear for harmonies. That summer, Presley took his guitar and went alone to make his first, tentative recording, “My Happiness,” a vanity record he later said he intended as a gift for his mother. In fact, he made it hoping to impress the owner of the Memphis Recording Service, Sam Phillips, who produced records under the Sun label and was not around when Presley came in.
A truck driver by day, Presley loitered by night on Beale Street, meeting rhythm-and-blues and country musicians. He returned repeatedly to the Memphis Recording Service, mumbling to the receptionist that he was available if a band needed a singer. The receptionist felt sorry for him. A 1954 studio photograph shows Presley at nineteen, his face honeycombed with acne, his hair greased and roughly cut as if with garden shears. A jutting brow shadowed his eyes. He favored aggressively faddish clothing: for this photograph, a curt little bow tie and a flimsy cowboy jacket with braid-trimmed lapels and pocket flaps. He did not smile. A sneer might be—wrongly—inferred from his congenitally crooked lip line. By all accounts, he was a polite young man.
I want you, I need you, I love you,
Presley made a second vanity recording in January 1954. Phillips heard it. In June he finally had his receptionist phone “the kid,” who sounded almost like a singer Phillips had heard in Nashville and liked and couldn’t get. In the studio, Presley and two local dance-band musicians, after dozens of tries, finally perked on the song “That’s All Right, Mama,” creating a regional hit that put Presley and the band on the road.
Memphis disk jockey Dewey Phillips, no relation to Sam, sat down with Presley, who was already a local sensation, and terrified. “Mister Phillips,” Presley said, “I don’t know nothing about being interviewed.” Phillips said, “Just don’t say nothing dirty.”
Two years later, in 1956, the kid had confidence. The insane chances you can take when you have confidence! He could rock, blither, yearn, swing, do a backwoods bawl and cut ice with high notes like a fiddle scraper’s.
with all—my—ha-ha-ha ha-ha-ha heart!
Presley crafted his vocal ornaments at will, and for fun: his hiccups, stutters and scoops, in 1956, already had imitators. Onstage just a few days earlier, between songs, Presley had burped into the microphone. The smitten female fans screamed.
He wreathed the lyric “heart” with triplet notes, which fit this song, but which also mock laughter. Presley hid laughter in the first word of the song, did it again here, and would do it a third time before the song was over.
“I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” was composed by Ira Kosloff and Maurice Mysels. Presley’s recording, spliced from takes 14 and 17, is the sole product of this three-hour recording session. The producer had hoped to get three songs recorded, to pad out a second Presley LP. But this song was new to the musicians, who had to work out the arrangement on the spot. And Presley always listened intently to all playbacks and was picky about them, using up valuable time.
“The Kid” or “the Boy”—he was twenty-one—couldn’t read music. But he could sing anything he’d heard.
that you’re near,
A Life magazine photographer captured the musicians at work that day. The session began at 9 A.M. First, Presley accepted his first gold record, for the RCA single “Heartbreak Hotel.” He wore a silky, short-sleeved printed shirt and dark pants of a stylish novelty twill. He soon removed his shoes and walked about in stockinged feet. Several photos show Presley standing apart, or leaning on something, aloof, tired or thinking, perhaps about the harrowing plane ride to Nashville or his brand-new seven-year movie contract. He knew, and was miffed, that the featured guitarist at this session, Chet Atkins, had called him “a flash in the pan.”
Presley’s hair had at some point gone smooth and suave, and the photographs show positively angelic skin.
all my cares
RCA had released Presley’s first album, Elvis Presley, on March 13, 1956. It was the first record album ever to sell a million copies. RCA wanted a second Presley LP finished by April 15. They were not going to get it. Presley was booked for a show in San Antonio, Texas, on April 15. On the 16th, he had a show in Corpus Christi; on the 17th, in Waco; the 18th, Tulsa; the 19th, Amarillo; the 20th, Fort Worth; the 21st, Dallas; the 22nd, San Antonio again; and April 23rd through May 6th, Las Vegas.
Presley next returned to RCA-Nashville in July, to record “Hound Dog,” a novelty number he couldn’t believe RCA wanted recorded. Presley insisted on 31 takes and was satisfied only with Take 31.
“Hound Dog” was composed by two white teenagers, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, later the composers of “King Creole,” “Charlie Brown,” “Kansas City,” “Love Potion Number Nine,” “Jailhouse Rock” and “On Broadway.” “Hound Dog” was a kind of blackface exercise, written with lyrics from a woman’s point of view. Recorded in Los Angeles by Big Mama Thornton, the song was a rhythm-and-blues hit when Presley was in high school.
Improvements to Thornton’s version cannot be imagined. All friction and smolder, her voice blasts the song and its hapless target to chips and cinders. But Presley recorded his own version, singing the verses he could remember. He was shameless. He was fearless. He sang anything—because he could.
Pronounced “yur.” Presley leaves the final “r”s intact throughout this song. This detail, like the dropped “g,” is a mark of country-and-western singing. When Presley wanted to “sound black,” he dropped both “r”s and final “g”s. He did this onstage, and when covering songs established by black singers.
all that I’m
Presley never displayed racial prejudice, but neither did he participate in the era’s crusade for racial equality. His music, however, received credit for galvanizing masses of young whites.
I want you, I need you, I love you,
“Elvis stole black culture.”
“Look; if a truck driver from Tupelo could steal black culture, then black culture must have been pretty easy to steal.”
“He sang like a black man and took the credit and money that should have gone to black people.”
“He sang the way a white truck driver born in Tupelo in 1935 would sing.”
“That was a black town.”
“Well, he grew up there, too.”
more and mo-oh-ore!
Judging from this recording, Presley, an experienced performer, still hadn’t trained himself to breathe like a singer, or discovered what he shouldn’t risk if he wanted his voice to last. In this song, he wails. He sings with audible physical effort. He doesn’t breathe in as much as gasp.
I could live
The lyric, as written, says “before,” not “until.”
The letter “m”—he draws it out, just a little: a hum that anticipates something delicious. It’s a trademark.
but now I know
Many men, it seems, dislike Presley. “I didn’t like the faces he made—the sneer.” “The screaming.” “There’s nothing special about him, among the musicians of that time.” “Roy Orbison is Elvis Presley, except with talent.” They deride Presley’s pretty face, his cheesy clothes, Graceland’s cheesy Jungle Room; Presley’s eating, spending and drug habits; his movies, girls, showy cars and love of guns. Some call this “Elvis Envy.”
Touring Graceland takes nearly a full day. The impressive Trophy Room is lined with gold and platinum singles and LPs, silent in their frames. Downtown at Sun Studio, formerly the Memphis Recording Service, is Presley’s microphone, its blind silver head tilted back and ready.
The Memphis attractions focus on Presley’s work. The farther away from Memphis you get, the more people talk about his pills, his attempt to befriend Richard Nixon, his bad taste, cultural arrogance, fried-banana sandwiches, and the more and more a monster he seems, until at Harvard or in Los Angeles an Elvis Presley fan is considered a lunatic.
that I-I will go
The manufactured stutter, another Presley trademark.
on lo-ving you
e-ter-er (gasp!) na-lly—!
Only amateur singers try to seize a breath in the middle of a word. But Presley hasn’t taken a breath since finishing “until you came to me.” Unless he grabs a breath right after “go,” which he doesn’t, there is nowhere else to breathe—if he wants to make it all the way through the upcoming “be my own” while adding his flourishes. It is possible for him to sing the phrase beautifully, to glide over it, to sing the word whole. He won’t. He cracks the word in half, as if it were a walnut. He leaves his stamp.
Whoa-ohn’t you please
Departing from the melody as it was written, Presley whirls around in his high range before parachuting down through the scale.
be my own,
Gene Vincent, a sincere and talented performer, was at the moment being set up by Capitol Records as Presley’s rival. The next month, in May 1956, Vincent would record “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” his only numberone hit.
Both Vincent and Presley were wonderfully photogenic, which is not the same as beautiful. The photogenic seem to have the knack of withholding nothing when faced with a camera. Such frankness, or innocence, or emptiness, or sass, results in a glow, such as small children have: It is hard to take a bad picture of a child, or of any adult enjoying the extent of his being. Young Presley actually possessed fleshy, uneven features that only slowly solidified, like wax in a candle mold; perfection lay ten years ahead, in the 1960s. Vincent, rawboned and weedy, grinned gamely but only briefly looked young; physical pain and his hatred of producers and agents soon gave him the face of an adult, or more precisely, a mortal.
In just a few weeks, between now and the “Hound Dog” session in July, Presley, a flop in Vegas, learned to treat every song as a product. He became a professional, and for him this did not mean a sellout but another, more resourceful kind of artist. Sam Phillips at Sun believed that musicians couldn’t make good records if they weren’t having fun. But if the studio had to turn into a factory for musical gumballs, Presley intended to grab fun and find inspiration as he could. Openly imitating black singers, he found ways to spin bland material (“Baby, let me be/your lovin’ teddy bear”) or impossible material, such as “Jailhouse Rock.” He’d risk silliness: “I’m in love—(grunt!)—I’m all shook up.” He’d steal the song “Blue Suede Shoes” from Carl Perkins, and perform it so definitively that almost no one would remember Perkins’ version as the original hit. In 1960, Presley, a Mario Lanza fan, would record a familiar Italian tune reset as “It’s Now or Never” to a fashionable cha-cha beat, and—unbelievably—turn this mess into a number-one hit that revealed further reaches of his talent.
nev-er leave me alone,
Sung softly. As if he’s settling a new fur coat around the shoulders of some girl.
Here is that masculine purr he would sing in for most of the rest of his life: deep, intimate, gelatinous in the lowest register.
’cause I die
No, he wouldn’t “die.” This was theater. He wrapped the word in gauze and tied it with a ribbon pulled just a bit tight, so that it fainted like the heroine of a melodrama.
Presley’s deepest musical roots were gospel. He and his mother sometimes went to church twice a day for the music and excitement. When Presley jammed after concerts or at home with friends, he always favored old-time gospel tunes. But in most of his gospel recordings, he buried his vocals beneath juggernaut choirs and boisterous production values—his voice like a jewel sunk in soapsuds.
I want you, I need you, I love you
with all my heart.
Crisp pronunciation of “t.” This was taught to him. No singer does this naturally.
Weh-heh-ell, I thought (doo-wah!)
I could live (doo-wah!)
without romance (doo-wah!—doo-wah!)
A dirty mock laugh opens this reprise. He’s taking more and more chances and liberties toward the end of the song, getting playful, letting irony creep in. And a chill.
The “doo-wahs” were sung by gospel singers Ben and Brock Speer of the Speer Family, plus Gordon Stoker, one of the gospel-singing Jordanaires. Presley was supposed to be recording with a quartet, not a trio, and later Stoker would complain, “It was the worst sound on any of Elvis’s records.” But the trio does not sound bad. Their presence gives the recording a little warmth and a burnish—a halo. And the “doo-wahs” finally give the whole game away: This isn’t a love song aimed at any one girl, or at girls in general. Presley isn’t expressing deep feelings. This is a showcase—a peacock’s display—of vocal acrobatics. It’s fun. He embroiders this tune, plays with it, tugs its earlobe, gets everything out of it he can get for himself.
It’s passionate too, but the passion isn’t in the yearning lyrics or the singing. It’s in Presley’s desire, years of desire, to make good, to make records, to front musicians and background singers and face crowds of screaming fans, knowing that his voice is in command, and worthy.
Presley sang many songs that he liked, but also many, such as those from his movies, that he did not like, and only through pure professionalism did he give each recording—each one!—his inimitable luster. But he would eventually choose to record such a promiscuous number of love songs that it is hard not to think that at some point he did come to sing what he felt—what he felt for, or about, his fans. They were what he wanted, needed and loved; he once said he felt human only when performing. Periods of wavering or waning popularity paralleled his most dreadful musical choices. It was he who must have felt trapped “In the Ghetto” at the end of the 1960s. The “Suspicious Minds” of the same era were clearly his fans’ and his, and the song, with its eerie, spiritualized production, was like a spell cast in the hope of making up. Nineteen-seventy-two’s “Burning Love,” his final Top Ten hit (peaking at number two), was the last tribute his old fandom accepted from him. Although his concerts were packed, he could no longer win the kind of love he wanted.
By 1976, Presley hated to go to recording studios, and RCA recorded him at Graceland, singing songs of his choice, all sad: “The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Last Farewell,” “Solitaire,” “Moody Blue,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Hurt,” “Never Again,” “Love Coming Down,” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” In 1977, Presley would chart for the last time in his life with the single “Way Down,” recorded at Graceland in October 1976. It peaked at number eighteen.
you came (doo-wah)
to me, (doo-wah!—doo-wah!)
A singer at work is usually thinking only about making it through the song without flubbing it. Look what’s involved: breathing plausibly; remembering the lyrics; nailing the high notes; staying with your band or chorus; maintaining a soulful facial expression, and looking good. You might also be whacking a guitar. And—because Presley did—you have to move: oscillate, dance, arm-wrestle with the microphone, throttle it, skid across the stage on your knees, fling your head back and spread your arms. All this must seem effortless and natural. And then you want to salt it with what you possess of art.
I kno-ow (doo-wah)
that I—I—I will go (doo-wah)
That “know,” its high note, nasal, but smooth as cream.
Presley’s voice is full of stuff from the 1950s: electric shavers, squeeze toys, comic books, vinyl, humidity, Cavalier, marshmallows and fizz.
on loving you eter-(gasp!)
Presley would sing “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” on television once, on July 1, 1956. The song was then Presley’s current hit single, and his swinging hips, already seen nationally on Stage Show and Milton Berle, were the source and focus of unprecedented mass moral outrage. (Presley first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show later that year, on September 9.) Show host Steve Allen, a specialist in elevated wit, set his stage with Greek columns and chandeliers, dressed Presley in a tuxedo, and directed him to stand and sing in place. On this occasion Presley had what looked like a dessert on his head; it’s his famous forelock, lifted and sculpted with grease. He sang feebly and by rote, tugged at his collar, looked around as if for help; fidgeted, accidentally knocking his guitar against the microphone stand; and was plainly dispossessed in every way.
Allen also gleefully arranged for his guest to sing “Hound Dog” to a hound dog, and play a hayseed in a skit. Presley is said to have called this the worst moment of his career.
Whoa-oh-on’t you please—
He flings his voice up beyond the grip of gravity, and then surrenders, like a skater in a leap. Presley won’t record those aerial notes much longer. The manly, mahogany baritone is his gold mine.
In this recording of “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” Presley preserved a scrapbook of his capabilities. Young artists often make things like this, like Hemingway’s book of stories, In Our Time, flaunting an imitation Sherwood Anderson story, a Gertrude Stein story, and a knowing slap at T. S. Eliot, showing that the artist has mastered everything and everybody, his friends, mentors, idols—and bested them. How much else must he be capable of!
be my own,
Presley was serious about music. If his music had to become a joke, he was determined to make it a good one.
’cause I die
He is his music now.
I want you, I need you, I love you,
with all my heart.
Released June 5, 1956.