Top 10 Songs About Elvis Presley
Arguably, no other 20th century figure has been the subject of more works of popular culture than Elvis Presley. Indeed, his influence on music alone was so vast that our list of the Top 10 Songs about Elvis Presley doesn’t just include classic rock artists, but also alt-country, funk-metal, Irish folk, psychobilly and hip-hop. To help make this easier, we’re only including songs that were inspired by him, rather than simply reference his name. Unfortunately, that leaves out tracks like Tom Petty‘s ‘Free Fallin” and Kirsty MacColl’s ‘There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.’ But there’s still plenty of great songs about Elvis Presley to be found here.
‘Fight the Power’
We’re addressing this controversy early in our list of the Top 10 Songs about Elvis Presley. In the last verse, Chuck D raps, ‘Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant s— to me / You see straight up racist that sucker was / Simple and plain / Motherf— him and John Wayne.’ He later clarified that the line had more to do with the perception of Elvis as the first rock n’ roller. “My whole thing was the one-sidedness — like, Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted…My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘The King,’ I couldn’t buy that.” Public Enemy wrote the song for Spike Lee‘s film, ‘Do the Right Thing.’
‘Elvis Is Everywhere’
From the scathing to the absurd. Over a revved-up rockabilly canvas, Mojo Nixon sees Elvis as an ominpresent force throughout the universe, with everything and everybody — except for Michael J. Fox — having at least some Elvis inside them. ‘Elvis is Everywhere’ became a minor MTV and college radio hit in 1987.
After seeing a postcard of the titular subject that sits in the TV room at Graceland, Warren Zevon uses it as a symbol for the decadence that led to Elvis’ downfall: “Hip-shakin’ shoutin’ in gold lame / That’s how he earned his regal sobriquet / Then he threw it all away / For a porcelain monkey.” Zevon had written about Presley once before, on 1982’s ‘Jesus Mentioned.’
‘Carl Perkins’ Cadillac’
Three years after tackling the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd on ‘Southern Rock Opera,’ Drive-By Truckers set their sights on other heroes of Southern lore. On ‘Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,’ Mike Cooley looks at the Sun Records’ “Million Dollar Quartet” (Presley, Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash) and gives his own take on a story of how Sam Phillips promised a Cadillac to the first one to sell a million records. In the last verse, Cooley addressed Elvis directly by singing, “You gave me all but one good reason not to do all the things you did.”
‘Elvis Is Dead’
Nearly 15 years after his death, it seemed that every other week supermarket tabloids were still “reporting” Elvis sightings. In a song that slyly referenced Public Enemy, the Dead Kennedys, William Shakespeare and Paul Simon (see No. 1 on our list of the Top 10 Songs about Elvis Presley), Living Colour took aim at the cottage industry of Elvis profiteers. ‘Elvis Is Dead’ features a rap by Little Richard, where he asked, “To all you pimps making money off his name / How do you sleep? / Don’t you feel ashamed?”
‘A Rock N’ Roll Fantasy’
At the time of Presley’s death, Ray Davies — and many of his peers — were struggling with the concept of growing old in rock n’ roll, personally and/or commercially. Davies channeled his crisis into this single, deciding to double down on music. “You say we’ve got nothing left to prove / The King is dead, rock is done / You might be through but I’ve just begun / I don’t know, I feel free and I won’t let go.” It worked; ‘A Rock N’ Roll Fantasy’ and ‘Misfits‘ reached the Top 40 and brought the Kinks back to mainstream relevance for the first time since the early ’70s.
‘Johnny Bye Bye’
Bruce Springsteen wrote ‘Fire’ with the hopes of Elvis recording it, and ‘Pink Cadillac’ uses Presley’s famous car as a metaphor for female genitalia, but ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ is actually about the death of the King. “They found him slumped up against the drain,” he sings. “With a whole lot of trouble running through his veins.” Released as the b-side of ‘I’m On Fire’ and given a permanent home on 1998’s ‘Tracks,’ the song’s title references ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ by Chuck Berry, who was given a co-writing credit.
‘From Galway To Graceland’
Richard Thompson, long admired as one of the world’s greatest songwriters and guitarists, explored the darker side of Elvis’ hold on his fans. Here, a middle-aged woman abandoned her family in Ireland to sit beside his grave at the Meditation Garden in Graceland. But with a twist in the last verse, Thompson crossed the line between obsessive fandom and mental illness to chilling effect.
‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’
As a joke, we were briefly tempted to bookend our list of the Top 10 Songs About Elvis Presley with this and its acoustic counterpart, ‘My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)’ to mirror their sequence on ‘Rust Never Sleeps.’ But since we could only choose one, we went with Neil Young‘s electric version, which sounds like the very mountain of rock n’ roll collapsing around itself in the aftermath of Presley’s death.
Paul Simon‘s masterpiece finds the narrator on a pilgrimage with his son to try to sort through a mid-life crisis. Believed to be autobiographical (he had just divorced actress Carrie Fisher), you can practically feel the silence in the car as he focuses on his problems. But the music — anchored by Ray Phiri’s chiming guitar, Bakithi Kumalo’s buoyant bass and the background vocals of the Everly Brothers — prevents the narrator from wallowing in self-pity for too long.