Counting Down Elvis His Finest Songs, Mark Duffett, Rowman & Littlefield, USA, 2018, Hardback, 293 pages, Not illustrated, ISBN-13: 978-1442248045
From Counting Down Elvis:
Elvis' enchanting and timeless music ultimately stands on its own and speaks for itself. Listen again to the recordings, and Elvis amazes. Think about what they mean, and he astounds. Another person emerges. Not a dumb southerner but someone who was magnetic, feral, funny, and knowing. Even if he was, at times, distinctly human, he inspired so many pretenders because his music was truly great. Therein lies the rub: Elvis was a mortal person who made immortal music.
I recently had the pleasure to read one of the finest and most stimulating Elvis book releases in recent years, Counting Down Elvis His 100 Finest Recordings by Dr. Mark Duffett.
While Counting Down Elvis is essentially about Elvis’ musical creativity, in fact it functions on a number of levels including offering valuable accounts of prevailing socio-cultural forces at the time of a song’s recording, reflecting on Elvis’ mood in the recording studio and functioning as a musical history lesson:
In setting the context for his book Dr. Duffett notes:
Ironically, Elvis was misunderstood both by 1950s elitists who disliked delinquent music and their later opposition, the 1960s rebels who demanded commitment to an alternative society. Elvis, meanwhile, quietly stood for equality, plain and simple.
I was lucky to be asked to make this book. I had to skip a lot of gems and make some hard choices. I’m not going to pretend to claim some kind of superior status as a devotee or critic. There are always other ways to hear Elvis’ music. There is much, much more to learn.
This is my personal 100 countdown. If you are a dedicated fan, part of the fun will be in deciding how much it resembles yours.
All that I ask is that you listen.
The theme of listening again to Elvis recurs throughout the narrative including: ‘we should put aside the misleading stereotypes of rumor-filled debates about Elvis and listen once again to the legend who emerged from Memphis.’
The more I read of Counting Down Elvis, the more I re-listened to those seminal recordings, the more I realised that Mark Duffett is right, and his book is timely - it is easy to forget the majesty of Elvis’ musical genius!
Duffett starts his countdown with Reconsider Baby (from Prince from Another Planet, 2012) #100:
“Reconsider Baby” isn’t Elvis’ best track. It makes the cut, however, because it showcases exactly what made him so great. His music was news to mainstream Americans. His oeuvre was nothing short of a reconsideration of the tradition of genre separation.
The depth and insight offered by the author is more than impressive - regarding “Green Green Grass of Home” (#60)
As the author discusses, analyses and observes each song in his 100 finest Elvis songs, there is a lot for the reader to digest and learn.
Of course, even while it is rousing, “Green Green Grass of Home” is a gently introspective song. It explores the ongoing, fond, and perhaps fraught relationship we all have to youth and childhood, being in the bosom of the family, and the blissful innocence of first love.
At times Duffett challenges and enhances our understanding of Elvis the singer:
“Early Morning Rain” was unusual in Elvis’ catalog, rather than expressing what he could do for it, the song’s promise was much more reflected in what it did for him. It allowed a maturing singer to offer a new aspect of his personality to the audience.
At other times Duffett challenges and enhances our understanding of Elvis the person, observing about King Creole (#15):
One of the surprising things about Elvis was the extent to which, as a young man, he could be confident, commanding, and powerful in his voice and masculinity.
In considering In The Ghetto (#32) the author insightfully observes how the duality of Elvis' personality fitted with a changing world in the late 1960's:
In an era where international travel was beginning to confront Americans with their responsibility as global citizens, Elvis straddled the mainstream of society and held together the center ground.
There were always two sides to Elvis Presley; tough and tender, revolutionary and conservative. He told the FBI that he thought J. Edgar Hoover was the greatest living American. Yet he quietly supported civil rights and poured every ounce of his being into what was one of the most compassionate message songs of its era.
A strength of the narrative is that it holds our interest due to the author's erudite, eloquent and thoughtful prose and the many recording surprises that his list inevitably offers up.
Contemplating one of Elvis' greatest gospel recordings Duffett asserts:
The rousing “How Great Thou Art” [#9] deserves a high place in any countdown because it is no less than a work of religious art.
At another juncture he incisively comments about the song ranked #23 on his list:
As a contradiction between form and style a frolicking song about a young man going frantically to pieces – “All Shook Up” was not fully understood by critics, one writer in Variety said that Elvis had descended from the category of “sensational” to being “merely terrific”. Audiences, however, loved the song’s infectious, carefree qualities.
On the uniqueness of Heartbreak Hotel (#4), Duffett muses:
“Heartbreak Hotel” is also a unique record. There was, and is, nothing else like it. It is not possible anymore to understand the impact of “Heartbreak Hotel” in its day. The record caused an explosion ‘round the world…
Mark Duffett's approach to his subject matter is astute and eclectic, with a narrative ebb and flow which builds connection and highlights the amazing breadth of Elvis' musical interest and what some would see as its vagaries. We are enlightened on the seemingly dissonant elements underpinning Dixieland Rock (#81):
Despite its almost avant-garde introduction, “Dixieland Rock” is a cabaret number that contains a rollicking New Orleans-style performance. It still sounds incredible.
Duffett often gives his analysis added gravitas by taking the reader inside the recording session. For example, Wearin’ That Loved On Look (#69):
Elvis struggled with a throat infection when he recorded Frazier and Owen’s tale of female infidelity. On take three, he blew the introduction and laughed it off, ad-libbing the chorus of his 1968 single “A Little Less Conversation before starting again.
In relation to Elvis’ film recordings, Duffett offers an incisive perspective on the deterioration of Elvis’ film output, particularly around the mid 1960s:
In 1957, if the takings of the three most successful films on release in America, Bridge Over the River Kwai, Peyton Place, and Island In The Sun were averaged, they made five times as much as Jailhouse Rock. A decade later, the top three films – The Jungle Book, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and You Only Live Twice – on average took more than forty times the profits of Elvis’ biggest movie of the year, Double Trouble. As 1960’s youth culture began to reflect a society that was turbulent and political, Elvis’ film output generally went in the opposite direction. It seemed to denigrate.
Unlike some books that just bubble along, Mark Duffett has constructed a narrative that is full of energy and one which brings forth not only the majesty and subtleties of the finest songs in Elvis’ vast music catalog but also the artist’s formidable ability to instinctively select good songs and masterfully interpret them.
Duffett clearly identifies and draws attention to the wide variety of music genres that Elvis traversed during his career and demonstrates an empathy for Elvis as man and artist.
While reading Counting Down Elvis, not surprisingly I often pondered my own song preferences and reflected on why I would place some recordings higher than, or not place songs as high as, Mark Duffett (the process of subjectivity is such a wonderful thing).
For instance, a song that makes my top 10 finest Elvis recordings, I’m Leavin', only makes #114 in Duffett’s ‘….And 100 More’ list, while the toe tappingly infectious Kiss Me Quick (at #116 on the Duffett list) would also place much higher on mine. My pondering of my own countdown clearly satisfies one of Duffett’s objectives in writing Counting Down Elvis, to generate thought and discussion.
There are several ‘value add’ sections in Counting Down Elvis. Despite its full title, Counting Down Elvis is in fact a countdown of 200 of Elvis’ finest songs as the author provides a section: ‘….And 100 More’. Numbers 101 to 200 are listed without any qualitative critique.
Counting Down Elvis also includes a valuable Notes (references) section comprising more than 30 pages, a four pages plus Bibliography and a comprehensive Index.
Collectively, Counting Down Elvis is a well presented, well argued, stimulating and thought provoking book release.
There are no visuals in the book (its narrative strengths eliciting mental images which more than compensate for any perceived need for physical imagery).
The book design is strong. The font is a good size and the text neatly set out on each page with an appropriate amount of white space to make reading easy.
What is #1 on Mark Duffett’s list? I am not going to give that away – you will need to read his engrossing book to find out.
Verdict: Counting Down Elvis His 100 Finest Songs is one of finest Elvis book releases released this century. Exceptionally well researched and thoughtfully considered, it is stimulating, thought provoking and a joy to read (and sometimes disagree with). Counting Down Elvis should be in every fan’s Elvis book library.
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Read EIN's interview with Mark Duffett
About the author: Dr. Mark Duffett is Reader in media and cultural studies at the University of Chester in England. He is widely recognised as an expert on popular music and music fandom, a role cemented by the publication of his book Understanding Fandom (2013). Dr Duffett's PhD thesis was about Elvis Fandom.
Dr Duffett's latest book, Counting Down Elvis His 100 Finest Songs is a celebratory approach to the Elvis songbook, an incisive and illuminating consideration of the cream of his vast recording output. The listing is actually of 200 songs (the top 100 appraised with fascinating and insightful background information).
Counting Down Elvis His Finest 100 Songs is available in both hardcover and Kindle editions.
Also by Mark Duffett: