WHAT WAS ELVIS PRESLEY’S BIGGEST HIT? The term “hit” almost always refers to one side of a single, whether it is an antiquated 45 rpm single (1949-1989) or a prehistoric 78 rpm single (1898-1958). The term is relative: A record that made it to #88 and stayed on the national Top 100 for three weeks in 1966 would be a big hit for a rock & roll band on a local record company that only received airplay and distribution in northeastern Pennsylvania. 1
On the other hand, a record that reached #11 for a group following five straight #1 records might be considered a disaster and the sign of impending doom! In deciding what was the biggest hit for artists with multiple chart-topping hits (Elvis, the Beatles, the Supremes, etc.), several factors would usually have to be taken into account to determine their “greatest hit.”
For casual observers, the record that spent the most weeks at #1 on Billboard or Cash Box would probably provide the answer. With artists with many hits, other factors might need to be addressed, such as the success of the record in other markets around the world. And then there are sales, which can also be viewed relatively or absolutely.
All of this was egged on by a question on Quora: Was ‘Heartbreak Hotel” Elvis Presley’s biggest hit? Below find my answer. Please note that for pre-1958 records, I refer to Billboard‘s Best Sellers in Stores chart. I also refer to the Cash Box Top 100, which was a sales-based survey. 2
With their first seven Elvis releases, RCA Victor chose to pinch pennies and not manufacture picture sleeves to accompany the records. They relied on Presley’s singing to sell the records, not his looks. This copy of 47-6420 is housed in a generic company sleeve, the way hundreds of thousands of copies were shipped in 1956.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was the first single recorded by Elvis Presley for RCA Victor. Released in February 1956, it spent seventeen weeks at #1 on the Billboard national country & western singles survey. This makes it easily the biggest country hit in Presley’s career.
“Heartbreak Hotel” was also a major hit on the pop charts, spending eight weeks at the top spot on that magazine’s Best Sellers in Stores survey. On Cash Box, it was #1 for five weeks.
“Heartbreak Hotel” sold almost 3,000,000 copies in the US (the RIAA has certified it as 2xPlatinum). It was also a major hit in England, the second most important market in the world.
With this one record, RCA Victor may have recouped their entire investment in Presley—buying his contract from Sun records, paying him a signing bonus, and covering the studio and promotion costs of the record.
Of course, “Heartbreak Hotel” was merely the beginning and it was far from being Presley’s biggest hit.
RCA Victor issued their first Elvis picture sleeve with Presley’s third “new” record, “Hound Dog” / “Don’t Be Cruel” (47-6604). The sleeve for this record featured a black and white photo of Elvis singing to a basset hound on Steve Allen’s television show. Initial printings had “Hound Dog” above “Don’t Be Cruel.”
Presley’s third single for RCA Victor was “Hound Dog” backed with “Don’t Be Cruel.” Released in July 1956, “Hound Dog” sold a million straight off but spent only one week at #1 on the Best Sellers chart. It was denied a longer stay at the top by its flip-side, which had overtaken it along the way to the toppermost of the poppermost!
“Don’t Be Cruel” became the dominant side and quickly racked up another million in sales! It then spent eleven weeks at #1 on the Best Sellers survey. None of Presley’s other hits come close to this mark on Billboard.
On Cash Box, it was a different story: “Hound Dog” was #1 for four weeks, which makes much more sense that the solitary week on Billboard. “Don’t Be Cruel” then took the #1 spot for six more weeks, giving the record’s two sides a combined ten weeks at the top. None of Presley’s other hits come close to this mark on Cash Box.
When it became obvious that the B-side was overtaking the A-side in popularity and sales, RCA Victor ordered a second printing of picture sleeves. This time, “Don’t Be Cruel” was above “Hound Dog.” Note that reasonably convincing reproductions exist of both versions of the 47-6604 sleeve.
Don’t Be Cruel
On both of the two most important sales surveys in the country, “Don’t Be Cruel” was a bigger hit than “Hound Dog” in the US. But in the rest of the record-buying world of the 1950s—which was considerably smaller than it is now—“Hound Dog” was the bigger hit. In fact, in some countries, fans didn’t hear “Don’t Be Cruel” until they bought the record.
Wikipedia offers a discography of Presley’s hit singles from the ’50s with chart positions from eleven countries other than the US. “Hound Dog” made the top 10 in four of those countries, “Don’t Be Cruel” made it in one. From this, we can argue that:
• “Don’t Be Cruel” was Elvis Presley’s biggest hit in the US.
• “Hound Dog” was Elvis Presley’s biggest hit in the rest of the world.
At least, that was so in the ’50s.
When Elvis returned from his stay with the US Army in March 1960, he didn’t immediately go back to dyeing his hair black. He also went sans sideburn until 1968, when the times they had been a-changin’ for some time, leaving him an anachronism. This is one of my favorite Elvis sleeves because he looks so healthy and happy and, for a change, he’s not posing for the photo.
It’s Now or Never
Okay—it’s 1960 and the ’50s were over. Elvis was back from the Army and a stay in Germany. He was two years older, a bit more mature, and had a new style of singing he wanted to show off. “It’s Now or Never” reached #1 in more countries than any of Presley’s rock & roll hits had in the ’50s. That’s because there were many more countries open to playing records by rock & roll artists than there had been a few years earlier.
This growing market also had a huge impact on sales: Joseph Murrells estimated the total sales of “Hound Dog” / “Don’t Be Cruel” at 6,000,000 copies. Most of those sales were domestic: The double-sided hit has been certified by the RIAA as 4xPlatinum.
Murrells claims that domestic sales of “It’s Now or Never” were also around 5,000,000. (Although it has only been certified by the RIAA as 1xPlatinum.) But he states that “It’s Now or Never” may have sold as many as 15,000,000 more copies outside the US! 3
This is the picture sleeve for “It’s Now or Never” from Denmark (RCA Victor 47-9314). It features an image of Elvis from the Loving You movie (1957) against a very amateurish drawing of Venice, Italy. Due to copyright issues, the A-side is listed on the sleeve as “O Sole Mio (It’s Now or Never).”
Doncha think it’s time
I know, you’re thinking, Doncha think it’s time you answered the question? Well, first let me say that if the question was reworded as “What Was Elvis Presley’s Biggest Hit Record?” then the answer would be easy: RCA Victor 47-6604, “Hound Dog” / “Don’t Be Cruel.” But it’s not, so here is my wishy-washy answer:
• In terms of chart success in the US, the biggest market in the world—Hell’s Belles, in 1956 it was practically the only market for rock & roll in the world!—Elvis’s biggest hit was “Don’t Be Cruel.”
• In terms of chart success in the marketplace of the whole wide world, Elvis’s biggest hit was “It’s Now or Never.”
• In terms of accumulated global sales, Elvis’s biggest hit was “It’s Now or Never.”
• In terms of cultural impact and establishing Elvis as a recognizable entity—and, perhaps, also cementing rock & roll as a genre internationally—Elvis’s biggest hit was “Hound Dog.”
Objectively, I’d have to go with “It’s Now or Never” as the bigger hit but “Hound Dog” had a much smaller market and far more obstacles to overcome to get to the top of the charts in most of the world than “It’s Now or Never.”
So, it’s your call as to which was Elvis Presley’s biggest hit . . .
FEATURED IMAGE: Elvis singing to a hound dog on The Steve Allen Show, broadcast on July 1, 1956. The legend has it that Allen “forced” Presley to wear a tuxedo, the idea being that Allen—who did hate rock & roll music—wanted to put the singer in his place. Elvis supposedly seethed. If so, Elvis should have either walked off the set: By the time of this appearance, Elvis had sold about 5,000,000 records and signed a movie deal, so he didn’t need anything Allen’s show had to offer. He did not.
1 The dates given for both 78 and 45 rpm formats are approximations. 45s are still being manufactured in the 21st century but in minuscule quantities that do not affect the marketplace except nominally.
2 The Billboard Top 100 (later the Hot 100) used a formula that combined the results of three surveys into one: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played in Juke Boxes, and Most Played by Jockeys.
3 Believe it or not, RCA Victor has been “misplacing” paperwork and documentation of Presley’s record sales since at least the 1960s. Many of his hit records are and will probably remain under-certified as the documentation required for further RIAA certification no longer exists.
“Don’t Be Cruel” was by far Elvis Presley’s biggest hit in the US but that doesn't mean that it was the biggest hit of his career. Click To Tweet