so just what was elvis’ biggest hit of all time?

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

 

Elvis HeartbreakHotel 45 RCA sleeve 600 

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

“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.

 

Elvis HoundDog 1956 PS 600

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.”

Hound Dog

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.

 

Elvis DontBeCruel 1956 PS 600

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. 

 

Elvis NowOrNever PS600

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

 

 Elvis ItsNowOrNever 47 9314 PS Denmark 600

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 . . .

 

Elvis HoundDog SteveAllenShow 1200

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.

 


FOOTNOTES:

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

 

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What­ever way it is wrapped up ie “greatest record” Greatest Hit” “Biggest Hit” etc I would have to go for Its Now Or Never.I have often seen this listed as selling 20 mil­lion copies world­wide and in­deed it is the only record of his that sold a mil­lion i the UK.

Hi Neal.

Ac­cording to the late, great George Klein, Mark James, who wrote “Sus­pi­cious Minds” (and recorded it be­fore Elvis, but his ver­sion went nowhere) told GK that he was re­ceiving roy­al­ties for sales of over 40 mil­lion copies world­wide for the song. Sirius Radio picked up on George and James’ com­ment and con­sis­tently claims that this is Elvis’s biggest selling record. Given that it only hit number one for one week on the Bill­board Hot 100, and never went to number one in any other country, this is a total fabrication.

I have also read that ‘It’s Now Or Never” has had world­wide sales of over 20 mil­lion copies. I find this amount cred­ible in that it was such a global hit. 

Bottom line: ‘Hound Dog” was what put rock n’ roll on the uni­versal map, while “Don’t Be Cruel” is Elvis’s biggest hit record chart-wise.

Neal, I have to dis­agree with you about how im­por­tant Elvis’s ap­pear­ance was on the Allen Show. After Elvis’s “Hound Dog” ren­di­tion on Berle, he was per­sona non grata on TV, even with the movie con­tract. Without the Allen Show, and Sul­livan taking a beating in the rat­ings, and Ed re­con­sid­ering his “He’s (Elvis) not my cup of tea,’ there would likely not have been that glo­rious night of Sep­tember 9, 1956, when 54 mil­lion people tuned in to see The King. Though the June 5 Berle Show had a large au­di­ence, it was Sul­livan who gave his im­pri­matur of Elvis being a “fine, de­cent young boy” that sent Elvis’s pop­u­larity sailing through the stratosphere.

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