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

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 minutes.

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.



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


4 thoughts on “so just what was elvis’ biggest hit of all time?”

  1. 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.

    • D

      It’s all in how you de­fine “greatest.” I can make a rea­son­able ar­gu­ment that his greatest hit was “If I Can Dream” be­cause it cat­a­pulted him out of the mire of years of a di­rec­tion­less ca­reer (un­less you count being the King of Elvis movies a direction).

      Kepp on keepin’ on!


  2. 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.

    • B

      Thanks for the comment!

      1. I am very dis­trustful of state­ments made by artists, writers, man­agers, rep­re­sen­ta­tives, etc., of sup­posed record sales that don’t jibe with ac­ces­sible data. In Mark James’s case, his roy­al­ties would come from every version—studio and live—of the songs by every artist on every single and album.

      2. global sales of Pres­ley’s records prior to modern com­puter tracking are prob­ably }con­ser­v­a­tive” if not crim­i­nally under-reported. Much of this has to do with RCA not keeping track of sales out­side the US during Elvis’s life­time and the rest due to the fact that RCA has lost thou­sands of pages of doc­u­men­ta­tion sev­eral times during Pres­ley’s ca­reer. Alas, there’s not much we can do or will ever be able to do about that.

      3. Huge num­bers for “It’s Now or Never” have been bandied about for decades. The low number is usu­ally 10 mil­lion, the high, 20 mil­lion. That RCA in the US can only find doc­u­men­ta­tion for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of a mere one mil­lion in the US may be more a re­flec­tion of the lost doc­u­men­ta­tion than ac­tual sales.

      4. As for the Steve Allen Show: I was spec­u­lating. We’ll never ac­tu­ally know. With two #1 pop hits and the biggest selling pop album in RCA Vic­tor’s his­tory al­ready be­hind him, I don’t think Elvis had to submit to any­thing he felt de­grading from ol’ Stev­erino. All of the photos I have seen from the show in­di­cate Elvis was in a fine frame of mind. If he was hurting at the time, it doesn’t show in the pic­tures. There are second and third-hand opin­ions that he was an­gered by the event, but I also don’t put a lot of cre­dence un­less they come from a source with a track record of accuracy.

      You might wanna give the al­ways ex­cel­lent Elvis His­tory Blog a read.

      Thanks for an in­tel­li­gent com­ment. Keep ’em coming!


      PS: One of my ar­ti­cles in the (not-too-distant) fu­ture will be a look at Nick Keene’s ar­ticle about Elvis’s record sales.


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