the audacity of elvis presley claiming songwriting credit!

Es­ti­mated reading time is 17 min­utes.

DID ELVIS WRITE ANY OF HIS SONGS? Well, yes, he did have a hand in com­posing a few of his lesser-known songs in the ’60s, but that’s not what this ar­ticle is about. It’s his name on such hits as Don’t Be Cruel, Love Me Tender, and All Shook Up that we will ad­dress here.

This ar­ticle is a re­sponse to a two-part ques­tion on Quora. The first part of the ques­tion is, “Was it fair to com­posers when Elvis Presley would de­mand and re­ceive 50% of the credit for writing a song if the song­writer wanted Elvis to record it?”

No, it wasn’t “fair”—but it was legal.

The second part of the ques­tion is, “How much did he re­ally change such songs?”

That varies.

Un­for­tu­nately, it wasn’t fair for Elvis to re­ceive credit for writing a song in ex­change for recording it. For­tu­nately, it didn’t happen very often.

Pres­ley’s name ap­peared on the song­writing credits of eight songs early in his recording ca­reer, in­cluding the three huge hits men­tioned above. This made the up-and-coming singer look like he was also an up-and-coming songwriter.

Then, de­spite the enor­mous suc­cess of those three hits—almost cer­tainly guar­an­teeing him fu­ture suc­cess as a songwriter—his “ca­reer” as a com­poser abruptly ended in early 1957.

The issue of Pres­ley’s name as co-writer on these songs has al­ways been a big issue in the Elvis Presley Story be­cause it doesn’t merely chip at the singer’s rep­u­ta­tion for in­tegrity and fairness—it paints him as a cheat and even a bit of a bully. This is some­thing no real Elvis fan wants to believe.

The truth be­hind Elvis and this sit­u­a­tion are rather dif­ferent than a ca­sual reader would imagine and may even be dif­ferent from what many long-time fans be­lieve. Read on . . .

 

Songwriting credit: cropped photo of Elvis on the LOVE ME TENDER movie set in August 1956/

This is a candid photo of Elvis re­laxing be­tween scenes while making the movie Love Me Tender in Au­gust 1956. Presley is cred­ited as co-writer on all four songs in the movie’s sound­track, his most pro­lific ac­tivity as a composer.

Elvis as a songwriter

As a new teenager in the mid-’60s, I be­came a record buyer and ac­cu­mu­lator (nor­mally the first step to­ward be­coming a col­lector) and a fan and a reader of just about any ar­ticle in just about any mag­a­zine that con­cerned just about any­thing to do with rock & roll in gen­eral and Elvis in particular.

Even back then, the topic of “Elvis as a song­writer” ex­isted: Fans tended to bend over back­ward to con­sider rea­sons why Presley de­served song­writing credit while mem­bers of the nascent field of rock critics and his­to­rians tended to have sus­pi­cious minds.

Did fans want to be­lieve that Elvis had ac­tively par­tic­i­pated in cheating song­writers out of their royalties?

Of course, we didn’t! 

Did fans want to be­lieve that Elvis had ac­tively par­tic­i­pated in the writing of sev­eral of his biggest hits?

Of course, we did!

But if Elvis did have a hand in writing sev­eral of his biggest hits, why had he quit writing songs after All Shook Up?

 

Songwriting credit: photo of Elvis and Mae Boren Axton in May 1955.

This is a photo of Elvis with Mae Boren Axton in May 1955, when she in­ter­viewed the rel­a­tively un­known singer for her local radio sta­tion in Jack­sonville, Florida.

There were only eight songs

The whole Elvis-as-songwriter thing boils down to eight songs that Elvis recorded in the early part of his ca­reer that car­ried his name as co-writer. It has usu­ally been as­sumed that Colonel Parker “held up” the song­writers by re­quiring that they sur­render a por­tion of their song­writing credit and the ac­com­pa­nying roy­al­ties in re­turn for “his boy” recording said songs. 

This “con­spiracy” may have also in­volved Elvis along with Hill & Range Music Pub­lishers but was not unique to Elvis. People who had nothing to do with the com­po­si­tion of a song wound up with their names along­side the ac­tual com­poser on records long be­fore rock & roll came along. There were many rea­sons why a song­writer might “share” credit—some of them per­sonal, some of them business-related, and some may have even been coerced.

It was part of the Elvis legend that, if he hadn’t ac­tu­ally made hand­written changes to those songs, then he had sub­stan­tially al­tered them while recording them in a manner that re­quired that he re­ceive credit. That is, Elvis took a song into the studio and maybe made changes in the lyrics, maybe re­arranged the order of the verses and cho­ruses, maybe played it faster or slower, etc. 1

This con­spiracy lasted less than a year and only in­volved two song­writers: Ken Darby and Otis Black­well. Of the eight songs listed below, three are by Black­well and four by Darby. Each sit­u­a­tion is ad­dressed below.

 

Songwriting credit: original demo disc of Otis Blackwell's "Don't Be Cruel" from 1956.

Otis Black­well sold six new songs to Shal­imar Music in late 1955, but this demo of him singing Don’t Be Cruel sounds so much like Elvis’ early RCA Victor sides that I’d bet an im­ported French pastry to a local donut that it was cut in mid-1956 es­pe­cially to at­tract Pres­ley’s attention.

Claiming songwriting credit

The number of record­ings fea­turing “Elvis Presley” as a song­writer in­cludes seven that he recorded in 1956 and one in ’57. Listed below are those records in chrono­log­ical order of recording. The in­for­ma­tion in each song is self-explanatory.

 

Songwriting credit: original sheet music for "Heartbreak Hotel" from 1956.

Songwriting credit: 45 rpm pressing of "Heartbreak Hotel" from 1956.

While Elvis had re­leased five sin­gles for Sun Records without a song­writing credit, his first new single for RCA Victor gave Presley one-third of the credit for writing Heart­break Hotel. De­spite Mae Boren Axton giving Elvis credit as part of the team that wrote Love Me Tender, the pub­lishing rights re­mained solely with Tree Publishing.

Heartbreak Hotel

Listed writers: Mae Boren Axton - Tommy Durden - Elvis Presley
Ac­tual writers: Mae Boren Axton - Tommy Durden
Pub­lisher: Tree Publishing
Date recorded: Jan­uary 10, 1956

Heart­break Hotel was re­leased as Pres­ley’s first new single for RCA Victor. As part of the Elvis legend, Mae Boren Axton brought the song to Elvis in late 1955. She knew Elvis was moving from Sun Records to RCA Victor and of­fered him one-third of the song­writing credit and roy­al­ties if he agreed to make Heart­break Hotel his first single with his new company.

He did and so she did.

Did Elvis write any of this song?

Not a chance!

The song­writing credits have re­mained the same throughout the Vinyl Era and the Com­pact Disc Era and will prob­ably re­main the same during the Down­load Era.

 

Elvis sheetmusic DontBeCruel 800 copy

Songwriting credit: 45 rpm pressing of "Don't Be Cruel" from 1956.

The orig­inal sheet music from mid-1956 is ti­tled the song as Don’t Be Cruel (To a Heart that’s Cruel). It listed Otis Black­well and Elvis Presley as song­writers and listed the pub­lishers as Shal­imar Music and Elvis Presley Music. On the records man­u­fac­tured in 1956, only Black­well is listed as the songwriter.

Don’t Be Cruel

Listed writers: Otis Black­well - Elvis Presley
Ac­tual writers: Otis Blackwell
Pub­lisher: Shal­imar Music - Elvis Presley Music
Date recorded: July 2, 1956

Otis Black­well was a singer who had turned to song­writing to pay the bills. Sup­pos­edly, in late 1955, he wrote a handful of songs, ap­par­ently made a demo tape of the songs, and sold six of them to Shal­imar Music for the princely sum of $150. The pub­lisher sub­mitted the songs to Hill & Range, who had demo discs made of at least one of them and sub­mitted it to Elvis for his con­sid­er­a­tion. 2

After recording Hound Dog on July 2, 1956, Elvis rooted through the pile of Hill & Range demos looking for more ma­te­rial. He found it with Black­well’s Don’t Be Cruel, which he and the band mem­o­rized and arranged. After twenty-eight takes, he had the B-side to his next single!

All known records by Elvis Presley with Don’t Be Cruel man­u­fac­tured in the US from 1956 through mid-1958 credit Otis Black­well as the sole song­writer. This includes:

20/47-6604   Hound Dog / Don’t Be Cruel (1956)
EPA-940        THE REAL ELVIS (1956)
LPM-1707      ELVIS’ GOLDEN RECORDS (1958)

The orig­inal sheet music from mid-1956 (pic­tured above) lists Otis Black­well and Elvis Presley as the song­writers with the pub­lishing rights shared by Shal­imar Music and Elvis Presley Music. 3

Did Elvis write any of this song?

No way!

The first time that both Black­well and Pres­ley’s names ap­peared as co-writers on a record was in Sep­tember 1958 with the re­lease of Hound Dog / Don’t Be Cruel as part of RCA Vic­tor’s Gold Stan­dard Se­ries. That credit re­mained the same on all Presley sin­gles and al­bums throughout the Vinyl Era and the Com­pact Disc Era and will prob­ably re­main the same during the Down­load Era.

 

Songwriting credit: original sheet music for "Love Me Tender" from 1956.

Songwriting credit: original sheet music for "Love Me Tender" for piano accordion from 1956.

The image on top (red cover) is the reg­ular sheet music while the one on the bottom (brown cover) is spe­cial sheet music for piano ac­cor­dion solo. The sheet music for the three other songs have the same layout and graphics as the top image.

Love Me Tender (movie soundtrack)

Love Me Tender
We’re Gonna Move
Let Me
Poor Boy

Listed writers: Elvis Presley - Vera Matson
Ac­tual writers: Ken Darby - Vera Matson - Elvis Presley
Pub­lisher: Elvis Presley Music
Date recorded: Au­gust 24 and Sep­tember 4-5, 1956

There is a gen­er­ally ac­cepted be­lief re­garding the four songs that make up the sound­track to the first movie to fea­ture Elvis Presley. All four songs were written by Ken Darby, the movie’s music di­rector, but song­writing credit was as­signed to his wife Vera Matson and to Presley.

Darby had been in the busi­ness in some ca­pacity for more than twenty years. Ex­actly why an es­tab­lished figure in the music busi­ness had two other names as­signed to his com­po­si­tions is a bit baf­fling. 4

One of the ex­pla­na­tions of­fered for his not taking rightful credit was given on the Second Hand Songs website:

“Of­fi­cially [the song Love Me Tender] is cred­ited to Elvis Presley and Vera Matson, but nei­ther of them wrote the song. Vera Matson was Ken Dar­by’s wife, who was cred­ited in­stead of Darby be­cause Presley was af­fil­i­ated with BMI, Darby with ASCAP.

In those days it was not per­mitted for an ASCAP writer and a BMI writer to share credit on the same song. Elvis Presley was just ‘given’ the credit, through a deal his man­ager, Colonel Parker, made with Ken Darby.” 5

This may have been ex­actly how it oc­curred but it’s far from what Darby claimed back in 1956.

A signature Elvis recording

In 1956, Colonel Parker hired Trude For­sher to be his sec­re­tary when he was in Hol­ly­wood. For five years, she had a ring­side seat to the goings-on of Parker and Presley while they were in Tin­sel­town. In 2006, a col­lec­tion of en­tries and notes from her diary were pub­lished as a book, The Love Me Tender Years Diary.

In­cluded in the book was a brief in­ter­view with Darby on the set of Love Me Tender in Sep­tember 1956:

“I was told the pe­riod was 1864, and the chal­lenge was to pro­vide Elvis Presley with a se­ries of songs which would be in­ge­nious (sic) to the pe­riod and yet sat­isfy the de­mands of his fol­lowing for Presley-type music. I was made aware of the po­ten­tial im­pact of a sweet ballad if sung by Presley as his theme song. I brought a lot of songs in and played them and studied them. In the end, there was just a small se­lec­tion, five melodies. 6

When Elvis came on the lot to start his movie, we in­vited him to listen to them and to choose a melody for the theme song of his new pic­ture. He lis­tened and se­lected one par­tic­ular melody. It was an in­stant de­ci­sion. He knows what he likes when he hears it; he can feel a melody and make it his own in­stan­ta­neously. 7

‘This is the one,’ he said, and I took it home to my wife. She is a com­poser in her own right, and she came up with the title Love Me Tender. It didn’t take Vera more than an evening to write a few stanzas. Then the draft was brought back to Elvis.

He ad­justed the music and the lyrics to his own par­tic­ular pre­sen­ta­tion. Elvis has the most ter­rific ear of anyone I have ever met. He does not read music, but he does not need to. All I had to do was play the song for him once, and he made it his own! He has per­fect judg­ment of what is right for him. He ex­er­cised that judg­ment when he chose Love Me Tender as his theme song.”

If Trude For­sh­er’s ac­count is ac­cu­rate, then at least one of the songs (Love Me Tender) should be cred­ited to Ken Darby – Vera Matson – Elvis Presley. Per­haps all four of the songs should have joint credit.

I am not alone in thinking this. In the ar­ticle “Love Me Tender — A Sig­na­ture Elvis Presley Recording” on the Elvis His­tory Blog, Alan Hanson reached a sim­ilar, if less in­clu­sive, conclusion:

“Forsher’s in­ter­view runs counter to the gen­er­ally ac­cepted be­lief that Ken Darby was the sole com­poser of Love Me Tender and that Elvis and Vera Matson, who re­ceived writing credit, had nothing to do with it. If Vera did, in fact, write a few stanzas, and if Elvis did, in fact, ad­just the music and the lyrics, then the two of them le­git­i­mately de­serve co-writing credit with Darby.”

This may be a co­nun­drum in the Presley saga that is doomed to re­main un­re­solved. 8

Did Elvis write any of these songs?

Maybe, baby!

The song­writing credit for all four songs re­mained the same on all Presley sin­gles and al­bums throughout the Vinyl Era and the Com­pact Disc Era and will prob­ably re­main the same during the Down­load Era.

 

Songwriting credit: original sheet music for "Paralyzed" from 1956.

On the orig­inal sheet music, the words and music for the song Par­a­lyzed were cred­ited to Otis Black­well and Elvis Presley, and the pub­lishing rights were shared by Elvis Presley Music and Shal­imar Music.

Paralyzed

Listed writers: Otis Black­well - Elvis Presley
Ac­tual writers: Otis Blackwell
Pub­lisher: Elvis Presley Com­pany - Shal­imar Music
Date recorded: Sep­tember 1, 1956

All known Presley records with Par­a­lyzed man­u­fac­tured in the US in the ’50s credit Otis Black­well as the sole song­writer. These records are:

LPM-1382     ELVIS (1956)
EPA-992        ELVIS – VOLUME 1 (1956)

Weirdly, the orig­inal sheet music lists Otis Black­well and Elvis Presley as the song­writers. 9

Did Elvis write any of this song?

Hah!

Records man­u­fac­tured as late as March 1958 in the US still cred­ited Par­a­lyzed solely to Black­well. Fi­nally, in 1962, new press­ings of LPM-1382 at­trib­uted song­writing credit for Par­a­lyzed to Otis Black­well and Elvis Presley. EPA-992 fol­lowed suit in 1965. That re­mained the same on all Presley al­bums throughout the Vinyl Era and the Com­pact Disc Era and will prob­ably re­main the same during the Down­load Era.

 

Elvis sheetmusic AllShookUp 800

On the orig­inal sheet music, the words and music for the song All Shook Up were cred­ited to Otis Black­well and Elvis Presley, and the pub­lishing rights were ex­clu­sively owned by Shal­imar Music.

All Shook Up

Listed writers: Otis Black­well - Elvis Presley
Ac­tual writers: Otis Blackwell
Pub­lisher: Shal­imar Music
Date recorded: Jan­uary 12, 1957

I was sur­prised to dis­cover that the first known recording of Otis Black­well’s All Shook Up was not by Elvis Presley but by David Hill. Hill cut it in No­vember 1956 and it was re­leased as I’m All Shook Up (Al­addin 3359) in Feb­ruary 1957, weeks prior to the re­lease of Pres­ley’s ver­sion! It was not a hit.

Then came the Elvis ver­sion and Al­addin reis­sued the Hill version—this time with the title short­ened to All Shook Up—and de­spite pos­i­tive re­views in the trades, it du­pli­cated the com­plete lack of suc­cess of the orig­inal re­lease. (To modern ears, Hill’s ver­sion of All Shook Up can sound like a parody.) 

Did Elvis write any of this song?

Nope!

Nonethe­less, the song re­mains cred­ited to Black­well and Presley on all Presley sin­gles and al­bums throughout the Vinyl Era and the Com­pact Disc Era and will prob­ably re­main the same during the Down­load Era.

 

Songwriting credit: 78 rpm pressing of David Hill's "I'm All Shook Up" from 1956.

Songwriting credit: 45 rpm pressing of David Hill's "All Shook Up" from 1957.

The first pressing of Al­addin 3359 was ti­tled I’m All Shook Up and solely credits Black­well as the writer and may have been re­leased only as a 78. The 45 rpm ver­sion of 3359 was re­leased in March 1957. It short­ened the title to All Shook Up and cred­ited both Black­well and Presley as the writers.

Why didn’t Otis complain?

Ex­actly when Otis Black­well agreed to Park­er’s terms re­garding the sharing of the song­writing credits for Don’t Be Cruel is un­known but it prob­ably wasn’t ear­lier than July 2, 1956, when Presley recorded it as the flip-side of his next single. By that time, Elvis had two huge hit sin­gles that had sold mil­lions of copies along with the biggest selling EP and LP al­bums in the country!

The ar­gu­ment for his re­lin­quishing par­tial credit to the song goes like this: Get­ting paid half the song­writing roy­al­ties for a record that sells mil­lions for Presley was better than get­ting paid all the roy­al­ties for a record that sells thou­sands for an­other artist. In the years 1956-1959, he was paid song­writing roy­al­ties for sales of ap­prox­i­mately 10,000,000 records (sin­gles and EP and LP al­bums) in the US bearing the name of Elvis Presley.

He should have also made money from any deal he had with his pub­lisher, Shal­imar Music, along with for­eign record sales. Why didn’t Black­well com­plain about this set-up? Be­cause he made ap­prox­i­mately $80,000 in song­writing roy­al­ties from the sales of Pres­ley’s records in the last six months of 1956 alone!

In an in­ter­view with the Chicago Tri­bune in 1988, Black­well re­marked, “He had the hips and the hair and the skin. I had the music. He got fa­mous, and I got re­wards. I think that’s fair.”

Ac­cording to Ernst Jor­gensen in his book Elvis Presley: A Life in Music, “[All Shook Up] would be the last time Black­well or any other writer suf­fered that in­dig­nity, as both Elvis and his song pub­lisher part­ners began fearing that the arrange­ment would leave them vul­ner­able to crit­i­cism from both jour­nal­ists and the public.”

While Elvis’ name would con­tinue to ap­pear in song­writing credits in the ’60s and ’70s, it was usu­ally as the arranger of a “tra­di­tional” gospel song in the public domain.

 

Songwriting credit: photo of Otis Blackwell at the piano (1956-1957?).

Singer and song­writer Otis Black­well is a key figure in the brief “ca­reer” of Elvis as a fellow song­writer as the two of them shared co-writer credit on Pres­ley’s two biggest hits, Don’t Be Cruel and All Shook Up.

Conclusion

Did Elvis know? It’s hard to imagine that this went on for a year and he didn’t know, but it’s pos­sible that the Colonel ex­plained it just the way busi­ness was done and Presley shrugged his shoul­ders and went along with it. Of course, that makes him look kind of dumb, and, de­spite what many people who cherish their “We Hate Elvis” but­tons, the man was any­thing but dumb.

Why do it? Well, the Presley family did not have a lot of money when Elvis signed with RCA Victor in No­vember 1955, so it was prob­ably a means to get more of it. That’s a mighty mo­ti­vator for many people. re­gard­less of their integrity.

So, whether Elvis had the tiniest hand in writing sev­eral of his biggest hits or it was just an un­just way to squeeze more money out of his hits, why did he quit at­taching his name to songs after All Shook Up?

My guess? Be­cause by the end of 1956, Presley and Parker knew that they didn’t need the money enough to ask their song­writer to gen­er­ously “share” their credit with Elvis.

Un­for­tu­nately, it wasn’t fair for Elvis to re­ceive credit for writing a song in ex­change for recording it. For­tu­nately, it didn’t happen very often. Click To Tweet

Songwriting credit: full photo of Elvis on the LOVE ME TENDER movie set in August 1956/

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page ap­pears to be a ca­sual photo of Elvis taken during the making of the Love Me Tender movie in Au­gust 1956. The story was set during the Amer­ican Civil War and starred Richard Egan and Debra Paget with Elvis billed third. Due to Pres­ley’s pres­ence, the movie was an im­me­diate hit and made back the money it cost the studio to pro­duce it after its first week!

Fi­nally, to read the orig­inal Quora ques­tion and the dozens of con­fused and there­fore con­fusing “an­swers,” click here.

 

____________

 

FOOTNOTES

1   Even when Pres­ley’s blue moon was no longer turning gold again in the mid-1960s and he was being written off as a has-been, he en­joyed a rep­u­ta­tion for hon­esty and in­tegrity. Con­se­quently, fans and critics alike as­sumed that if he re­ceived song­writing credit, he must have done some­thing to earn it.

2   I do not know if Black­well sold all pub­lishing rights to Shalimar—a not un­usual event for strug­gling songwriters—or if the $150 pay­ment was an ad­vance against fu­ture earnings.

3   I checked 1956 press­ings of these sides on records man­u­fac­tured in a dozen other coun­tries and all of them credit Black­well alone as the songwriter.

4   In 1939, Ken Darby was the singing voice for the mayor of Munchkin­land in The Wizard Of Oz! His group, the Ken Darby Singers, sang backup on the orig­inal 1942 studio recording of Bing Cros­by’s White Christmas. In 1957, Darby won the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Mu­sical Pic­ture for the 1956 movie The King And I. He would win two more Emmys.

5   ASCAP is an acronym for the Amer­ican So­ciety of Com­posers, Au­thors & Pub­lishers, which was founded in 1914 when al­most all pro­fes­sional song­writers wrote pop songs. BMI is an ini­tialism for Broad­cast Music, Inc., which was founded in 1939 and wound up with the bulk of those folks writ­ings songs in genres such as country & western and rhythm & blues. Darby was a long­standing member of the former while Elvis had been signed as a song­writer to the latter. 

6   The word in­ge­nious (“clever, orig­inal, and in­ven­tive”) is used in the book; whether it was mis­used by For­sher in her diary or by the people re­spon­sible for the book is un­known. The word I think she might have been reaching for is in­dige­nous (“orig­i­nating or oc­cur­ring nat­u­rally in a par­tic­ular place”). 

7   The melody for Love Me Tender was based on Aura Lee, a ballad that was very pop­ular during the War Be­tween The States. The melody for We’re Gonna Move was based on There’s A Leak In This Old Building, an old gospel number.

8   In the in­ter­view with For­sher, Darby claimed that Vera Matson was also a com­poser. Ex­cept for those songs as­so­ci­ated with Elvis, the only other com­po­si­tion that I could find that were cred­ited to her was the theme song for the 1964 tele­vi­sion se­ries Daniel Boone. And again, it is be­lieved that Darby was the ac­tual writer. 

9   I checked orig­inal press­ings of these sides on LPM-1382 (or its vari­ants) records man­u­fac­tured in a dozen other coun­tries and all of them credit Black­well and Presley as the song­writers. As these records were usu­ally man­u­fac­tured months after the ini­tial US press­ings, many of them were prob­ably man­u­fac­tured in 1957.

 


 

Leave a comment

Subscribe
Notify of
Rate this article:
Please rate this article with your comment.
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments