Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Don’t Be Cruel, a great rockabilly song written by Otis Blackwell and originally performed by Elvis Presley. We will then review covers of this song by Jerry Lee Lewis and by Cheap Trick.
Elvis Presley and Don’t Be Cruel:
Elvis Presley has been one of our favorite rock artists. We first featured him in our blog post on the song Hound Dog. We next reviewed his version of Always On My Mind; later we discussed Heartbreak Hotel, and his cover of Blue Moon Of Kentucky.
We also wrote about Elvis’ covers of the songs Little Darlin’ and Long Tall Sally. In addition, we discussed his songs Jailhouse Rock and Can’t Help Falling In Love. So here we will briefly review his life and career.
In rock and roll, everyone acknowledged that Elvis was “The King.” Ever since he traveled from Tupelo, MS to Memphis to record a song for his mother, Elvis became a rock and roll star and then a legend.
Here is a photo of Elvis Presley performing to adoring fans in September, 1956 in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi.Embed from Getty Images
In 1954, Sam Phillips recorded him in the Sun Records studios. Elvis’ rockabilly cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, Mama become a big hit locally from the moment that Memphis radio DJs began featuring it.
Phillips was convinced that he could make a ton of money if he could find a white artist capable of producing ‘cross-over’ hits from rhythm and blues songs by black artists. Memphis was a great location for such a project, as producers like Sam Phillips and Stax Records’ co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axon were recording songs by both black and white artists.
During the mid-50s, Phillips produced records by artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, but Elvis was his greatest discovery. And Elvis had great range – his work ranged from rockabilly classics such as Hound Dog to ballads and gospel.
The song Don’t Be Cruel was one of Elvis’ first big hits. It was written by Otis Blackwell, who sold it to Elvis’ publishers Hill and Range. It was the first song that Hill and Range presented to Elvis.
By the middle of 1956 Elvis was a breakout star, and so the deal was that Elvis was listed as a co-writer of the song and receive a percentage of the royalties, in return for a guarantee to Blackwell’s music publishers that the record would sell a million copies.
In Don’t Be Cruel, the singer asks his lover to show some kindness to him, particularly since he has reserved all of his affection for her.
You know I can be found
Sitting home all alone
If you can’t come around
At least please telephone
Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.
Baby, if I made you mad
For something I might have said
Please, let’s forget the past
The future looks bright ahead
Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true
I don’t want no other love
Baby it’s just you I’m thinking of.
Don’t Be Cruel was produced at what must have been a marathon recording session on July 2, 1956 at RCA’s New York studios. During that evening Elvis recorded Hound Dog in 31 takes, then ran through 28 takes of Don’t Be Cruel.
In those days, Elvis was very actively involved in recording his songs. He made several suggestions about how the songs should be produced, tried out alternate versions on the piano, and suggested changes in the lyrics. In fact, various biographers claim that Elvis should have been credited with producing his early records.
Don’t Be Cruel was the “B” side of the record released on July 13, 1956 with Hound Dog as the “A” side. Hound Dog made the first big impression, rising to #2 on the Billboard pop charts. However, it was then overtaken by Don’t Be Cruel, which became Elvis’ biggest hit to that point.
Don’t Be Cruel achieved the astonishing feat of hitting #1 on the pop, country and R&B charts. And Don’t Be Cruel remained #1 on the pop charts for 11 weeks; this was the longest tenure at #1 for any pop song over the next 35 years.
Whereas Hound Dog was a hard-rocking tune, Don’t Be Cruel was a much more mellow rockabilly song. By now there are scores of covers of Don’t Be Cruel. Connie Francis issued a best-selling cover in 1959. Probably Elvis’ favorite cover was by pop star Jackie Wilson. In fact, Elvis was so taken by Wilson’s version that he adopted some of Wilson’s vocal mannerisms when subsequently performing Don’t Be Cruel.
Here is Elvis performing Don’t Be Cruel on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Taking place on Jan. 6, 1957, this was Elvis’ third and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. His first appearance in Sept. 1956 was an incredible media circus – it attracted an unheard-of TV audience of 62 million people, and was a riveting event on live television.
However, for his third appearance, the CBS censors would only allow Elvis to be shown from the waist up. Presumably Mr. Presley was so sexy that revealing his groin area would be too shocking for modest viewers.
Don’t Be Cruel was the fourth of Elvis’ seven songs on the Jan. 6, 1957 Ed Sullivan Show. Elvis is accompanied by The Jordanaires, who are arranged behind him. He gives a tongue-in-cheek performance of his rockabilly classic, deliberately exaggerating some of the vocal stylings.
At one point, when he intones “Mmmm,” young women scream with delight. Even though this excerpt of Don’t Be Cruel lasts just over a minute, it gives a vivid picture of the intensity of the Elvis phenomenon.
In any case, the “only show Elvis from the waist up” ploy basically backfired, as it only increased the mystery — what was happening off-camera that caused girls in the audience to go crazy? This performance took place one day before Elvis’ 22nd birthday.
In March 1958 Elvis was drafted into the Army, and after his tour of duty ended he struggled to regain his form. His records still sold and his movies invariably made money; however, interest in Elvis waned, and things got worse once British Invasion musicians dominated the headlines.
Elvis was close to a number of old friends who benefited from Elvis’ famous generosity; and his doctors prescribed for him an astonishing array of powerful pharmaceuticals. Over the years, Elvis gained considerable weight until near the end of his life, when he became almost grotesquely heavy.
The dashing young king of rock ‘n roll slowly but surely morphed into the shockingly bloated and over-medicated figure who died on August 16, 1977 at age 42. However, right up to the end Elvis retained his wonderful voice.
What a shame. Elvis would have been 83 in January 2018, but his music lives on.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Don’t Be Cruel:
We discussed Jerry Lee Lewis in an earlier blog post on his cover of Otis Blackwell’s song Great Balls of Fire. Blackwell was also the writer of Don’t Be Cruel, the song we are reviewing today. So here we will briefly review Jerry Lee Lewis’ career.
Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the great early stars of rock and roll. He appeared suddenly in the mid-50s, and became an overnight sensation. His piano playing helped define rock ‘n roll as a new and separate musical genre. A larger-than-life performer, Jerry Lee had a career that featured a number of dramatic twists and turns.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born in 1935 in Concordia parish, Louisiana. While young, Jerry Lee and his cousins Mickey Gillis and Jimmy Swaggart became seriously interested in music. Mickey and Jerry Lee would continue in music, while Jimmy later became a famous preacher and TV evangelist.
Below is a photo of Jerry Lee Lewis performing in concert in England, May 1958.Embed from Getty Images
After Jerry Lee showed a serious interest in music, his parents, bless their souls, mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. But while Jerry Lee was interested in R&B and country music, his parents envisioned gospel music for their boy.
In 1956 Jerry Lee moved up to Memphis, where he became a session musician for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records while he attempted to score a hit record. Jerry Lee’s distinctive piano licks can be heard on a number of Sun recordings by artists such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style was an over-the-top version of boogie-woogie stride piano,
which is characterized by a regular left hand bass figure and dancing beat.
Jerry Lee combined this with elements he absorbed from his Southern gospel upbringing.
In Lewis’ talented hands, the results were electrifying. He was
an incendiary showman who often played with his fists, elbows, feet, and backside, sometimes climbing on top of the piano during gigs and even apocryphally setting it on fire.
Jerry Lee Lewis broke through with huge hits in the mid-50s, such as Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire. The songs, and his flamboyant performing style, made Jerry Lee Lewis a super-star.
However, in 1958 his career suddenly hit the rocks. As he embarked upon a tour of England in 1958, it was revealed that Jerry Lee’s recent bride Myra Gale Brown was only 13.
To make matters worse, it turned out that Myra was Jerry Lee’s first cousin once removed. When these facts became public, Lewis was immediately enveloped in scandal. He had to cut short his British tour after just 3 shows.
Upon returning to the States, Jerry Lee’s American career also underwent a catastrophic decline. He was blacklisted from the radio, Dick Clark dropped him from American Bandstand, and his producer Sam Phillips turned on him.
Almost overnight, Jerry Lee Lewis went from headlining the top rock and roll shows, to showing up at juke joints. It took him a few years to get out of his Sun Records contract and on his feet again.
Just as his career was reviving, Jerry Lee’s comeback attempt was sidelined by British Invasion artists such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. This was bitterly ironic, as Jerry Lee Lewis had been a major inspirational figure for British Invasion bands.
So here is Jerry Lee Lewis in a live performance of Don’t Be Cruel.
Well, Jerry Lee Lewis does not disappoint here. The crowd is in great spirits during a lovely Toronto summer day. Don’t Be Cruel is a terrific vehicle for Jerry Lee’s blend of R&B with country and western music.
His vocals are perfect for this rockabilly classic, and The Killer shows off his bag of tricks – the hard-driving stride piano thumping, followed by successive trills up and down the scales. We don’t get the most dramatic over-the-top antics, such as standing on the piano or playing with his feet or his butt, but ol’ Jerry Lee still puts on a first-rate performance.
This took place at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. We will now take a brief detour to review this singular event. Scheduled just four weeks after Woodstock, it was a one-day, 12-hour concert at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.
The concert was to feature a collection of ‘roots’ rockers from the 50s, combined with late-60s acts, including
Bo Diddley, Chicago, Junior Walker and the All Stars, … Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, …Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, … and The Doors.
However, ticket sales were so slow that the event was in danger of being cancelled. In fact, the main financial backers pulled their funding on the week of the show. Desperate to salvage the event, the organizers hit upon the idea of inviting John Lennon and Yoko Ono to emcee the concert.
They figured that Lennon might attend because of his well-known admiration for ‘roots’ rockers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. To the delight of the promoters, Lennon not only agreed to emcee the event, but insisted that he would come only if he was invited to perform.
The organizers were initially gleeful at their coup; however, they were crestfallen when Toronto media refused to believe that John Lennon was actually going to perform. At the last minute, they released a tape recording of the organizers ordering plane tickets for Lennon, Oko, Eric Clapton and bassist Klaus Voorman.
That did it – the entire stadium then sold out on the day before the event. Indeed, John and Yoko appeared and performed. The concert became the first event where people lit matches and lighters to welcome a performer.
The lighters were the brainchild of Festival MC Kim Fowley. Fowley knew that John Lennon had not performed live for a few years, and was suffering from a severe bout of stage fright. Fowley reasoned (correctly) that the gesture would be welcoming and soothing, and that it would ease Lennon’s performance anxiety.
And now back to Jerry Lee Lewis. By the late 60s, Jerry Lee experienced a roller-coaster ride from young unknown artist to worldwide superstar, and back into obscurity. However, his comeback efforts faced even more hurdles.
First, Jerry Lee Lewis was seriously conflicted about his music. He had been brought up in a deeply religious family, that believed rock and roll was “the Devil’s music.” Jerry Lee’s cousin, evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart, never failed to remind him of his sinful ways.
In addition, Jerry Lee had major addiction issues. He was a wild man both onstage and off. A prodigious drinker, he also took copious quantities of amphetamines to fuel his manic lifestyle.
“That was blues and yellows time…. I tell you, greatest pills ever made,” he says. … “That would keep me going. Desbutal. Man, you couldn’t beat the Desbutal. Went hundreds of miles a day on them… biphetamines [black beauties], Placidyls, up and down. I took ’em all.”
But just when Jerry Lee seemed pretty much through in rock ‘n roll, he re-surfaced as a country artist. After a couple of surprise country hits, Jerry Lee realized that his music was extremely popular with country fans.
For the past 40 years, Jerry Lee Lewis has continued as a living legend. He was one of the inaugural set of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
In May 2013 he opened a club in Memphis, and to the best of my knowledge he is still performing there. As befits the title of his 2006 album, Jerry Lee Lewis is truly the Last Man Standing. He has survived a lifetime of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, and long may he thrive.
Cheap Trick and Don’t Be Cruel:
Cheap Trick is a rock quartet that emerged from Rockford, Illinois in the mid-70s. Below is a photo of the band from the late 70s. From L: lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Robin Zander; drummer Brad Carlos (who later changed his name to Bun E. Carlos); bassist Tom Petersson; and lead guitarist Rick Nielsen.Embed from Getty Images
The group spent a few years building up a regional reputation, and in 1976 they signed a record contract with Epic Records. Their first few albums found little commercial success in the States; however, Cheap Trick’s records became best-sellers in Japan. This is reminiscent of the movie This Is Spinal Tap, where the band’s reputation in the U.S. languishes, while they maintain a cult following in Japan.
In 1978, Cheap Trick embarked on a tour of Japan, where they were welcomed effusively by frenzied fans. The band performed two concerts at the Nippon Budokan. Songs from those two concerts were combined into a single album, Cheap Trick at Budokan.
The original plan was to release the album only in Japan. However, bootleg copies of the album began selling like hotcakes, so in February 1979 Epic Records released it in the U.S. That album went triple platinum in the States, and two singles from that album made the top 40 in the Billboard pop charts.
On the basis of that album, Cheap Trick became a world-renowned classic-rock band. Although they released a number of albums and had a few singles make the charts, they were best known for their live concerts.
Rick Nielsen assembled a valuable collection of unusual and rare guitars, which he often unveiled at live shows. Robin Zander has a terrific, clear voice well-suited to the group’s hard-rock hits. And Bun E. Carlos alternates massive thumps on the bass drum with rapid-fire staccato bursts on the snare.
So here is Cheap Trick in a live performance of the Elvis song Don’t Be Cruel.
This is from a show at the Houston Astrodome in 1989. As usual, guitarist Rick Nielsen dresses like a nerd (here, with a sweater that features a pattern of skulls). Nielsen also sports one of his famous collection of custom guitars – in this case, a Fender Stratocaster.
Tom Petersson appears with an ‘upright’ black-and-white checked electric bass, while drummer Bun E. Carlos whacks away on a vintage Ludwig drum kit.
As always, Cheap Trick is an extremely tight unit. Tom Petersson sounds just like an acoustic double bass, while Bun E. Carlos keeps time with his trademark drum licks. Lead vocalist Robin Zander produces great classic rock vocals, and Rick Nielsen’s high-energy guitar solos manage to convert this rockabilly gem into 70s power-pop rock ‘n roll.
For the past 40 years Cheap Trick has been producing records and touring. In 2007, the State of Illinois designated April 1 of each year as Cheap Trick Day, in honor of their local band. So, happy Cheap Trick Day!
The membership of Cheap Trick has been remarkably constant over the years. Bassist Tom Petersson left the group for 6 years in the mid-80s, but then returned.
In 2010 Bun E. Carlos stopped touring with the band. Although it was announced that he would continue to work with the group and contribute to recording sessions, in 2013 Carlos filed suit against his bandmates, claiming that they had frozen him out of decisions and recording.
The other members of Cheap Trick filed a counter-suit, and eventually the group resolved their differences although Carlos stopped touring and recording with the band.
Cheap Trick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. It was nice to see Bun E. Carlos join his former mates at the induction ceremony.