Are You Lonesome Tonight Original
Are You Lonesome Tonight Origins
Tin Pan Alley songwriters Roy Turk and Lou Handman wrote “Are You Lonesome Tonight” back in 1926. In April 1960, after his two-year service in the United States Army, Elvis Presley recorded the song. Presley’s version became one of the most recognisable tunes of all time, going double platinum in 1992. However the “Are You Lonesome Tonight” original recording was made in 1927 by vaudevillian singer Charles Hart.
Tin Pan Alley was a collection of music publishers and songwriters based in New York City. They dominated American popular music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Turk and Handman wrote “Are You Lonesome Tonight” in 1926, it was recorded soon after by several artists.
Charles Hart’s Original Version
Hart was the first to record the song in May 1927, but other versions were recorded by Vaughn De Leath, Henry Burr, and a duet by Jerry Macy and John Ryan. The Colonial Club Orchestra, the Carter Family, Stanley Kirby and Al Jolson also recorded later versions. And in 1950, the Blue Barron Orchestra’s version reached the Top 20 on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart.
Hart’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” original version was issued as a 78rpm single with “Sweet Marie” on the B-side.
The Life of Charles Hart
Hart was born in Chicago in 1884 to German immigrant parents. As a child, he performed in choirs and later attended the Chicago Musical College, run by Flo Ziegfeld’s father. He worked for a time with cattle in North Dakota, before attending the Armour Institute of Technology. Hart did not, however, pursue an engineering career. Instead, an acquaintance with Ziegfeld led to appearances in stage productions and then a singing career.
By 1912, Hart enjoyed moderate success on the stage, with his first recording sessions following three years later. Along with Harvey Hindermyer, Elliott Shaw and Wilfred Glenn, Hart was an original member of Victor’s popular Shannon Four quartet, which began recording in 1917.
Hart married soprano Esther Nelson and the two recorded a series of duets between 1922 and 1924. He then went to Germany to study operatic singing. He also performed on German radio and made records for Electrola, the German branch of His Master’s Voice. Hart passed away in 1965. More about his life can be read here.
Hart’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight” original is a world away from Presley’s cover. It’s difficult to compare the two. This original recording is very vaudevillian, a real stage song. Hart sings in a “posh” English-accented voice with rolled Rs and is accompanied by what sounds like a hurdy-gurdy. Fans of old-timey music will love this version.
Are You Lonesome Tonight, Pagliacci?
The famous spoken bridge wasn’t recorded until British music hall singer Stanley Kirkby’s 1928 version of “Are You Lonesome Tonight“. It’s based on a line from Italian opera composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci: “You know someone said that the world’s a stage. And each must play a part.” This, of course, refers to the line “All the world’s a stage” from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
(Aside: you might also remember Pagliacci from the 1992 Seinfeld episode “The Opera” in which “Crazy” Joe Davola dresses up as a clown.)
Ned Jakobs Version
Some say that the “Are You Lonesome Tonight” original was actually Ned Jakobs’ version. Jakobs did record an unreleased version of the song at Brunswick’s New York recording studios in 1927. This was prior to Hart’s version, but Jakobs’ recording was never issued with a label and record number. This seems to indicate his version was never planned for release.
Elvis Presley Recording Experience
Presley recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight” at the suggestion of his manager Colonel Tom Parker. It was Parker’s wife, Marie Mott’s, favourite song. On the 4th of April 1960, Presley recorded eight songs for the album Elvis is Back! He commenced recording “Are You Lonesome Tonight” at 4 am, accompanied by acoustic guitar, drums, bass and the backup group. He used Vaughn De Leath and the Colonial Club Orchestra’s 1927 version as inspiration for his recording.
When it came to recording his singing and the spoken bridge, Presely asked everyone to leave the studio and turn out the lights. He performed the song in the dark and, as he finished, bumped into a chair. The knocking over sound can still be heard if you listen carefully to the recording.
Throw that tune out. I can’t do it justice.”Elvis Presley to producer Steve Sholes after recording the second take of “Are You Lonesome Tonight”
Sholes persuaded Presley to try one more time, and that take became the master for the single.
Executives for Presley’s label, RCA Victor, weren’t sure if “Are You Lonesome Tonight” reflected the Elvis they wanted to portray. They delayed its release for several months, but ultimately released the single in November 1960 with “I Gotta Know” on the B-side.
The single’s cover featured a handsome smiling Presley wearing a chartreuse shirt against a blue background. 5,000 disc jockeys received copies of the single.
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” was an immediate success. 900,000 singles were ordered during its first week of release and 1.2 million during the second week. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified “Are You Lonesome Tonight” platinum in 1983 and double platinum in 1992.
A Live Performance Staple
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” was so successful it became one of Presley’s live performance staples. He often changed the lyrics during these performances. Memorable live performances include:
- 1961’s Bloch Area Benefit in Honolulu for the USS Memorial Arizona in 1961. This was during the period between Presley coming home from the Army and moving into acting
- 1968’s NBC special Elvis following his return to music from acting
- Presley’s first Las Vegas engagement
- 1969’s laughing version at a Las Vegas concert where Presley cracks up laughing when a man in the audience takes off his toupee. Fun fact: the backup singer who keeps singing while Presley struggles to regain his composure is Whitney Houston‘s mother, Cissy Houston
- 1972’s documentary Elvis on Tour
- 1977’s CBS special Elvis in Concert. This was Presley’s third and final television special filmed during his concerts in Omaha, Nebraska and Rapid City, South Dakota in June 1977. I actually find this footage quite heartbreaking to watch, seeing Presley in such ill health and knowing that he passes away two months later on 16 August 1977. (Side note: 16 August is also Madonna’s birthday.) The CBS special was broadcast in October 1977. Here’s Presley performing “Are You Lonesome Tonight” during the 21 June concert.
So there you have it. “Are You Lonesome Tonight” – from a 1920s vaudevillian stage number to a live performance staple for the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.