In my new book, Writing for the King, I spoke to over 140 songwriters whose work was recorded by Elvis, and most remarked about his uncanny ability to capture the essence of a song and make it his own. Like a musical geneticist, Elvis drew from every strand of DNA in a songwriter’s work, which ultimately helped shape his own distinctive personal interpretation.

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In my new book, Writing for the King, I spoke to over 140 songwriters whose work was recorded by Elvis, and most remarked about his uncanny ability to capture the essence of a song and make it his own. Like a musical geneticist, Elvis drew from every strand of DNA in a songwriter’s work, which ultimately helped shape his own distinctive personal interpretation.

Just listen to the wide stylistic swath of genre hopping material Elvis recorded during his career-from Junior Parker’s amphetamine-paced rockabilly classic “Mystery Train” and the poppin’ perfect panache of Otis Blackwell’s “All Shook Up,” to the down-and-dirty blues swagger of “Reconsider Baby” and the operatic grandeur of “It’s Now or Never.” And then there are more controversial, socially-conscious anthems (“If I Can Dream” and “In the Ghetto”) and introspective ‘70s fare like “Separate Ways” and “Always On My Mind.” Right away, you can hear the breadth of a master stylist who breathed new life into every song he cut. But how was Elvis presented with songs in the first place?

In 1956, Freddy Bienstock was hired by powerful New York publishing firm, Hill & Range (formed by Austrian brothers, Julian and Jean Aberbach) as a songplugger. From then on, he was responsible for presenting songs to Elvis and acted as his A&R musical lifeline. His arms piled high with acetates, Bienstock was a constant presence at all of Elvis’s recording sessions, plying the artist with demo after demo.

“I knew what kind of songs Elvis liked and what I thought might capture his attention,” Bienstock remembers. “It was either a terrific melody or a novelty kind of lyric idea like ‘All Shook Up."” Elvis listened intently to demos and knew immediately if a song was right for him. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do,” Bienstock affirms. “You couldn’t talk Elvis into doing a song; he had to feel it. He knew what would work for him. If Elvis didn’t like a song, he’d only play about eight bars and then he would take it off. Then there were times he’d want to hear it again and again. Elvis would often adapt the arrangements inherent in the demos. On songs that he was particularly fond of, he would make a real effort…sometimes he’d do 40 takes. When there was a song he especially liked, he was almost a perfectionist about getting it just right.”

Elvis’s close friend, Lamar Fike, headed up the Nashville division of Hill & Range between 1962 and 1973. “You’d get all the songs together for a session, anywhere from probably 50, 100, 200 songs,” Fike remembers. “Freddy would send them to Memphis or L.A. or wherever we were, and Elvis and I started going over the material. We would weed it down to 20 or 30 songs and then weed it down further to about 10 songs. It was a continual process of listening and evaluating the material. We were looking for hits. You didn’t know exactly what you were looking for in the sense of this kind of wording, or, that type of music. With hit songs you feel it and just know it’s there. Elvis was one of the best song men that I’ve ever seen. He had an excellent ear, and he was more right than wrong with the material he selected. If he hadn’t been more right than wrong he wouldn’t have sold 200…300 million singles.”

As for songwriters’ whom Presley particularly enjoyed, Bienstock recalls that “Elvis loved Otis Blackwell. Otis had a feeling for black music that Elvis liked. For example, ‘All Shook Up’ was an expression that got to Elvis. Otis wrote some terrific songs, but he didn’t write many. Those that he wrote were very special, whether it was ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ or ‘All Shook Up’ or ‘Return to Sender.’ He also had hits for other artists like Jerry Lee Lewis with ‘Great Balls Of Fire."”

“Any good singer that’s smart knows where his material comes from and then where to go get it,” adds Fike. “It’s a business. Elvis was respectful of the writers. He loved Mort (Shuman), Doc’s (Pomus) stuff and Mike (Stoller) and Jerry’s (Leiber) stuff. He also liked Don Robertson’s music, which was very country. When material came in from any of those writers, he would listen to it real fast.”

For the most part, Presley was limited to cutting songs published by Hill & Range. If he took a liking to a non-Hill & Range song, a publishing deal would quickly be secured. During that time, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, in cahoots with Hill & Range, also adopted a somewhat controversial stance whereby Elvis received a third of the songwriters’ mechanical royalties on tunes he cut. (He’s listed as co-writer of several hits, including “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up,” albeit he didn’t have a hand in writing them. This practice of adding co-writer credit soon ceased thereafter.)

Surprisingly, most of the songwriters whose work was recorded by Elvis did not object to this practice, as landing a cut was quite a coup and potential money maker. David Hess, a Hill & Range writer who had a few songs recorded by Elvis-including his 1958 No. 1 smash, “I Got Stung”-recalls, “Part of the deal when Elvis cut one of your songs was he would get a piece of the action. Colonel Tom Parker made sure of that. To have a potential No. 1 hit staring you in the face made the pain of getting screwed a little less painful. It was a game you had to play and it was just dollars and cents for the Colonel. It wasn’t personal. He was looking out for his client, and that’s the way it was one in those days. It’s so much different now. Everybody owns their own publishing. Back then you were just a songwriter and were happy to be part of a situation that made you money. You didn’t think about making waves, because if you did, you were out…and there was always somebody lined up behind you waiting to get in. You weren’t thinking about anything but making a living and writing songs.” In later years the quality of the Hill & Range songs dipped dramatically, and outside songs managed to fall between the tightly controlled cracks, most notably Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds,” which proved to be Presley’s last No. 1 hit.

Characterizing Presley’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the heart and soul of the songs he recorded, Fike reflects, “In order to make a song work, you’ve gotta understand it. And that’s what any good singer does.

If you’re a stylist like Elvis was, that’s what makes a great song. What makes a great singer is his style. Frank Sinatra was one of the greatest stylists that ever lived…so was Elvis. When Elvis got through with a song, it became his. Sinatra said one time when talking about Elvis’s version of ‘My Way,’ ‘He’s the only other person that made that song his .too.’ With Elvis, when he got through with the song, it was his and nobody else’s.”

The following interview excerpts spotlight some of Elvis’s most important songwriters and offer illuminating insight behind the songs recorded by The King.

TOMMY DURDEN “Heartbreak Hotel” Tommy Durden and Mae Axton crafted Presley’s first RCA Records smash, “Heartbreak Hotel,” a song cited by music historians as the seminal spark that ignited the rock and roll revolution.

“I would get The Miami Heraldevery day. I loved the horse races-didn’t bet on ‘em because I never had any money-but I loved to make my picks. I was reading The Miami Herald, and I ran across a little item about a man who had committed suicide. I don’t remember how he killed himself, but there was a line in the suicide note that struck me. It said, ‘I walk a lonely street.’ I thought it would be a terrific idea for a blues song.

“The next time I went to Jacksonville for The Toby Dowdy Show, I met up with Mae Axton who was a songwriter. I walked into her house and I said, ‘Mae, I’ve got a terrific idea for a song.’ I told her that I got the idea from the paper. I said, ‘We can write a blues song about it.’ I knew that Mae knew Elvis. She’d booked him on shows in Jacksonville. She sat down at the piano and I walked the floor behind her…and we wrote ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ It took all of 20 minutes. I started out with what was in the man’s suicide note: ‘I walk a lonely street.’ But as you get into it, it goes, ‘Down at the end of lonely street at the heartbreak hotel.’ We wrote the song and decided that it would be a natural for Elvis. He wasn’t big at the time. He was still on Sun Records, and Parker had just taken him under his wing.

“Glenn Reeves, the guy that introduced me to Mae, came into the house. He could do an Elvis imitation. We got Glenn to sing it like he thought Elvis would do it. He didn’t even like the song. It was done just with guitar and voice.

“There was a disc jockey convention coming up in Nashville, and Mae was going to the convention. I said to Mae, ‘Take the dub because Elvis is gonna be there. Go see him and play it for him. If he’ll record it on RCA, give him a third of the writer’s end.’ She went there, played it for him and gave him a third of it. And it was his first release on RCA.”

OTIS BLACKWELL “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up” Otis Blackwell was reportedly a very quiet man. Yet in truth he didn’t need to speak much, as his wonderful songs spoke in volumes. “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up,” “Paralyzed” and “Great Balls Of Fire” are among the rock and roll treasures he created.

“On Christmas Eve in ‘55, I was standing outside the Brill Building with no hat and holes in my shoes. It was snowin’. Leroy Kirkland, the arranger who worked with Screamin’ Jay , asked if I had any songs. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to get some Christmas money.’ He took me to Shalimar Music where I met Goldie Goldmark, Al Stanton and Moe . So I said OK. Al Stanton was a friend of another fellow named Paul Cates, who was with the Elvis Presley people. He got my songs through.

“I was working for Shalimar, and Elvis was with Hill & Range. So they got together to co-publish. I played seven songs for them…one of the songs was ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ They bought it and showed it to the Elvis company. They asked me could I write some more stuff. So I made a couple of demos. I made the demos to ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ ‘Paralyzed’ and ‘All Shook Up.’ When Elvis recorded these songs, he was copying the vocal style on the demos. And when they heard that, they asked me would I make other demos for writers as well.

“After ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ Shalimar said I had a chance to get Presley again, so I wrote ‘All Shook Up.’ walked in one day with a bottle of Pepsi, shaking it, as they did at the time, and said, ‘Otis, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you write a song called ‘All Shook Up?’ Two days later I brought the song in and said, ‘Look, man, I did something with it.’ After that song, the agreement about sharing songwriting credit was washed. We had both proved how good we were and had a good thing between the two of us.

“I was surprised when I heard ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ because it was just like I had done the demo. I used to sing all my own demos, and it just so happened that a lot of what Presley and Jerry Lee did sounded alike. I thought they did justice to the songs. They put the kind of feeling into it that I felt.”

JERRY LEIBER & MIKE STOLLER “Hound Dog,” “Love Me” and “Jailhouse Rock” In the annals of songwriting, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are championed alongside such legendary teams as Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, and Goffin and King as among popular music’s most seminal writers. Celebrating over half a century of songwriting, Leiber and Stoller penned dozens of hits, but it’s their remarkable songs so beautifully interpreted by Presley that stand among their finest achievements.

Mike Stoller: “Hound Dog” was not originally written about a hunting dog who’d forgotten how to hunt. It was about a woman kicking a free-loader out of her house.

Jerry Leiber: I didn’t particularly like Elvis’ version of “Hound Dog,” but as time passed I grew very fond of it. I’m not sure if it was the actual record itself or the fact that it had become such an anthem.

MS: After that, Elvis’s music publishers , contacted us. They asked if we had any other songs we thought might be good for Elvis. Jerry suggested a favorite old song of ours called “Love Me” that we’d recorded with a gospel group from San Francisco.

JL: It was originally written as a send-up of country music, but Elvis sang it from the heart and it became a true love song.

MS: Elvis’s version of “Love Me” became a big hit and a standard. He managed to transform this simple tune into something genuinely touching.

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JL: For Elvis’s movies, they’d send us a script and there would be indications of where a song should appear. Our job was to come up with the songs, and ultimately we decided where they would go.