Well, if you pick up almost any Elvis Greatest Hits compilation, you’ll find:
Love Me Tender, love me sweet
Never let me go
You have made my life complete
And I love you so…
Words and music by Vera Matson and Elvis Presley.
So who wrote what?
Answer: Neither of the above.
The tune for “Love Me Tender” was by Geo. R. Poulton.
Geo. R. who?
So who re-wrote “Aura Lee”? Step forward, Ken Darby. He was born in Nebraska in 1909, so he was no rock’n’roller, but a talented mainstay of the music world. A fine choral arranger, he had a group called the Ken Darby Singers, who backed Judy Garland in a studio album of the Wizard of Oz songs in 1940, and two years later sang with Bing Crosby on the original single of “White Christmas”. On the radio, he provided the music for “Fibber McGee and Molly”, in which capacity he performed a version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”, his first point of contact with those two great cultural contributions from the Troy area. He was Marilyn Monroe’s vocal coach on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and there are certainly worse ways of passing your time than getting up in the morning and going to work to spend the day teaching Marilyn how to sing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. And by the time he was done he had three Oscars on his shelf, for scoring The King and I, Porgy and Bess and Camelot.
The Reno Brothers project was just another day at the office for Ken Darby. Told that they needed a Civil War song for the picture, Darby picked out five ballads from the early 1860s and played them for Elvis. “Aura Lea” was the third or fourth. “This is the one,” said the singer. So Darby set about turning “Aura Lea” into “Love Me Tender”, and did it very expertly. Unlike Mr Fosdick, he imposed a song form on the tune – nothing too obtrusive, just that two-thirds echo of the title: “Love Me Tender, love me sweet”… “Love Me Tender, love me true”…
Love me Tender, love me long
Take me to your heart
For it’s there that I belong
And we’ll never part…
All that “love me” repetition could get a bit boring, except that they alternate between the low notes of Poulton’s verse (“Love Me Tender, love me long”) and then the high notes (“Aura Lea, Aura Lea”) of the chorus (“Love Me Tender, love me dear”), which gives a real ache and intensity to the reprises. It’s very deftly organized. And I doubt that Ken Darby thought it was anything more than just a solid professional job that served the needs of the picture.
Elvis’ manager, Colonel Parker, looked on it a little differently. His boy was a raucous rock’n’roller, but this movie song was going to be his first mainstream love ballad, and Parker thought that would be a big deal with the public, and potentially very lucrative. “Aura Lea” was out of copyright, so they didn’t have to pay Poulton and Fosdick anything …or even mention them. And, if nobody knew who wrote the song, why couldn’t Elvis have written it? So, when they heard Ken Darby had rewritten “Aura Lea” into “Love Me Tender”, the Colonel and the Aberbach brothers, who ran the Presley music publishing operation Hill & Range, politely informed Mr Darby that they’d be publishing the song and that in addition Elvis would be getting a credit as co-author.
Darby didn’t mind, because 50 per cent of an Elvis record still works out better than 100 per cent of a Ken Darby Singers record. But there was a problem. American songwriters have two copyright collection agencies, Ascap and BMI, the latter of which was founded in opposition to the former’s monopoly. Broadly speaking, Ascap had the Broadway and Hollywood writers, and BMI had the country & western and rhythm’n’blues guys. Elvis had been signed up as a member of BMI, whereas Darby, being a motion picture composer, was Ascap. And in those days it was not permitted for an Ascap writer and a BMI writer to share credit on the same song. So Darby risked losing his 50 per cent of “Love Me Tender” to a non-writing writer who’d contributed precisely 0 per cent to “Love Me Tender”.
Happiness lies/Right under your eyes, as they sing in “Back in Your Own Backyard”, and so it proved for Ken Darby. He signed up Mrs Darby – Vera Matson – as a member of BMI, and gave her his 50 per cent of the song.
It’s remarkable, it really is; Steyn is like a walking encyclopedia on this stuff, and every time I read another of his music pieces I stand in slackjawed awe of his voluminous store of knowledge. And remember how I said the other day that when it came to his music, Elvis was far from the hapless, clueless rube some still believe him to have been, and always knew exactly what he was doing and where he wanted to go? Further confirmation:
(Darby) was impressed by the way Presley took charge in the studio: “Elvis has the most terrific ear of anyone I have ever met,” he said. “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.” “What is right for him” turned out to be something the wailing Elvis of “Heartbreak Hotel” had never done before on record.
In Elvis’s own mind, what was “right for him” stretched far beyond the boundaries of rock and roll. His reach may have exceeded his grasp here and there, but for the most part he was tremendously successful at expanding those boundaries artistically, whether his audience was willing to follow him on his journey or not. Contrary to what some have said over the years, it was less his eclecticism that did him in, I believe; more blame for that could be placed at the foot of all those empty, witless movie songs he sang so disinterestedly, if you ask me. He was insulted by them and contemptuous of them…and rightly so. They were beneath him, and he was diminished by them, in more ways than just one.
In any event, read all of this one too; Dennis Hopper (!) even puts in an appearance, if you can believe it. Good as he is on politics and the Muslim threat and such-like, Steyn is as good a music writer as I know of. He could write a lengthy treatise on a soda-pop jingle and make it fascinating, I’d bet.