That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Elvis Presley was finally convinced to get back, in true Beatles fashion, on “Burning Love,” the song he released as a single in August 1972. It was high time he reclaimed his throne as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, considering his recent dearth of hits in the US, and an audience seemingly weary of his ballads, his gospel numbers, and, ultimately, his “American Trilogy.” On “Burning Love,” he was able to reconnect with his incendiary late-’50s incarnation, to the point of ad-libbing a slice of his 1959 rocker, “A Big Hunk o’ Love.” In the 1972 song, he found the ingredients to catapult him back to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. (He was joined there by Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson, the first time all three had been in the top ten in fourteen years.)
What is less well known is that Presley achieved exactly the kind of resurgence with “Burning Love” that Arthur Alexander hoped for when he released it as a single six months earlier. What is also little known, therefore, is that Presley’s version is a cover. By a matter of months.
Of course, Elvis had something of a history of making other people’s songs his own as the co-creator of rock ‘n’ roll, from Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” to Mark James’ “Suspicious Minds.” But his ownership of “Burning Love” was assured, first of all, by the fact that Alexander’s original sank without trace. Presley got the credit because, once again, the Alabama-born pioneer of country-soul failed to get the commercial success he deserved as a former favorite of the two biggest British bands of the ’60s.
It all goes back to March 1962. That was when Alexander, after a teenage stint in a gospel group called the Heartstrings, broke through with an exquisite piece of self-penned southern soul in the form of “You Better Move On.” He took the song to #24 in the Hot 100, before the Rolling Stones released a cover of it on their 1965 US #4 album, December’s Children (and Everybody’s). He subsequently scored a US R&B #10 in October ’62 with “Anna (Go to Him),” which the Beatles covered the next year on Please Please Me. But by the mid-’60s, with the Hollies and Dusty Springfield having also performed his songs, he was no longer the darling of the British Invasion. He succumbed to episodes of drug and alcohol abuse, and found dwindling success on Nashville’s Sound Stage 7 label, recording, amongst other things, a bluesy rendition of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.”
It was while seeking a fresh hit with a fresh tune on another Nashville label, Combine Music, in ’71 that Alexander came into contact with Dennis Linde. Not yet thirty, Linde was on a roster with Kris Kristofferson and Wanda Jackson; he had tasty guitar skills, a solo album under his belt, and the reputation as “Nashville’s best-kept songwriting secret.” Alexander saw hit potential in a home demo Linde had recorded of a song born out of the bliss of newly married life. It was unusual in the way it started off in gospel mode (“Lord Almighty / Feel my temperature rising / Higher, higher / It’s burning through to my soul”), but quickly reverted into something resolutely not about finding religious salvation: “Girl, girl, girl, girl / You gonna set me on fire.”
Alexander, obviously taken by the track’s amalgamation of the spiritual and the sexual, recorded “Burning Love” in November 1971, for a self-titled comeback album for Warner Brothers. He laid it down with producer Tommy Cogbill, who’d recently played bass on Presley’s Back in Memphis, and dressed it up in fine R&B style. In Alexander’s hands, “Burning Love” was tight and funky, and not unlike the gospel-tinged Stax records of Otis Redding, with its horns and backing singers conveying the song’s theme of, well, erotic deliverance. His vocal, on the other hand, is controlled and smooth, until the song fades out bizarrely at the 2:40 mark, without having really taken off. It is consequently, as Miles from Sideways might say, “quaffable, but far from transcendent.” The single failed to chart, and its puzzling cover art, featuring an extreme close-up of the singer’s eyes and forehead, was surely a contributing factor.
Elvis Presley had to be persuaded to take on “Burning Love” and give it the old-style treatment by both his producer, Felton Jarvis, and his band. He followed the advice of drummer Ronnie Tutt, who has said, “We basically tried to influence him to do more rock ‘n’ roll.” So while Elvis was far from being in a “burning love” kind of place in March ’72, what with his wife Priscilla having recently walked out on him, he could see reason in a return to his musical roots. He could see that his last six singles, including “He Touched Me” (b/w “Bosom of Abraham”) had failed to make an impact on the Billboard Top 30.
So it was, on March 28, in RCA’s Hollywood Studios, that Elvis finally got raunchy again. His TCB (Taking Care of Business) Band made it happen, on take 6, principally Tutt’s explosive drumming, Emory Gordy’s funky bass, and Glen Hardin’s jubilant piano. Elvis was able to get sexy on a heavily rhythmic backbone, enough for him to squeeze maximum intensity out of those impassioned lyrics. He hummed and moaned after each line, too, as if unable to keep a lid on his desire. And he spontaneously evoked “A Big Hunk o’ Love” on the “Just a hunk, a hunk o’ burning love” outro, by which he gave the song its hook and signature, and pretty much made it the immortal tune it is.
No doubt, Presley ended up with something more urgent and exciting than Alexander’s original of “Burning Love,” especially with the cowbell, the gospel-style backing vocals, and Linde himself providing a splash of overdubbed guitar on the intro. It might most accurately be termed gospel-rock, though it certainly tapped into the rock ‘n’ roll revival of the early ’70s that Sha Na Na and Dave Edmunds helped fuel. In accordance, it climbed the Billboard Hot 100, after its August 1 release, and peaked at #2 in the final week of October. It’s just a shame that it was held off the all-important #1 spot, not by Alice Cooper, T. Rex, David Bowie, or some other happening artist from the glam-rock scene, but by Chuck Berry, with his innuendo-based novelty awfulness: “My Ding-A-Ling.”
Despite the injustice, Elvis achieved with “Burning Love” his biggest hit single in the US since “Suspicious Minds.” He also notched up a #7 in the UK, a nation under the spell of a lame novelty #1 of its own in Lieutenant Pigeon’s “Mouldy Old Dough” (what was it about the early ’70s?!). Ultimately, though, he offered up one of the last great rock songs of his life, it being predominantly brooding ballads and country songs from here to ’77. He could add it to his pile of historic tracks for that very reason.
Arthur Alexander, on the other hand, gained practically nothing from recording “Burning Love.”
And Dennis Linde lost his status as Nashville’s best-kept songwriting secret.