The original?

The song Are You Lonesome Tonight? is probably more associated with Al Jolson than anyone other than Elvis Presley, but Jolson did not make a recording of it  until 1950.

My own interests in the origins of this number (and other originals of numbers later recorded by Elvis) were sparked when I bought a Belgian CD purporting to be of just that: original versions of songs later recorded by Elvis. It included Are You Lonesome Tonight? by Al Jolson. It was generally accepted at the time (at least in the Elvis community) that this recording was made in the early 1930s at least and that Jolson was indeed the first to record the song. However, the quality and style of the recording did not match that thesis, so I started to look around. I think I have now found the truth.

It certainly didn't take me long to discover that Jolson's recording was made in 1950 (though I was berated for such "ignorance" by the editor of a very popular Elvis fan magazine at the time), but finding exactly who made the original recording proved rather more difficult. In the course of more years than I care to think about, I have had contact with many people on the topic: the head of the International Al Jolson Society, various collectors of 78s, archivists, even Edythe Handman herself (though indirectly, through her assistant), and I thank them all.

Numerous artists recorded Are You Lonesome Tonight? (or, Are You Lonesome To-night?, as it was then written) in 1927, including the composer himself, Lou Handman, who played piano backing while his sister Edythe provided the vocals on the Gennett label (27 June, Gennett 6186), and Vaughn De Leath ("The Radio Girl") who recorded the number twice, first as a solo on 13 June 1927 and then on the following 1 October, as vocalist for The Colonial Club Orchestra. Famed tenor Henry Burr released his own version in that same year, having recorded it (probably) on 5 August. Ned Jakobs is often listed as the first to record the number (he recorded it on 18 May 1927), but his recording was not used.

At least one recording of the number is reported to have been made on 18 June, 1926, the year in which it was copyrighted; this was done by Bob Haring, leading the Cameo Dance Orchestra, a sort of studio band brought together to record as much as possible as early as possible. This recording was released on three labels: Cameo 967, Lincoln 2540 and Romeo 250 (all with the same matrix number). However, although bearing the same title, Are You Lonesome To-night?, the recording is purely instrumental (at least on Romeo 250, where the performer is listed as the Dixie Daisies) and writing credits are shown for Turk, Little, Britt and not Turk, Handman.

It looks, therefore, as if Roy Turk's lyrics were set to music twice: the familiar song as Elvis Presley recorded it, with music by Lou Handman, and an earlier version, with music by Little and Britt. That is, however, pure speculation.

Therefore, the original honour has to go to Charles Hart, whose 9 May 1927 recording was released as Are You Lonesome To-night? on Harmony 431.

Tom Parker, Elvis's manager, persuaded Elvis to record this number, a favourite of Mrs. Parker's. The arrangement used in Elvis's version is based on the 1950 recording of Are You Lonesome Tonight by the Blue Barron Orchestra.

The spoken part is loosely based on a speech by Jacques in Shakespeare's As You Like It, Act II Scene VII: 

All the world's a stage, and all men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.

For further information about original versions of numbers later recorded by Elvis Presley, visit Elvis Presley, The Originals


© David Neale 2012