"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" is a song which was written by Roy Turk and Lou Handman in 1926. It was recorded several times in 1927—first by Charles Hart, with successful versions by Vaughn De Leath, Henry Burr, and the duet of Jerry Macy and John Ryan. In 1950 the Blue Barron Orchestra version reached the top twenty on the Billboard's Pop Singles chart.
In April 1960, after Elvis Presley's two-year service in the United States Army, he recorded the song at the suggestion of manager Colonel Tom Parker; "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was Parker's wife, Marie Mott's, favorite song. Its release was delayed by RCA Records executives, who thought the song did not fit Presley's new (and publicized) style. When "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was released in November 1960 it was an immediate success in the U.S., topping Billboard's Pop Singles chart and reaching number three on the R&B chart. A month after the song's release, it topped the UK Singles Chart. Presley's version was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in 1961 and upgraded to double platinum in 1992.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was later recorded by several other artists, with versions by Donny Osmond and Merle Haggard becoming top-twenty hits on the pop and country charts respectively. Billboard ranked "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" number 81 on its "Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs" list in 2008.
The song was written in 1926 by vaudevillians Lou Handman and Roy Turk with three verses, followed by a spoken bridge. They based the bridge on a line in Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, and "You know someone said that the world's a stage. And each must play a part" refers to "All the world's a stage" from William Shakespeare's As You Like It. This recitation is printed on the inside back cover of the original 1927 sheet music, and is sung on Stanley Kirbys recording in 1928, Al Jolson's recording in 1949 and Blue Barrron recording in 1950 (US top 20 hit). Billboard reported in 1960 its discovery that it was written by songwriter and vaudeville pianist Dave Dreyer.
Several versions of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" were recorded in 1927. The first, by Charles Hart, was recorded on May 9 and released on Harmony Records (431-H) as the B-side of "Sweet Marie". On June 13, Vaughn De Leath recorded the song as the B-side of "It's a Million to One You're in Love" for Edison Records (Ed-52044). De Leath had the first hit version of the song, which peaked at number four in November. On July 10, 1927, the Newport Society Orchestra recorded the song with Irving Kaufman the vocalist; it was released on Harmony Records (511-H) with "I'm Walkin' On Air". A version by the duet of Jerry Macy and John Ryan was released on Okeh Records (Ok-40866) as the B-side of "Carolina Mine". Henry Burr's version peaked at number ten, and Little Jack Little had a hit with the song for Columbia Records. The Carter Family recorded it in 1936, changing several elements of the original version. Although Gene Austin included the song in his shows during the 1930s, he never recorded it.
In March 1950, the Blue Barron Orchestra released "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" with "Penny Wise and Love Foolish" on the B-side, and it peaked at number nineteen on Billboard's Top Pop Singles chart. In April Don Cornell released a version without the narrative bridge as the B-side of his RCA Victor single, "Stay With the Happy People". Billboard called it a: "dreamy waltz ... (that) gets effective treatment (on the recording)". Based on votes sent to Billboard, the song received 78 points from disc jockeys, 78 from record dealers, 79 from jukebox operators and 78 points overall; on the magazine's 100-point scale, it was rated "Good". Al Jolson recorded a version with the spoken bridge on April 28, 1950, in Los Angeles; Gordon Jenkins conducted the orchestra. With "No Sad Songs For Me" on the B-side, it was released by Decca Records in June. According to Billboard, although the version was "revived" by Jolson's "schmaltz style" his recitation of the bridge was "hamboned". Based on votes sent to the magazine, the song received 71 points from disc jockeys, 71 from record dealers and 71 from jukebox operators; with an overall score of 71, it was rated "Good". In 1959, Jaye P. Morgan released the song on MGM Records, with "Miss You" on the B-side, and her version peaked at number 65 on Billboard's Pop Singles chart.
At the peak of his success in 1957, Elvis Presley received his draft notice and was inducted into the Army on March 24, 1958. During the final months of his service, Presley began experimenting with new material in anticipation of his return to recording. Friend Charlie Hodge taught him to improve his breathing and expand his vocal range, and by the end of his deployment in Germany, Presley had added a full octave to his range. He returned to the United States on March 2, 1960, and was honorably discharged (with the rank of sergeant) on March 5.
Presley's first recording session after his return was scheduled for March 20, and RCA's Studio B had recently been equipped with a new three-track recorder. To improve the recording of Presley's voice, engineer Bill Porter had Telefunken U-47 microphones installed in the studio. A follow-up session was scheduled for April, and the singer left for Miami to tape The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis.
During the selection of material for the sessions Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker, suggested that he record "Are You Lonesome Tonight?". The favorite song of Parker's wife, Marie Mott, the manager's suggestion was the first and only time he intervened in his singer's choice of repertoire. Mott knew the song from Gene Austin's act, since he was managed at the time by her husband. Presley returned to the studio with his band, consisting of Scotty Moore, drummer D. J. Fontana, pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarist Hank Garland, bassist Bobby Moore, percussionist Buddy Harman and The Jordanaires, on April 3.
After the eight songs Parker needed for Elvis Is Back! were recorded, Presley moved on to his manager's request. At 4 am on April 4 the singer began recording "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", accompanied by acoustic guitar, drums, bass and the backup group. He asked everyone else in the studio to leave the session, told Chet Atkins to turn the lights out and performed the song with the spoken bridge. After the second take Presley said to producer Steve Sholes, "Throw that tune out; I can't do it justice". Sholes told engineer Bill Porter to ignore Presley's order and asked the singer to do a new take, explaining that the Jordanaires had bumped into their microphone stand while recording in the dark. Presley performed the song once more, and that take became the master for the single. At the very end of the song, the producer can be heard stapling the pages of the singer's contract together.
"Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was not released for several months while RCA executives decided if the ballad reflected Presley's new style, but they and Parker ultimately decided to release the song. It was released as a single on November 1, 1960, with "I Gotta Know" on the B-side, and pressing was assigned to plants in New Jersey, Indianapolis and Los Angeles. Copies (with a sleeve featuring a smiling Presley in a chartreuse shirt against a blue background) were sent to 5,000 disc jockeys. Orders for the single began at 900,000 copies the first week and climbed to 1,200,000 during the second.
The song debuted on Billboard's Top 40 at number 35 on November 14, moved a week later to number two and topped the chart by November 28 (replacing Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' "Stay"). Presley's 15th chart-topping single, it held the top position until January 9, 1961. "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" peaked at number three on the R&B chart, remaining on it for ten weeks. The song topped the Cash Box singles chart and reached number 45 on the Cash Box country singles chart. A month after its UK release it topped the UK Singles Chart. Three months after its release, the single had sales of two million copies worldwide; that year, the Recording Industry Association of America certified it gold.
A November 7, 1960 Billboard review called Presley's rendition a "warm and touching performance". In a later review, AllMusic praised Presley's vocal range, calling "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" a "tender ... sugary ballad ... full of soul and intense and intimate power" defining "one of Presley's darkest moments".
The success of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" made the song one of Presley's live staples. He performed it live for the first time on March 25, 1961, at a Bloch Arena benefit in Honolulu for the USS Arizona Memorial, Presley's one of four live performances between his return from the Army and his shift in career focus to acting.
Returning to music in 1968, Presley included the song on his playlist for the NBC special Elvis and performed it live the following year during his first Las Vegas engagement. A version of the song, recorded on August 26 and documenting Presley altering the words of the narration and laughing through the rest of the bridge, was released in 1980 as part of the Elvis Aaron Presley box set. In 1982, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was a radio hit in the United Kingdom and reached number 25 on the British Singles Chart. Presley included the song in his 1972 documentary, Elvis on Tour, and the 1977 CBS special Elvis in Concert.
On March 27, 1992, the RIAA certified "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" double platinum. In 2008 (the 50th anniversary of Billboard's Hot 100), the song was number 81 on the magazine's "Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs" list.
Frank Sinatra recorded "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" without the spoken bridge for his 1962 album, All Alone, and the Lettermen included the song on their 1964 album She Cried. Pat Boone recorded a version (also without the spoken bridge) in 1966 for his album, Memories. Doris Day recorded the song on June 6, 1967, for The Love Album.
Italian singer, Bobby Solo, recorded it both in English and Italian in the 1960s. "Ti senti sola stasera?" can be viewed on YouTube.com.
Donny Osmond's 1973 version is a B-side to When I Fall in Love. and Merle Haggard's cover on his 1977 album My Farewell to Elvis peaked at number 12 on Billboard's Top Country Singles. A 1983 version by John Schneider peaked at number 53 on the Country Singles chart. In 1989 Sam Kinison performed a version of the song on The Tonight Show, substituting a bitter rant for the Shakespeare-inspired bridge. Bryan Ferry's version of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was part of the soundtrack for 1992's Honeymoon in Vegas.
There is also an answer song. In 1960, Dodie Stevens answered Elvis and recorded, "Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight."