#440: Playing For Keeps by Elvis Presley
Peak Month: January 1957
6 weeks on Vancouver’s CJOR ~ Red Robinson Teen Canteen chart
Peak Position #1
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ #34
YouTube.com: “Playing For Keeps”
Lyrics: “Playing For Keeps”
Elvis Aaron Presley was born on in a two-room house in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. His twin brother, Jessie Garon Presley, was stillborn. When he was eleven years old his parents bought him a guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Store. As a result Elvis grew up as an only child. He and his parents, Vernon and Gladys, moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1948. The young Presley graduated from high school in 1953. That year he stopped by the Memphis Recording Service to record two songs, including “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”, song #1117 on this Countdown. Elvis’ musical influences were the pop and country music of the time, the gospel music he heard in church and at the all-night gospel sings he frequently attended, and the black R&B he absorbed on historic Beale Street as a Memphis teenager. In 1954, Elvis began his singing career recording “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” at Sun Records in Memphis.
In late 1955, his recording contract was sold to RCA Victor. In 1956 he had his first #1 record titled “Heartbreak Hotel.” He had a sound and style that uniquely combined his diverse musical influences and blurred and challenged the social and racial barriers of the time. Bill Haley & His Comets ushered in the rock ‘n roll into mainstream culture in 1955 when “Rock Around The Clock,” appeared in the film about juvenile delinquents and anti-social behavior in an inter-racial school. The song became an anthem for teenage rebellion. However, it was Elvis in 1956 who ensured rock ‘n roll was here to stay with his swiveling hips and R&B infused songs with sexually suggestive lyrics. He had his first number one hit with “Heartbreak Hotel” in February 1956. He starred in 33 successful films, made history with his television appearances and specials, and knew great acclaim through his many, often record-breaking, live concert performances on tour and in Las Vegas. Globally, he has sold over one billion records, more than any other recording artist.
Between 1956 and 1959, Elvis Presley continued his chart-topping ways with “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, “Hound Dog”, “Don’t Be Cruel”, “Love Me Tender”, “Too Much”, “All Shook Up”, and “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” peaking at #1. The B-side of “Too Much”, released in January 1957, was “Playing For Keeps”.
“Playing For Keeps” was written by Sun Studios house band steel guitar and bass guitar player Stan Kesler. Stanley Augustus Kesler was born in rural Mississippi in 1928. He was taught to play mandolin and guitar in his childhood. While he was enlisted in the United States Marines, he learned to play the steel guitar. He was discharged in 1947 and moved to Memphis where he performed in clubs and appeared live on the radio. According to The Encyclopedia of Country Music, Kesler joined a number of country bands over the next seven years. By 1954 he was playing with Clyde Leoppard & the Snearly Ranch Boys. The band auditioned at Sun Records and made a couple of records. Sam Phillips was impressed and Kesler and a few of the bandmates became part of the Sun Records house band.
Stan Kesler wrote a #5 hit on the Billboard Country chart for Elvis in 1954 titled “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”. And in 1955 Kesler penned “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”, which was a #1 hit for Presley on the Billboard Country chart in February 1956. Stan Kelser was a session musician for some of the bigger recordings at Sun Records. These include “Ooby Dooby” by Roy Orbison, “Great Balls Of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” by Jerry Lee Lewis. In the 1960s, Kesler produced “Wooly Bully” and “L’il Red Riding Hood” for Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. In 1983 Kesler formed a touring band named the Sun Rhythm Section. They toured internationally and in 1987 recorded the album Old Time Rock ‘n Roll. He retired in 1990, and in 2020 he is 91-years-old and living in Tennessee.
“Playing For Keeps” is a song about the certainty of someone who has fallen in love about their love interest. The singer wants their sweetheart to know that “no one else can thrill me like you do.” Consequently, they confess “I won’t be happy until I know you’re mine.” The phrase “playing for keeps” has its origins in the 18th Century. It means to do something seriously rather than for fun, to keep permanently. The phrase came from the game of marbles. In marbles, the players can play for fun or for keeps. When playing for keeps, the winning player keeps all the marbles that he or she won. When playing for fun, the winning player gives the marbles back to the losing player after the game is over. Over time, this meaning expanded to include whenever someone got serious about a task.
“Playing For Keeps” peaked at #1 in Vancouver (BC), #5 in Cleveland (OH) and #6 in Los Angeles. However, the majority of radio markets chose to only spin the A-side, “Too Much”, which he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 6, 1957. In February 1957, “Too Much” climbed to #1 on both the Billboard Best Sellers in Stores and Most Played in Jukeboxes charts. Though it was kept out of the number one spot on the Billboard Top 100 by Sonny James “Young Love”. “Too Much” also topped the Cashbox singles chart for 3 weeks in February ’57.
Elvis kept on topping the charts in the fall and winter of 1957 and into 1958 with “Jailhouse Rock”, “Don’t” and “Hard Headed Woman”. He also starred in several films. His second film, Loving You, was released in 1957. Though it was not featured the film, the song “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” made it onto the Loving You Soundtrack album.
But during his chart-topping ways, he got a letter from Uncle Sam. Sergeant Elvis Presley served with the U.S. Army from March 24, 1958, to March 2, 1960. Meanwhile, Presley managed to climb to the top of the charts once in 1959 with “Big Hunk o’ Love”.
His return to civilian life saw a return to a string of successful single, album and film releases. From April 1960 to March 1961, Elvis topped the Billboard Hot 100 with “Stuck On You, “It’s Now Or Never,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and “Surrender” for a total of 17 of 52 weeks in that timeframe. The album from his first film on return from serving in Germany, G.I. Blues, was a best-seller at the box office (#2 on Variety Magazine for the year 1960) and a number one album in October 1960. He released His Hand In Mine, a collection of sacred gospel music and in November, 1960, began to record his 6th studio album, Something For Everybody, which became his 13th hit album (including soundtracks and compilations).
Presley continued to have major hits in 1961-62. In Vancouver he topped the charts with “Marie’s The Name (His Latest Flame)”, “Little Sister”, “Good Luck Charm” and “Return To Sender”. Other Top Ten hits included “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and “She’s Not You”. In 1962 Presley released his seventh studio album, Potluck. From that album the song “Kiss Me Quick” would peak at #34 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. But his song, “Suspicion”, climbed onto the CFUN chart in the summer of 1962.
Also in 1962 Elvis was filming a number of movies. The first to be released in the summer of ’62 was Kid Galahad, which included the song “King Of The Whole Wide World”.
Elvis continued to enjoy more Top Ten hits between 1963 and 1965. His most notable hits were “One Broken Heart For Sale”, “(You’re The) Devil In Disguise”, “Ain’t That Loving You Baby”, “Such A Night” and “Crying In The Chapel”. Less successful in the USA was “Witchcraft” which stalled at #32 on the Billboard Hot 100. But in Vancouver, the song peaked at #4.
After 1965, Elvis found it increasingly challenging to enter the Top 30. Between the end of 1965 and the winter of 1968 Presley released 22 singles and only four of these made the Billboard Hot 100’s Top 30. But in 1969, Presley had his best year since 1962 charting three singles into the Top Ten with “In The Ghetto”, “Suspicious Minds” and “Don’t Cry Daddy”. Between 1970 and 1983 Elvis released 36 singles, including eight posthumous singles. Of these, “Burning Love” and “The Wonder Of You” were his most successful and six others made the Top 20 on the Billboard charts.
Over his recording career Elvis Presley earned 14 Grammy Award nominations including for Record of the Year with “A Fool Such As I” (1959) and “Are You Lonesome Tonight” (1960) and won six Hall of Fame Awards. After his comeback tour in 1968 Presley had continued to tour extensively, with 168 concerts in 1973, a pace he kept through the mid-70’s. By 1976 he was suffering from multiple ailments: glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, all believed to be related to prescription drug abuse. He died on August 16, 1977, and a funeral was attended by over 80,000 mourners. His legacy continues to live on. There were also numerous sightings of Elvis including around the 40th anniversary of his death in 2017.
June 3, 2020
graceland.com (Elvis bio)
“Elvis Presley: Rock’s First Icon,” Rolling Stone, September 22, 1977.
Paul Lichter, The Boy Who Dared to Rock: The Definitive Elvis, (Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1978).
Elizabeth Nix, “7 Fascinating Facts About Elvis Presley,” History.com, July 1, 2014
Wendy Sauer, Elvis Presley: A Complete Reference, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984).
Michael McCall, John Rumble and Paul Kingsbury, editors, The Encyclopedia of Country Music, (Oxford, 1998) 263-264.
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