When he came on screen, Elvis Presley rocked not only the whole cell block in his third film ‘Jailhouse Rock.’ He also pretty much rocked the whole of the music industry with the dance number of the same name, leaving even the toughest critics speechless. “Jailhouse Rock” is a track that’s truly iconic; whether it be the music, vocals, dance choreography, and the overall vibe, this one had it all!
The song was co-written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who had collaborated with Presley previously in rock-and-roll songwriting. Recorded and released in 1957, “Jailhouse Rock” definitely stole the limelight from the rest of the tracks included in the film. Interestingly, writing a song for Presley was hardly a priority for Leiber and Stoller. The two men were flown into New York to get the soundtrack for the film but were having the time of their lives in the theaters and cabarets. Ultimately, they were locked up in a hotel room and were not allowed to leave until they finished writing the songs – which the two did in about four to five hours.
“Jailhouse Rock” was definitely a song written in a hurry and would probably have flopped had it been anyone but Elvis Presley who performed it. Stoller in an interview described their experience with Presley on the studio:
“We wrote it quickly. Jerry’s very fast and very funny. That song was a vehicle that Presley could really work. When we recorded it we knew we had it by take nine. But Elvis went on into the 20s saying, ‘I can do it better!’ He loved to sing. He really felt comfortable in a recording studio.”
Needless to say, “Jailhouse Rock” is one of those songs with an amazing track record. The song finally dethroned pop sensation Frank Sinatra from the top of the chart and established Presley at the top as King of Rock-and-Roll. In 1957, “Jailhouse Rock” secured the top spot on multiple US Billboard charts including the Hot 100, and in the UK Singles chart. The track was also recognized in Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. “Jailhouse Rock” is RIAA certified 2x Platinum for selling over 2 million records in the US and BPI certified Gold in the UK as well.
Listen to “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley
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Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
Of course, for a song with such a deep impact on the rock-and-roll scene, there isn’t much to talk about when it comes to the lyrics of “Jailhouse Rock”. This perhaps was one of the selling points of the track, it was not meant to be anything profound, despite being sung in a prison block.
The sole purpose of this song was entertainment, and it wouldn’t have been so if the lyrics were serious, commenting on life in prison. In fact, songwriters Leiber and Stoller did the song justice when they opted for silly over serious, as this enabled the song to be purely performative – complementing one of Presley’s greatest strengths as a musician.
The warden threw a party in the county jail
The first verse opens up the song with one of the most well-known intros of all time–two guitar chords with the snare drum hits. The song describes a scenario where the prison warden throws a party for the inmates, with the prison band for accompaniment. One can’t help but wonder whether a dance number in jail would be compatible, but Presley definitely made it work with the flair that one would expect in a musical.
But what the track “Jailhouse Rock” is truly known for is its classic hook, that earworms its way right through.
“Let’s rock, everybody, let’s rock”
This is a bit of songwriting mastery, as the simple yet catchy lyrics will have anyone singing along within a matter of seconds into the song. Presley made these lines his own with his sultry vocals and dance choreography, which are unforgettable on their own.
In a stroke of genius or pure whimsy, Leiber and Stoller also threw in a mish-mash of references into the lyrics – some fictional and some from real life. “Shifty Henry” was not a criminal but a musician from LA, “Sad Sack” was a comic character, and the “Purple Gang” was in actuality a mob that operated in Detroit in the 1920s. Some critics also pointed out the queer undertones evident in “Jailhouse Rock”, as the lyrics feature a pick-up line said by prisoner number forty-seven to prisoner number three.
Of course, we don’t know if that was the intention of the songwriters, who never commented on the fact. But many seem to agree that the lines were intentional, as homosexual relationships in prison are not unheard of and are a fairly common occurrence, even in the 1950s.
However, “Jailhouse Rock” isn’t completely devoid of meaning either. The premise of the track indicates that it’s a celebration of life, it’s all about living in the moment. It shows how entertainment is an inherent part of life – even criminals that are considered the dregs of humanity find joy in song and dance. It’s also an anthem for rebellious teenagers for whom Presley was a role model. For the youth, “Jailhouse Rock” and the film itself symbolized the need to break away from the adults, living carefree and being young and wild.
The visuals for “Jailhouse Rock” are equally appealing and probably way ahead of their time. Reminiscent of a modern music video, we see Presley having the time of his life – hips wriggling, sliding down a pole, and dancing on top of a table – adding more flavor to the song. It’s really unsurprising that people can’t help but break out in dance (or at least tap their feet) when they hear the intro to “Jailhouse Rock”.
Presley was a top-tier entertainer and we definitely agree that “Jailhouse Rock” deserves to be called another greatest of all time just for the impact it had on the music scene.
Let us know your thoughts on the song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.