Baby I Don’t Care Bryan Ferry (cover version, These Foolish Things, 1973)
Baby I Don’t Care Elvis Presley (original, written by Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, 1957)
Baby I Don’t Care Buddy Holly (cover, Buddy Holly, 1958)
I just got bored with the idea of always doing my own songs.
Few tracks on Bryan Ferry’s first solo album These Foolish Things announce the high spirits and intentions of the record better than the cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.’ Originally recorded in 1957 by Presley and performed in the career-defining film Jailhouse Rock, ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ was written by the song-writing partnership of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, and constitutes the fourth track on These Foolish Things to employ New York’s Brill Building sound and songwriter/producer teams. This is pop music as product, written to order and demonstrating a high water-mark of speed, ingenuity and craft – no doubt an attractive quality to Ferry, an artist for whom Roxy Music songs were often written and recorded with tortured self-analysis and intensity.
Ferry wasn’t alone in wanting to re-record ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ – the list of bands covering the song is impressive and diverse: Cliff Richard, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Buddy Holly; the Beatles had a go, as did solo John Lennon; Queen recorded a bloated version in 1990; even The Glitter Band gave it a shot. The reason for the song’s appeal is surely due to the pedigree and influence of the original – ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care‘ is an Elvis Presley song, and always will be.
‘Don’t Care’ comes from the same batch of recordings that produced ‘Jailhouse Rock‘ and from the same writers that gave the world ‘Jailhouse’, ‘Hound Dog’, ‘Stand By Me’ ‘On Broadway, ‘Love Potion Number 9’, ‘Yakety Yak’ and even ‘Santa Clause is Back in Town’ (ah, now you know). A formidable output, even by legendary Brill Building standards. Writers Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller came into Elvis’ orbit – as all who met Elvis did – under the careful watch of Colonel Tom Parker (Parker was not a Colonel and never served in the army. He was born in the Netherlands as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, jumping ship to come to America at the age of 18). Parker’s past and influence on Presley is shady (accusations of murder followed Parker to America from Europe), and he was by most accounts a controlling and egotistic bully who had a gambling habit that dwindled 50% of Elvis massive earnings to a mere $1M at the time of his death in 1997. (Elvis’ extended stints at Vegas begins to make more sense in this context). Certainly, it is a loss that Elvis was not given wider artistic control of his career, for the boorish Parker jettisoned the Elvis/Leiber & Stoller partnership (Elvis called them his “good luck charms”) on account of the writers composing a ballad and giving it directly to Elvis. They were blocked from future direct contact with The King for not “following procedure.”
The attraction of covering ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ can be found in the version Bryan Ferry taped in 1973 for These Foolish Things: it’s a fun song that has no spite in its bones – even though the love-object is out of step with the times (you don’t like crazy music/you don’t like rockin’ bands), they have charms that’s hard to find in other girls (You just wanna park where it’s nice and dark/You just wanna hold me tight). Unlike the mean-spirited ‘Don’t Ever Change’ (see: Goffin/King) ‘Don’t Care’ is as breezy as the scene from which it is plucked in Jailhouse Rock – all innuendo and classic early Elvis feel-good energy. And here, perhaps, we find the reason for artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell and Bryan Ferry wanting to cover the song: ‘Don’t Care’ offers an opportunity to pay tribute to Elvis at a time when The King of Rock N’ Roll was at his youthful best, interested in the music, full of charm and as sexy as hell. Surely those scenes from Jailhouse Rock printed themselves onto the minds of a generation. There is the sense too that Elvis was fully engaged, deeply appreciative and understanding of the music. Writers Leiber & Stoller, schooled in the blues at a technical level far beyond many of the time, were surprised to find out Elvis was deeply understanding and knowledgeable of the musical form:
Stoller: Elvis knew the blues. He was a Ray Charles fanatic and even knew that Ray had sung our song ‘The Snow Is Falling’. In fact, he knew virtually all of our songs. There wasn’t any R&B he didn’t know.
Lieber: When it came to the blues, Elvis knew his stuff. He may not have been conversant about politics or world history, but his blues knowledge was almost encyclopedic. Mike and I were blown away. In fact, the conversation got so enthusiastic that Mike and Elvis sat down at the piano and started playing four-handed blues. He definitely felt our passion for the real roots material and shared that passion with all his heart. Just like that, we fell in love with the guy.
Elvis was, at this time, a perfectionist, doing multiple takes to get the recording the way he wanted it. “It pleased me no end” notes Lieber, “that even when I thought we had a perfect vocal take, Elvis would want to do another – and then another. Each one would be better. He was digging deep and coming up with great new ammunition” (Lieber). When the session musician couldn’t get the fabulous bass line to ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ right – the new Fender electric bass had just come out and stand-up bass players were transitioning to electric – Elvis picked up the bass and let rip with an outstanding opening riff. The recording still stands today.
Bryan Ferry’s cover of ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ updates the 1958 recording to a fuller and warmer 1973 production. Demonstrating extreme control and affection, Ferry pulls off the neat trick of applying his conspicuous vocal quaver to the rich tones of an Elvis Presley classic: no mean feat. The key is here is restraint and Ferry wisely pulls back and lets his hot back-up band do the talking. Not keen to go head-to-head with The King, Ferry allows a small amount of echo to be applied to the vocal to give it that authentic Elvis rock n’ roll sound – unlike The Beatles version were Paul McCartney sounds like he’s discovered echo and reverb for the first time – Ferry’s vocal take is unhurried and submissive, yet containing enough bite to make the song work in its own right. “I haven’t got much time for men’s voices,” Ferry said in 2013, “except for a few: Elvis, Sinatra, Lennon, Otis Redding” (Pitchfork). The fun completing the vocal track can be heard at the song’s close (1.47-1.50): “haha – ok!” Ferry laughs.
At the time of release, with two ground-breaking Roxy Music albums under his belt, These Foolish Things carried an unfair weight of expectation. “The album is one man’s choice for a history of pop music” noted one scribe, which may be true, but suggests that each record that Bryan Ferry touches must carry the weight and expectation of that history, whether it be Roxy Music producing “new modes of expression” (Gross) or radical interpretations of old songs (‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’). With Elvis’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ Ferry’s reply was none of the above: just like that “haha – ok!” there really are days when words mean what they say, and songs simply deliver on their promise of a joyous good time.
Everyone in rock ‘n roll including myself was touched by Elvis’s spirit, I was, and always will be a fan.
Credits: Pictures and background information is taken from the excellent Elvis resource Elvis Australia (The Official Elvis Presley Fan Club). In-depth and informative, this is a treasure-trove of Elvis information. Presley with Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller; Presley recording ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; promotional label for These Foolish Things; a part of the team, Presley with guitar, ‘Don’t Care’ session.