Elvis Presley’s physical singles sales
If his album sales are subject to various utopic myths, Elvis Presley‘s singles sales aren’t a mystery at all. Fact is, he sold an insane number of them. More than anyone who debuted after him, that means more than the Beatles, among many others.
Of course, It’s Now Or Never is nowhere near the 20 million sales often claimed. One must understand that historically labels used to state sales of every record that ever contained a song as copies sold of that song. Bing Crosby‘s White Christmas was quickly reported at 30 million. Every time Elvis’ Christmas Album was selling a copy, that was incrementing that tally since White Christmas is covered on it. That’s why sales figures for Christmas favorites, like Silent Night or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, were massively overstated – and still are – because they were covered on most Christmas albums.
So, how many singles has Presley really sold? Since there is no pricing issue, no multi-discs troubles and almost exclusively RCA records concerned, their RIAA tally is fairly straightforward and clear. It stands at 50,5 million singles sold. The list can be viewed here, using the “More details” button.
One may consider 51,5 million singles have been certified. Both The Wonder of You and My Way got awarded for 1 million shipments during their promotional campaign but failed to get that certification confirmed during 1992’s comprehensive audit. It’s due to returns pushing net shipments back under the million mark.
Why do I say that his singles sales aren’t a mystery? Well, in the US, studying chart runs and RIAA awards gives us a total that will never differ much from the 75 to 80 million span. That includes the 361,000 units sold by Sun singles before the signing of Presley to RCA. In the UK, his official tally is slightly over 20 million physical singles. Here too, the margin of error small, checking every data concludes on 21 to 23 million sales. Sales in Canada, Germany, Japan, Scandinavia, France and Italy are also under control. Elsewhere, most of his singles weren’t even released and when they were, the market was very low back in the day. Career totals have also been quoted through the years by Jorgensen and NME while the Worldwide Gold Awards compilation listed every song that made it past a million globally. With all this information, it’s almost impossible to be very wrong.
Thus, instead of getting into each and every technicality backing numbers, this article presents results from several perspectives: per single, per market, and per year of first release. As usual, I’ll be happy to answer questions and queries if something bothers you.
Sales per singles
It’s Now Or Never emerges at the top with 5,42 million units sold. The fanciful claims surrounding it almost make this number look disappointing, it isn’t. To give some perspective to this number, acts like Michael Jackson, Madonna, ABBA and the Rolling Stones never sold that much with a unique physical single. The song sold close to 2 million units in the US, over 1,2 million in the UK, half a million in Germany and then around 100,000 units in every relevant market from that time.
Maybe even more impressive is the volume of ground breaking smashes Presley amassed through the years. His complete Top 10 cracks 3 million. Sales of 1,5 million would be a career-high for most acts but that’s not enough to feature inside the personal Top 30 of the King. He can fill half a dozen 12-tracks playlists with half a million sellers.
Singles at the lower end of this list are local releases that only came out in minor singles markets. Please note that an estimated 300,000 units can be added for various additional releases of this nature.
Sales per country
The US and the UK are far and away the biggest singles markets for Presley. It’s the result of both a higher popularity there and markets much larger than anywhere else. Obviously, he was also popular in Canada but singles have never been that big there. In Germany, many of his singles failed to chart but he got several high points with It’s Now Or Never, Wooden Heart, Good Luck Charm, (You’re) The Devil In Disguise, Kiss Me Quick and In The Ghetto, all at 200,000 units or more. The story is similar in Japan with several hits from his soundtracks performing well time to time.
In Australia the success arrived later than in other English-speaking countries but then he sold bucket loads from 1960 onwards. These are the only 6 markets where the singer sold more than 3 million physical singles. In France and Italy he hasn’t make it because of a lack of success. In other countries like the Netherlands and in Scandinavia he was massive but the market was simply too weak. Please notice that Scandinavian countries aren’t listed separately but he sold more in Sweden than in the Netherlands. Career sales in the 500,000-1,500,000 range have been registered in countries like Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Belgium.
Sales per year
Figures above refer to sales based on the release date of a single, independently of when the single was actually sold. For example, 1954’s Sun singles have been mostly sold through the years rather than on their first year.
The true start of Presley‘s career has been insane. His singles from 1956 moved a combined 16,35 million units. Amazingly, his singles cumulatively topped 5 million during 10 consecutive years. He never dropped below 1 million until his passing, registering 22 years in a row over that barrier.
We can notice that the US represented more than 75% of his sales during the initial hype. That share dropped year after year until hitting a low of 39% – and a high of 61% abroad – in 1960 thanks to It’s Now Or Never and You Are Lonesome Tonight? which remain his only two 2-million sellers outside of the US. His large sales outside of the US and the UK lasted from 1960 to 1964. After that period, the gospel tune Crying In The Chapel and Pot Luck singles maintained his popularity stateside while it went down elsewhere, proportionally speaking.
During the later part of his career the promotion was focused on his largest markets, arguably the US and the UK. The only exception came in 1969/1970 when In the Ghetto, Suspicious Minds and The Wonder of You were global hits.
This table is fundamental. I already pointed out that his big hits are by far his main assets to sell compilations globally nowadays, while in the US it is possible to sell relevant amounts of various kind of recordings. The root cause appears on this page. If it was possible to make money from moderate sellers in the US, it wasn’t profitable to promote tracks that weren’t so strong in many markets. Thus, RCA focused on Presley‘s main markets for his weakest material while giving him a stronger push elsewhere for singles with higher potential.
The total of 135 million puts him nearly 20 million ahead of the Beatles in physical singles sales. Now, has he sold more units in this format than Bing Crosby? That’s a real question!