Elvis And Gospel Music
By Cheryl Thurber
Writers and fans have tried to examine the phenomenon of Elvis, but his impact has been complex. One side that has received very little attention is the longstanding relationship between Elvis and gospel music. That Elvis loved gospel music has been mentioned many times. But few accounts have gone beyond that simple statement. Elvis was influenced by gospel music, he had gospel groups as his backup singers, and they toured with him when he gave concerts; when Elvis wanted to relax or when he wanted to warm up for recording sessions he used gospel music to get him in the mood.
Elvis was a spiritual seeker, and this spiritual side of him took many different forms. The books he read repeatedly were religious and about spiritual quests. Elvis' books were an important part of his life and they went along on his trips and tours. The Bible was always with him, but he also read The Autobiography of a Yoga and The Prophet and books on Eastern religion and mysticism. Although his fame and popularity were overwhelming and difficult to deal with - he had problems with drugs and dealing with the pressures of his life - he was very open to the search for meaning in life. Elvis was troubled, but he constantly turned for spiritual guidance, sometimes to books, sometimes to individuals, but he seemed to find the most comfort and satisfaction in gospel music. He sang gospel music and his own personal record collection - the records he actually listened to-always contained a large portion of gospel records, particularly Southern Gospel quartets.
Elvis' love for gospel music seems to have continued throughout his life. In the documentary film Elvis on Tour Elvis said, "We do two shows a night for five weeks. A lotta times we'll go upstairs and sing until daylight - gospel songs. We grew up with it...It more or less puts your mind at ease. It does mine."
As a child Elvis attended the First Assembly of God in East Tupelo with his parents. The Rev. W. Frank Smith was the pastor and had not been there very long, when at the age of nine Elvis received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This was not an old traditional church out in the country but a simple church that met in a building in one of the poorer working-class neighborhoods of East Tupelo, that didn't look very different from the houses around it. It was a small congregation of about 25 members, some of whom were relatives of Elvis' on both his mother's and father's sides of the family. His father's cousin, Sayles Pressley, was one of the principal singers and had also organized a gospel quartet. The Rev. W. Frank Smith played guitar and taught a few chords and guitar runs to Elvis.
Smith told Albert Goldman that when he taught him, he noticed Elvis already had an instruction book for guitar. The church had a piano and Rev. Smith would sometimes play his guitar as well.
The Assemblies of God is a branch of the Pentecostal movement. As in many new movements the initial converts were people who were looking for hope, and many were working-class people like the Presleys. The Pentecostal movement was largely a twentieth-century development. It started long after the periods of opposition to music in churches when music was already an established part of most mainstream churches. As a new movement the Pentecostals were willing to accept new music, and new ways of experiencing the Holy Spirit. They did not condemn the popular music of their day. The Pentecostals also were open to female evangelists, and they began as an interracial movement. Because many rock 'n' roll pioneers such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis had a Pentecostal background it is often assumed that there must have been some stylistic influence from that background. Rather than being stylistic, the greatest contribution seems to be the acceptance of music as a gift of the Holy Spirit. There was a receptiveness to the idea of music as part of the heart of the Christian experience and a way of openly and emotionally expressing those beliefs.
After his family moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis began to attend Sunday School at the First Assembly of God then located on McLcmore St. Cecil Blackwood, the same age as Elvis, was one of the other members of the Sunday School class. In addition, James Blackwood remembered meeting Elvis at the sings which the Blackwood Brothers held monthly at Ellis Auditorium. A contact between Elvis and the Blackwood Brothers developed.
Elvis hung around when the Blackwood Brothers performed and he was invited in to concerts without being charged admission, the Blackwoods knew Elvis could not afford the admission price. They encouraged his interest in singing gospel music even though he was not invited to become a member of the Songfellows when he first tried out. Later when Cecil Blackwood joined the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, after the Blackwood Quartet airplane accident, Elvis was asked to consider replacing Cecil in the Songfellows. It was a difficult decision for Elvis since he was starting to be successful in rock 'n' roll. As Charles Wolfe pointed out in an article on Elvis and the Gospel Tradition: "The fact that Presley, while starting to change the face of American music with his new rock music, would even seriously consider an invitation to join a major gospel group suggests how much gospel music counted in his musical values at the time."
Even as he started to become successful in rock 'n' roll, Elvis continued to hang around the Blackwood Brothers. He still went to their programs, and he still got in free, even though he could now afford the cost of admission. On one occasion, when none of the Blackwood family members were out in front taking tickets Elvis went ahead and paid. James Blackwood later wrote Elvis a letter and refunded his ticket price. Graceland has recently found that letter and it is now displayed in the Elvis Up Close mini-museum.
In 1955 the Blackwood Brothers were booked by W.B.Nowlin, a Texas gospel and country music promoter, to perform on July 4 in DeLeon, Texas. James Blackwood remembered that some of the other gospel groups were the Stamps Ozark Quartet, and the Stamps Quartet (with Frank Stamps); there may have been some country groups booked as well but Blackwood could not remember any of them except for Elvis Presley. Presley was still managed by Bob Neal then. The Blackwood Brothers were there with their big tour bus. and, although Elvis had just bought his first Cadillac he spent the afternoon sitting in the bus visiting the Blackwood Brothers. Since he was going to be performing on the same program with the Blackwood Brothers and other gospel groups, James Blackwood remembered that Elvis decided to only perform gospel numbers.
The Blackwood Brothers were the most exciting musical group in Memphis in the early 1950s. They had their monthly sings at Ellis Auditorium, they had a daily radio show on WMPS, they were sponsored by a big flour company, Dixie Lily Flour, they sold their records at concerts and at their store, and they had just switched to RCA records and were becoming even more successful. Elvis was fascinated by these local stars and he went to their concerts and watched them broadcast their radio shows. It was probably through these radio shows that Elvis met Bob Neal who worked for WMPS and became Elvis' manager. The Blackwood Brothers were probably his first and greatest contact with professional performers before he became a star himself. When he went to Blackwood Brothers programs he also got to meet other gospel performers such as J.D. Sumner, who was with the Sunshine Boys before he joined the Blackwood Brothers, and Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, with one of Elvis' favorites, Jake Hess, as lead singer.
When his mother died in 1958 Elvis and Vernon asked the Blackwood Brothers to sing for her funeral. The Blackwood Brothers were touring in North Carolina at the time but chartered a plane to get to Memphis for the funeral. Elvis had them sing many of his favorite songs such as "Rock of Ages," "I Am Redeemed," "Precious Lord Take My Hand," "In the Garden," and Gladys Presley's favorite, "Precious Memories." The songs were a mixture of classic old hymns and some of the most well-known of the popular gospel songs. Not one of the songs was known primarily as a Southern Gospel quartet selection.
On December 4, 1956, one of the most famous recording sessions in popular music occurred. Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were at a recording session at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee - there is a controversy as to whether it was a Perkins or Lewis session. Johnny Cash came by and then Elvis Presley also dropped in. Memphis Press Scimitar reporter, Robert Johnson, wrote in the paper in the next day "that quartet could sell a million." From that point on it was dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet session.
When those rising stars of rock 'n' roll sang together the songs they chose to sing were largely gospel songs. It was the shared repertoire that they all knew. They sang other songs as well, such as current rock 'n' roll and recent and older country hits, but they seemed to sing more complete versions of the gospel songs. With gospel songs they knew all the words, not just snatches of the choruses. The gospel songs recorded that day included "When God Dips His Love in my Heart," "Just a Little Talk with Jesus," "Walk that Lonesome Valley," "I Shall Not Be Moved," "Peace in the Valley," "Down by the Riverside," "Farther Along," "Blessed Jesus Hold My Hand," "As We Travel on the Jericho Road," "I Just Can't Make It By Myself," "Keeper of the Key," "I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling," and 'When the Saints Go Marching In." It is an interesting selection including traditional black and white spirituals, late ninteenth century gospel songs, and twentieth century gospel songs by both black and white composers.
It is clear when listening to the session that Elvis was the dominant force that day-he was the one who started the singing of each song. It is also evident that he enjoyed the singing. This was Elvis having fun.
When Elvis became successful it was harder for him to go to the programs. He had to resort to calling up a group and seeing if they would come over to his house to sing with him. The photos of the Sunshine Boys which appear with this article are probably only one of many such occurrences. Soon after Elvis got out of the army he called up James Blackwood and asked if the Blackwoods could come over and sing sometime when they had a free night. Blackwood remembered that whenever they sang with Elvis "he could sing anything they came up with."
Charles Wolfe has pointed out that while Elvis loved Southern Gospel quartets, the gospel songs he recorded himself were not in that tradition nor was his performance style. An examination of a list of his recordings reveals the accuracy of that statement. He sang with a gospel group behind him, but they tended to be very innovative groups for their time: The Jordanaires, the Imperials, the Sweet Inspirations, and then J. D. Sumner and the Stamps.
There is hardly any record of Elvis' thoughts on singing gospel music or why he wanted gospel groups singing with him rather than a vocal backup group created especially for him. It is widely known that Elvis enjoyed singing gospel music while he was relaxing on concert tours and it may have simply been that having a gospel group was an assurance that he would have people with him who could sing it well. But it may also have been a way for Elvis to be one of the boys in the group.
Once successful, Elvis went back to visit the Grand Ole Opry with the Jordanaires. He was probably gloating a little that he had made it when the people at the Opry had predicted he should give up singing.
There were image problems as Elvis became more successful. There is some indication that Elvis performed the song "Peace in the Valley" for his third Ed Sullivan appearance to tone down the rebel image. "Peace in the Valley" is one of the songs that Elvis had sung a month earlier at the impromptu session at the Sun Studios with Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was the kind of song Elvis liked. It had been a country standard as performed by Red Foley, but the song had originally been written by Thomas A. Dorsey.
One question in Elvis' gospel background concerns his contact with black gospel styles. There was clearly some influence on both his performance style and song selection. His recording of "Run On" clearly reflects an awareness of 1940s black performances of that song. Many accounts mention Elvis' love for Southern Gospel quartet singing but there have not been any stories about Elvis listening to black gospel groups on the radio, or having any of those records in his collection. The influence may have been second hand. The Blackwood Brothers were aware of black gospel styles and so were the Jordanaires. Jake Hess was using a modification of black lead styles when he sang with the Statemen.
Elvis was especially successful with inspirational songs that were on the borderline between pop and gospel. "Crying in the Chapel" was a song he became strongly identified with and, in the 1970s, he was known for songs like the "American Trilogy," "If I Can Dream," and "My Way." These were songs with a personal statement. He sang them with an emotional impact and they continue to elicit tears when they are played today. Elvis had a quality of sincerity and intimacy in his voice that has been matched by few performers. For his album He Touched Me he recorded a number of songs that were part of the new direction in gospel music, not old chestnuts, but new songs by composers such Bill Gaither, Ralph Carmichael, and Andrae Crouch.
For all of Elvis' success as a rock 'n' roll and pop singer he received his only Grammy awards for his gospel recordings. He was nominated several times for other selections but he won in 1967 for Best Sacred Performance for the song "How Great Thou Art." In 1972 he was awarded a Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance for the album He Touched Me. In 1974 he was awarded again for Best Inspirational Performance for "How Great Thou Art."
The impact of Elvis Presley on American popular music has been immense. His performance of gospel music gave a certain amount of recognition to gospel music as well. Many people who otherwise would not have listened to it, did so because of Elvis. He also hit a very American chord in popular taste. Throughout the history of American popular song there has been an appreciation of nostalgic and inspiring songs; the acceptance of divine inspiration is part of our culture. This is what distinguishes American traditional ballads from the British tradition.
On a personal level Elvis recognized the comfort that gospel music
brought to him. He grew up with the
acceptance of religious music as a
form of entertainment and he felt
comfortable with it. It obviously
meant many things and fulfilled
many needs for him. As Elvis said,
"It more or less puts your mind at
ease. It does mine."