The Gospel According To Elvis

Article Excerpt, Record Collector, December 1994


More than any other musical genre, gospel played a consistently important role in Elvis Presley’s life, from his childhood to his final years on the road. Gospel music brought Elvis his only Grammy awards, and also became his consolation in times of stress or depression. He fused the rhythms, harmonies and texts of scared and inspirational songs with enormous skill and feeling and, and during the dark tears of the 60s, when his recording career came close to collapsing in a sea of trivia, his spiritual releases acted as a beacon of artistic quality.

Elvis’ love for gospel music began at an early age, when he attended the First Assembly of God Church in East Tupelo, Mississippi. After the Presley family moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis made occasional visits to the black East Rigg Baptist Church and also attended gospel quartets at Ellis Auditorium by renowned white groups like the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen.

Though gospel remained closest to his heart, it was rock ‘n’ roll which brought Elvis to stardom. But he never denied his roots, and as early as 1957, on his third appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, he performed Peace In the Valley alongside his latest rock hits – neatly defusing the accusations that he was a threat to the morals of America’s youth. When Elvis concluded his moving performance, Ed Sullivan told the audience that he was “a real decent, fine boy”, and added “we’ve never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we’ve had with you, you’re thoroughly alright”.

A week later, Elvis recorded Peace In The Valley at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, at the same session which produced All Shook Up. With the Jordanaires, he effectively had his own gospel quartet, and led then through four songs which made up his first religious release and the best-selling gospel EP of all time, Peace In The Valley.

That song had earlier been captured on tape during the so-called Million Dollar Quartet session held in Sun Studios, Memphis on 4th December 1956. Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis taped approximately forty songs that afternoon, many of them gospel. For the impromptu Peace In The Valley, Elvis sang lead with vocal support from Jerry Lee. You can hear the track on the various low-fi, but still fascinating, releases of this session, first on Charly and then on RCA.

The four spiritual songs from the EP session were also included on Elvis’ Christmas Album at the end of 1957 – a surprisingly controversial release that was banned by many US radio stations, who felt Elvis wasn’t treating sacred hymns with sufficient respect, but which still achieved double-platinum status.

Elvis didn’t record any more spiritual music until after his return from the army in 1960. During an all-night session on October 30th/31st at RCA’s Nashville’s studio B, Elvis and the Jordanaires covered a range of gospel styles that included the traditional spirituals, Joshua Fit The Battle and Swing Down Sweet Chariot, the white gospel quartet showcase I Believe In The Man In The Sky (in an almost identical arrangement to the one used by the Statesmen), and an original gospel composition, I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs, written by Cully Holt, a member of the original Jordanaires. With another seven tunes, these songs made up Elvis’s first gospel album, His Hand In Mine released in August 1961.

Five months earlier, Elvis had performed one of the LP’s songs, Swing Down Sweet Chariot, at his benefit show for the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii – as documented on the Elvis Aron Presley box set. Meanwhile, another song from the 1960 session, Crying In The Chapel, wasn’t included on the His Hand In Mine album. In fact, it was held back by RCA until 1965, when it became his first No.1 single since the arrival of the Beatles.

He returned to Studio B in Nashville in May 1966 to record another gospel LP, How Great Thou Art, which won a Grammy award in the Best Sacred Performance category and was also nominated for Best Engineered Album, thanks to the efforts of James Malloy. The gospel arrangements on the album owed much to the Statesmen and the Blackwoods – not only on traditional numbers like Run On, So High, Where Could I Go But To The Lord and the black gospel standard Stand By Me, but also on a duet with Jake Hess on the Statesmen classic, If The Lord Wasn’t Walking By My Side.

Hess had long been Elvis’ favourite vocalist, and he’d recently assembled a new combo, the Imperials, whose involvement helped to restore Elvis’s enthusiasm in recording after years of lacklustre movie material. “He had been making movie after movie”. Producer Felton Jarvis recalled. “It’s hard to have to sing to a chicken. Elvis was tired of it”.

Elvis’s original idea for the How Great Thou Art album had been that it should be mixed and balanced to capture the way it would have sounded in church. But the result was that it was difficult to distinguish Elvis’s voice from the Jordanaires and the Imperials, so the mix on the final LP was changed without his permission to bring him to the fore. RCA prepared a special version of the How Great Thou Art LP designed for Palm Sunday Programming, which is now worth £400.

Although Elvis didn’t undertake another major set of gospel recordings until 1971, he did cut the occasional spiritual song in the late 60’s. We Call On Him and You’ll Never Walk Alone were taped at the same 1967 sessions in Nashville which produced the hit single Guitar Man. They were coupled on a single in 1968, and also included on the UK budget LP, You’ll Never Walk Alone in 1971.