Thu | Dec 8, 2016

Elvis Presley: God's gift to gospel

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Elvis Presley's true passion was gospel music. - File

My Christmas gift to readers is a proper introduction to Elvis Aaron Presley - born January 8, 1935; left this world tragically on August 16, 1977.

Most of you know not Elvis Presley. Y'all know the King of Rock 'n' Roll (or, simply, 'The King'). If that's all you know of Elvis, you don't know Elvis at all. 'The King' was a creation of Colonel Tom Parker, who trapped Elvis in a pop music straitjacket all his career, created the myth, and earned a fortune from Elvis' talent.

The real Elvis Presley was a deeply religious hillbilly who only ever wanted to sing gospel music. Yes, you read right, gospel music. Elvis believed in the Bible, loved singing hymns and, in fact, was at his happiest when singing gospel. He firmly believed that his voice was a gift from God. Elvis said:

"I believe that all good things come from God. I don't believe I'd sing the way I do if God hadn't wanted me to."

NOT FOR PLEASURE

The Colonel wouldn't permit Elvis to be himself in public. But, every chance he got while travelling on the bus or playing around with friends at home all hours of day and night, Elvis chose gospel. He NEVER sang his pop hits for pleasure.

My record collection includes more than 50 gospel/inspirational songs and hymns recorded by Elvis, but I know I haven't even scratched the surface. Elvis recorded some incomparable renditions of gospel songs and hymns. I have a 33 1/3rd rpm album of a live show in Las Vegas where he performed for audiences mostly containing hardened gamblers and hopeless heathens. He closed that live show with the best version of How Great Thou Art I've ever heard. He committed his eternal soul to the singing of that song. The result: a standing ovation from the motley crowd.

Elvis grew up in Memphis when it was 'the home of the blues' and he famously learned his style and delivery in Memphis' blues clubs sitting at the feet of great black blues musicians. But Memphis was also emerging as a gospel music centre, and American youth were listening to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans singing May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You, or Stuart Hamblen, a songwriter who, in 1952, ran for president against Eisenhower, tell how he wrote It Is No Secret What God Can Do (hauntingly covered by Elvis) just as avidly as they listened to Your Cheating Heart (Hank Williams), Caldonia (Louis Jordan) or, later on, Smokestack Lightnin' (Howling Wolf).

BLACK GOSPEL

Elvis also listened to black gospel on the radio as Memphis' two gospel radio stations, WDIA and KWAM, played gospel around the clock. Gospel entered Elvis' DNA. He said:

"We do two shows a night for five weeks. A lotta times we'll go upstairs and sing gospel songs until daylight. We grew up with it ... . It more or less puts your mind at ease. It does mine."

In 1950s Memphis, music didn't discriminate (some people did). Black and white gospel flooded the airwaves equally and Elvis absorbed both.

In August 1950, the Blackwood Brothers (originally brothers Roy, Doyle, James and James' son, R.W.), probably the most popular radio quartet in America, moved their act from Shenandoah, Iowa, to Jefferson Avenue, Memphis; started twice-daily programmes on radio; developed their own label; and started a series of concerts at Ellis Auditorium near Elvis' home. Elvis became a huge fan.

In 1954, as a group of five, the Blackwood Brothers' music reached a national audience when they appeared on the hit CBS show 'Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts'. Memphis' mayor declared the date Blackwood Brothers Quartet Day.

Two weeks later, R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles, the fifth 'brother', died in a plane crash. Their funeral was held at Ellis Auditorium where it was subsequently reported "the galleries were reserved for Negroes". The group leader, James Blackwood, established a new group adding R.W's brother, Cecil (baritone), and J.D. Sumner (bass) that went on to take gospel music to new heights. James died in 2002, but his sons continue the 80-year-old tradition to this day when the words 'Blackwood Brothers' are synonymous with gospel music.

I'll bet one of the youngsters filing past R.W. and Bill's caskets in 1954 was Elvis Presley, because three days after the funeral, he went to Sun Records and made his first recordings. Two years later, the famous 'creation of rock 'n' roll' impromptu jam session with Johnny Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis was recorded by an alert engineer, Jack Clement. In-between, it's a little-known fact that Elvis auditioned to join a gospel quartet, the Songfellows, but was turned down because he "couldn't hear harmony".

I'm reminded of a similar incident locally, involving legendary music producer, 'King' Edwards. King himself told me he was the first for whom one James Chambers auditioned, but he turned Chambers down because "his voice was too fine". James Chambers became Jimmy Cliff. Pop quiz: Who is 'King' Edwards? Where is he now? No googling now. Answers at the end.

INFLUENCE

The Blackwood Brothers influenced Elvis' entire career. But there were others. His mother ensured he stayed close to God. She played old 78 rpm 'country' gospel records at home, including the Louvin Brothers (MGM); the Bailes Brothers (Colombia); James and Martha Carson (Capitol); and, of course, bluegrass gospel hero, Carl Story, to whom Elvis subsequently boasted his mother had all Story's records.

With gospel music permeating his upbringing, it was unlikely he'd ignore those roots. He never did. Throughout his career, many of Elvis' backup singers were gospel quartets (e.g., the Imperials). From 1956 to 1970, legendary gospel group, the Jordanaires, whose sound reminded him of his mother's records, performed alongside Elvis.

In 1957, Elvis
recorded his first gospel 'album', a four-song EP for RCA featuring his
popular cover of Red Foley's Peace in the Valley. The
'album' also included Take My Hand, Precious Lord,
It Is No Secret What God Can Do, and I
Believe
. It took three more years and a stint in the army
before he recorded his first full gospel album. Floyd Cramer, one of my
favourite pianists growing up, played on that album, titled His
Hand in Mine
(a Gold Record for RCA) and which featured the
Jordanaires' superb harmonies. Oddly, of the 12 songs on the album,
seven were originally recorded by the Statesmen, who were the Blackwood
Brothers' main rivals. On many of these songs, the old Statesmen
arrangements were copied note for note.

Ironically,
that 1960 session also included Crying in the Chapel,
one of Elvis' biggest commercial hits, but it wasn't included on the
album.

18-hour session

Elvis' next
gospel album, How Great Thou Art, recorded (1966) in a
marathon 18-hour session, was released in 1967. RCA wanted a "choir
sound" behind Elvis, so three quartets of backup singers, including
Elvis' studio favourite, Millie Kirkham, were engaged on the album. His
fourth gospel project, He Touched Me, came after his
'comeback' in 1971 and included more 'praise music' like Bosom
of Abraham
, a 1938 song that had been covered by the
Jordanaires, among others, and An Evening Prayer,
which gospel legend Mahalia Jackson made her own at the 1956 Newport
Jazz Festival.

Now listen up. With all Elvis'
commercial success, he only won three Grammys. Each of Elvis' Grammys
was for a gospel recording: How Great Thou Art (1967)
album (Best Sacred Performance), He Touched Me
(1972) album (Best Inspirational Performance), and his Live Memphis
Concert recording of How Great Thou Art (1974) also
won for Best Sacred Performance.

Year after year, he
was regularly denied Grammys by the likes of Bobby Darin (1959,
Mack The Knife); Ray Charles (twice in 1960;
Georgia on My Mind and album The Genius of
Ray Charles
); Percy Faith (1960, A Summer
Place
); and Henry Mancini (1961 movie soundtrack
Breakfast at Tiffany's).

A happy
and holy Christmas to all readers.

Peace and
love.

P. S. Pop
quiz answer: 'King' Edwards is none other than president of the Jamaica
Racehorse Trainers' Association, Vin Edwards.

Gordon
Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to
columns@gleanerjm.com.