It may surprise the casual observer to learn that, in the length of his distinguished career, Elvis Presley only ever received three Grammy Awards. What may seem even more absurd is that none of those Grammys were for any of his big hits or his revolutionary rock and roll records; all of them were for his recordings of church music.
However, Elvis himself may have been prouder to receive recognition for his recordings of the sacred music he loved so much than he was for all the secular praise his rock, pop and country music brought him. From his early childhood days in the Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, and throughout his entire career, gospel music was always an integral part of his life, whether at church services or while just winding down in a hotel room after a show.
It's hardly surprising that a young boy from rural Mississippi would be exposed to religious music from the earliest days of his life. His mother Gladys once told a reporter: 'When Elvis was just a little fellow, he would slide off my lap, run down the aisle, and scramble up to the platform of the church. He would stand looking up at the choir and try to sing with them. He was too little to know the words, but he could carry the tune'. As he grew older he would not only attend his own church, but also sneak in with friends and enjoy the even livelier services at the black neighborhood churches both in Tupelo and later in Memphis. With his parents and his girlfriend Dixie, they would often attend the all-night gospel sings at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis. Gladys' favorite religious singers were The Blackwood Brothers, whereas Elvis and his father enjoyed the lively showmanship of The Statesmen Quartet and their incredible bass singer 'Big Chief'. So steeped in this music was Elvis that he often claimed to know every religious song ever written.
Above, the bible that was given to Elvis by members of the Memphis Mafia for Christmas in 1964.
Elvis was 13 when his family moved to Memphis, and five years later he tried out for The Blackwood Brothers' junior quartet. He was very disappointed when he learned that he flunked the audition. Discouraged, he related to his father that they had told him he couldn't sing.
From the notes of a long lost tape from one of Elvis' earliest Sun sessions, there is evidence that he tried out Martha Carson's 'Satisfied', and at his early live performances, when his recorded repertoire was still extremely limited, he would sometimes throw in an a capella rendition of 'Amazing Grace' to fill out the show.
By the time Elvis first met The Jordanaires backstage at an Eddy Arnold concert on October 31, 1954, the group had already established themselves as successful gospel artists who also doubled as backing vocalists for major country artists, both at recording sessions and in concert. When Memphis DJ Bob Neal brought him backstage, Elvis made it a point to find band member Hoyt Hawkins and to tell him how he had enjoyed their singing, even declaring',I would like to get a group like The Jordanaires to sing with me if I ever achieve the kind of success that Eddy Arnold has'.
Barely more than a year and a half later, he certainly had not only surpassed Eddy Arnold's success, but also reached a level of fame unparalleled in the business. Elvis' dreams were becoming reality left and right those days, and a big one was realized on June 22, 1956. That was the day The Jordanaires made their debut as Elvis' regular vocal group, in three shows at the Paramount Theater in Atlanta. Gordon Stoker, the group's lead tenor, had already contributed vocals to some of Elvis' studio recordings, but this was the first time Elvis had worked with the full quartet. The group would remain with Elvis for the next 12 years.
In Elvis' hectic schedule there was little time to attend church, but the music was with him all the time – in hotel rooms and in the car on the grueling road trips, when Elvis would often sing along to the radio. It was even documented on tape on December 4, 1956 at the Sun studio, where he, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis spent an hour or two just singing whatever came into their heads.
Sam Phillips snuck up on the young performers and started his tape machine, catching the trio singing country, blues, pop and gospel without regard to genre.
One of the songs that Elvis sang at this informal gathering at Sun – part of the so-called Million Dollar Quartet – was Thomas Dorsey's '(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)'.
Only a few weeks later, Elvis chose to perform the hymn in front of a national TV audience, for what would be his last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Gordon Stoker: 'The reason Elvis recorded gospel songs was because his mother loved them. He wanted to make records she would like. Gladys didn't really like his rock and roll stuff. It took a little negotiating with the label, but Elvis was eventually allowed to record a gospel album'.
As part of Elvis' regular recording sessions in January of 1957, four religious songs were recorded for an EP (Extended Play) record.
Gordon Stoker: '‘I Believe' was one of the first religious songs The Jordanaires recorded with him. When we started to record, Elvis wanted me to play organ and sing my part with the quartet. In those days we didn't have that many recording tracks, so on that recording I played organ and sang at the same time'.
If RCA were really concerned, or just saw these recordings as a necessary concession to an otherwise extremely financially rewarding artist, they needn't have worried.
The EP quickly racked up sales of 400,000 copies – as many as most of his secular EPs. Additionally, those four songs were combined with eight Christmas recordings later that year, together constituting Elvis' first Christmas album, making the financial benefit to RCA a sheer coup.
When Elvis was shipped to Germany for the remainder of his army duty, he met fellow G.I. Charlie Hodge. Charlie had sung in a group called Foggy River Boys, and with their common musical background, the two soon became friends. Throughout Elvis' stay in Germany, he, Charlie and Elvis' old friend Red West would join forces, singing and playing their favorite music. Tapes made on the Grundig tape machine Elvis had acquired reveal him running the full gamut of musical inspirations, and as they got closer to his discharge in March of 1960, Elvis started working on songs that he planned to record as soon as he returned to private life.
Religious songs were rehearsed alongside material for his next regular album, and his performances of songs like 'His Hand In Mine' and 'He Knows Just What I Need' seem to suggest that Elvis was getting ready for his next album of religious music. After his return to civilian life – after three more #1 hit singles, two albums, a movie, and two more on the way – the time had come for Elvis to realize his ambition to make a full album of religious music. In one all-night session commencing on October 30, 1960, Elvis recorded a staggering 13 of his favorite religious songs for the album to be entitled His Hand In Mine. It was a loving tribute to all the gospel quartets he had admired as a child and young man, and the repertoire was to a large extent lifted from the catalog of the Presley family's favorites, The Blackwood Brothers and The Statesmen Quartet. Further material was introduced to Elvis while in Germany, as his new friend Charlie Hodge had introduced him to the veterans of the genre, The Golden Gate Quartet. Elvis had even had a chance to meet, greet and sing with the group in Paris on an army furlough. The jubilee style of the Golden Gates was another angle on the repertoire, and an ideal counterpoint to the otherwise fairly serious hymns of the other two groups. It all added up to an easy-flowing, sincere and jubilant document of Elvis' roots in religious music. The endless hours of voice training to which Elvis had subjected himself in Germany yielded startling results, as his vocals effortlessly moved from a full-bodied baritone to a soaring tenor. This was a whole new Elvis.
Gordon Stoker: 'He had the ability to hear any song and record it immediately without using a lyric sheet. ‘Joshua Fit The Battle' was another one of those songs he didn't know when we decided to record it. After rehearsing it a few times, he was ready to roll tape. He recorded ‘Joshua' by memory. Listen to it; those words are not easy. My personal favorite is ‘Known Only To Him.' The words to this song touched Elvis' heart and are meaningful to me every time I hear it. He was such a beautiful soul, and you can hear it in his voice in these recordings. That's what those of us who knew Elvis loved about him'.
The album went as high as number 13 on the album charts, a great achievement for a religious album. Even more impressively, it went on to sell more than 1.5 million copies over the ensuing decades.
Elvis had recorded another song at the sessions for His Hand In Mine, one that didn't make it to the album. Recording logs listed the track as 'no master', but such snap evaluations at the time of a session are sometimes inaccurate. By 1965, Elvis wasn't recording anything other than movie soundtracks. When RCA and Elvis' manager Colonel Parker wanted a new single to release in time for Easter, that track which had sounded like 'no master' more than four years earlier suddenly revealed itself to be a masterful vocal performance. The song was 'Crying In The Chapel'. Nobody could have anticipated the enormous success of the single, which sold a million copies in the U.S. alone and became an international smash hit, reaching the #1 spot in the U.K.
Colonel Parker never missed an opportunity to repeat a successful formula, and it was too tempting not to try to replicate the mind-boggling popularity of 'Crying In The Chapel'. RCA tried again in 1966, pulling four songs from His Hand In Mine and releasing them on two singles, again in time for Easter. Proving that history does not always repeat itself in the record business, the singles managed only modest sales of 40,000 each.
By 1966, Elvis' record sales had dropped precipitously. The previous three years had been spent making movies and soundtrack recordings. In most cases, the music was substandard material he never would have touched had it been submitted for a regular recording session. Apart from the three songs Elvis had recorded in January of 1964, it had been years since any of his sessions had been inspired by his own ambition to create worthwhile music. RCA had been forced to dig up all manner of rejected leftovers and previously-released LP cuts to offer even marginally viable 'new' single releases.
In the meantime, the entire music world had changed. Since 1963, the pop world had been transformed by the triumphs of the British invasion, the folk and folk-rock scene and the Motown juggernaut. After absorbing the changes of the past few years, it was logical to think Elvis would finally embrace the challenging opportunity to contribute something new and unique to the new pop landscape.
When RCA booked four days of studio time In Nashville at the end of May 1966, the stage seemed set for a comeback. At the very least, it was a chance for the artist to resume choosing his own material, free of any movie scripts and the influence of his own publishing interests.
They did record five secular songs. The tracks were very good indeed, but hardly the sort of material that would change Elvis' declining commercial status. What Elvis had in mind was an entirely different project. For months, he had been gathering at his Los Angeles home with Charlie Hodge and Red West, listening to records, singing and taping their impromptu jams for evaluation. A whole tape of Jimmy Jones and The Harmonizing Four had been compiled, and Elvis asked RCA to hire the great black gospel bass singer for the sessions, as gospel music was the focal point of Elvis' attention and ambition. Jones couldn't be found, but RCA came up with a counterproposal that was just as tempting. The tenor of The Statesmen Quartet, Jake Hess, had started a new group called The Imperials Quartet. Elvis decided to use them alongside The Jordanaires, and even added three female vocalists, making it a total of 12 singers, including himself.
Chet Atkins had been in charge of Elvis' Nashville sessions for RCA since 1956. Elvis had never been comfortable with Chet, taking his dry commentary and quiet ways as a sign of indifference. So when Chet brought in a new staff producer to oversee these sessions, he also injected a new element of excitement and encouragement into the creative process. Felton Jarvis was not a technical wizard, but he had an ability to bring the best out in people. He possessed a more modern approach to sound recording and a great love for Elvis and his music. The two hit it off instantly. Felton excitedly talked to Elvis about how 'You get your excitement from the drums and bass getting real funky'. Elvis had for years been annoyed that his vocals were always turned up way too far in the mix; here now was a man who understood that it all had to blend properly, that it was all about the feel – the same way Elvis had started out producing his own records back in the fifties.
Where His Hand In Mine was a loving tribute to Elvis' old quartet heroes, easy on the ears, the resulting new work, How Great Thou Art, was crafted from an entirely different fabric. The tone on these hymns was substantially darker, reflecting changes not only in Elvis' voice, but also in the approach, repertoire and arrangements. The up-tempo songs were driven by a much louder rhythm section, the enormous drive of the massive choir and a pervasive feeling of true excitement.
Gordon Stoker: '‘How Great Thou Art' became Elvis' favorite gospel song. When we first discussed cutting it, he said he had never heard of it. Ray Walker, our bass singer, said he had a hymnbook in his car. He ran out and got it, and with the lyrics from the hymnbook in front of us, The Jordanaires sang it for him. He agreed it was good and wanted to record it. Neal Matthews, our second tenor who wrote so many great vocal arrangements for us, made an arrangement of it. Elvis listened to it, rehearsed it and recorded it by memory'.
Jake Hess: 'Elvis was one of those individuals, when he sang a song, he just seemed to live every word of it'.
How Great Thou Art was finally released nine months later. It went to number 18 on the album chart – indeed a respectable achievement for a gospel album – but the real rewards came the following year, when the album won Elvis the first Grammy of his career. Over time it has become one of Elvis' best-selling albums ever, with more than three million sold in the U.S. alone.
New Nashville sessions in September 1967 were put together with the goal of recording extra songs for the Clambake soundtrack album and some new singles.
One of these new singles was to be a gospel single, and Ben Weisman had written a beautiful new song called 'We Call On Him', which seemed like a strong single candidate. But as was so often the case with Elvis, the unpredictable was the norm. On the last night of sessions, he sat down at the piano and asked for the lights to be turned down. He started playing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' over and over, not pausing between takes, just endlessly repeating, driving every bit of emotion from the song, seemingly lost in his own world, just like he had done so often at home, after everybody else had gone to bed. Felton Jarvis took the tapes and simply edited his way to a final master with a radio-friendly running time. Although not a commercial success', You'll Never Walk Alone' earned Elvis another Grammy nomination.
By now it was no longer unusual for Elvis to record gospel and inspirational songs at any session where he could find room for them. Four gospel songs had made their way into his later movies by the end of the '60s, and when he staged his 1968 comeback with the TV special 'Elvis', he not only included a medley of gospel songs but closed the show with a dramatic new song', If I Can Dream'. Although not strictly speaking a gospel song',If I Can Dream' purveyed both a sincerity and spirituality that was as sincere a statement as any of the traditional spirituals he sang.
When Elvis returned to recording with renewed fervor after the '68 comeback, he continued to throw in the occasional spiritual or gospel song at his sessions. The critically acclaimed Memphis sessions in 1969 saw the recording of 'Who Am I?' At marathon recording dates in June 1970, he cut another three: 'I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago' – which ended up being used as the thematic thread to weave together songs on the Elvis Country album – as well as 'Life' and 'Only Believe', which were released as the 1971 Easter single.
Encouraged by that June 1970 spurt of productivity, which resulted in a staggering 34 masters, Jarvis, now Elvis' personal A&R man, scheduled sessions for the week of March 15, 1971. The ambitious agenda was to record three new albums as well as a year's worth of singles. One of the albums was to be a gospel release. The resulting He Touched Me again demonstrated that Elvis invested a lot of thought and passion into the recording of this material. The new, younger band that played on the album gave it a sound which was dramatically different than Presley's previous gospel output.
The repertoire was a different mix than before, bridging traditional songs like the Mahalia Jackson classic 'An Evening Prayer' with newer material by contemporary gospel artists like Andrae Crouch. Elvis' friend Red West even contributed a song. As with How Great Thou Art, the album was released in time for Easter, but unlike his previous religious albums, this time there was little impact on the charts. However, rewards again came later, with a Grammy and eventual sales of more than a million records.
In the summer of 1973, with a new contract in hand, it was as if the tables had been turned 180 degrees. Now it was RCA that requested a whole new gospel album and Elvis who seemed doubtful about the project. The July sessions at Stax did not produce one gospel recording for the album RCA wanted, and the follow-up dates in December delivered only three songs. Those songs eventually became cuts on Elvis' new pop albums – blending in with everything else Elvis wanted to record, in a way that was closer to Elvis' own understanding of music – music without discrimination in genre, origin or performance.
Gospel music had not only become an integral part of Elvis' albums but also of his concerts. When Elvis returned to his hometown for shows in March of 1974, there were three gospel songs in the repertoire for the show RCA recorded, and his live performance of 'How Great Thou Art' won him his third Grammy.
Despite all the millions of sales and the three Grammy Awards, what towers in importance is the timeless music Elvis left behind. Church music, inspirational, hymns or gospel – the labels meant nothing to him. As with everything he ever sang, Elvis merged all the elements into his own belief of what music should be, free of any constraints of genre. Elvis' religious music afforded him more creative freedom than any other music he made, as no one had the knowledge to challenge him, and no one dared.
– Mike Cimicata and Ernst Mikael Jørgensen (Sony Music / I Believe Sleeve Notes)
I Believe collects all of Elvis Presley's gospel masters in one package. Discs 1 through 3 feature his entire non-secular studio masters in chronological order. Disc 4 covers the additional masters made for Elvis' movies, his comeback TV special in 1968, and recordings made live on stage. Disc 4 also includes two segments of Elvis singing religious songs in a more informal setting. The first segment includes Elvis with J.D. Sumner and The Stamps relaxing at the end of a long day at RCA's Hollywood studio on March 31, 1972. The final three recordings were done at his Los Angeles home in 1966, in preparation for the album How Great Thou Art.
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