If the jacket seems familiar, that's because it appears to have been designed to match the covers for the video and DVD set, 'He Touched Me: The Gospel Music Of Elvis Presley', released in 2001. That set was produced by Joe Moscheo, who is also the author of this new book. Moscheo was a member of the Imperials and performed with Elvis on many occasions during several years. He continues to perform with the group at Elvis fan club conventions throughout the world.
I'm an atheist so it might be a surprise to learn that I think that Elvis's gospel music is amongst the finest work. His singing is not only technically very good, it is also clear that he performs the numbers with sincerity and verve. I'm sure that Elvis was a God-fearing Christian; I don't happen to share his belief, but that doesn't mean that I can't respect it. It also doesn't mean that I have to like everything that's written about that side of Elvis: I judge solely on merit.
I must admit that I looked forward to reading 'The Gospel Side Of Elvis'. I don't know exactly what I expected from the book, but whatever it was, I feel that it is lacking, at least for a great part. Elvis fans are well aware of Elvis's gospel recordings, his inclusion of gospel numbers in his live performances, even in such mundane settings as Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, and of his enjoyment of singing gospel songs with family and friends. Little, however, has been written to provide any significant background about this aspect of Elvis's life and career. I suppose I wanted that background in one way or another.
Instead, Moscheo's book is a fairly brief collection of superficial anecdotes and memories. There is little new here to add to our knowledge or understanding of Elvis and there is even less to add to what we already know (if anything) about gospel music.
Okay, there are a few tales about how good a person Elvis was, how he gave away much of his wealth, how he helped others when he could, and so on; I especially liked Moscheo's emphasis on Elvis's lack of prejudice. A little biographical information is provided, but strangely Moscheo here refers to Vernon Presley, Elvis's father, as 'a hardworking man', which contradicts all that I have read about him elsewhere. Some of the stories are hearsay, having happened before Moscheo knew Elvis and so do not really fit into the story he is telling. And most we already know, so there is little incentive to continue reading. In addition, there seems to be no chronology in the telling, so instead of a continuous linked narrative, the reader is confronted with a hop-scotch of unrelated events.
Moscheo begins reasonably well, including a look at the shape-note system of musical notation, which was popular in parts of the USA and especially where gospel music was sung, but his explanation is all too brief. He looks equally briefly at some of the most famous white gospel quartets, but the lack of depth of information again results in disappointment. He then goes into his Elvis tales, interspersed with some autobiographical details in which Moscheo examine his career with the Imperials.
The book is short (it's even shorter than it looks, thanks to a fairly large typeface, large line-spacing, and large in-line quotes) and the reader reaches the end all too soon. To make matters worse, there are some unfortunate and easily avoided errors along the way: surely someone in Moscheo's position, with the support of a big publisher behind him, should know that it is Jerry Leiber and not Lieber (p.158)? And no less than three periods are specified for the time between Elvis's last live concert appearance in the early 1960s and his 1968 television special: ten years, nine years and seven years (pp.162, 40 and 48, respectively). Such basic errors are really unacceptable in a book such as this.
The numerous black-and-white illustrations are well reproduced. Several are old photos of white gospel quartets, others feature Moscheo himself, with or without the Imperials, and amongst the others a few show Elvis, though most of these are album covers, publicity shots and other photos with which the average Elvis fan is already well familiar. An exception is a photo showing a group of people standing close to Elvis during an after-show gathering in Elvis's suite in 1972; the group includes Mama Cass Elliott (then a solo artist, but formerly of the Mamas and Papas).
All in all, then, I have to admit to being sorely disappointed with 'The Gospel Side Of Elvis'. It's nicely bound and printed, but it is too short, it offers little new, it is lightweight, it fails to live up to its promise and my expectations. The book is probably a reasonable introduction for a reader who is not a fan and knows little about Elvis into what is perhaps a lesser-known side of the man, but for the rest of us, I fear that it just doesn't cut the mustard.
The Gospel Side Of Elvis
Author: Joe Moscheo
Publisher: Center Street
Hardback; illustrated, 176pp., incl. notes and index