Donnie Sumner, 'Voice', and Elvis Presley

By: David Adams
Source: Elvis Australia
September 10, 2021

Voice: The original group consisted of Sherrill Nielsen, Donnie Sumner and Tim Baty (Thinking About You).

Sherrill Nielsen had just left The Statesmen Quartet, (Elvis loved Sherrill as he could hit notes higher than a normal tenor, and Elvis had him to sing the very high endings in concert. Their performance of 'Softly, As I Leave You' was nominated for a Grammy when released posthumously in 1978) and Donnie Sumner had just left The Stamps. They got together to make some music and wound up with 'The Tennessee Rangers'.

At Elvis' request, they were flown to Vegas to sing backup on the Tom Jones show, and at the end of that engagement, Elvis signed the three voices: Donnie Sumner, Sherrill Nielsen and Tim Baty to be his personal gospel group, and he changed their name to 'Voice' (the name actually came from a religious periodical Elvis received). Shaun (Sherrill) tells the story, 'Elvis had written it on a sheet of toilet tissue and it was for the sum of $100,000 for which we'd travel with him, write songs for his music company, and work with him. He wanted to know if we were interested in it, and we were definitely interested in it'.

Recording at Elvis' Palm Springs Home

Just before this Elvis had decided to gift Sherrill with a hair transplant if you can believe that! Can you imagine, Elvis: 'Hey Sherrill, The doc's here to give you a hair transplant'. The doctor cut a big hole in one of Elvis' sheets, draped it over him with his head centered inside the hole and proceeded to remove small plugs of hair from the back side of Sherrill's head and then inserted the plugs into holes he had previously made in the top of Sherrill's scalp. The doctor then wrapped Sherrill's entire head in a huge, thick blanket of gauze.

The next day was the recording session [7-9:20pm, 1:15-3:15am] September 22-23, 1973

Colonel Parker called Elvis and told him RCA wanted a record, in four days he was going to be breach of contract. Elvis said well I'm not coming there, Elvis said if they want a record they can come here and get it. After a heated discussion, Elvis agreed to cut vocal tracks for the four songs at his Palm Springs home that Felton Jarvis had cut backing tracks for without him at the recent Stax sessions. The next day two semi trucks pulled up outside of his home. They unloaded tons of recording equipment. Within a short time, they had transformed Elvis' living room into a state of the art recording studio. Elvis' guitarist, James Burton flew in, Charlie Hodge played acoustic guitar, Donnie Sumner played the piano with Voice supplying bass.

The only song completed from the tapes supplied by Felton Jarvis was 'Sweet Angeline' they then recorded Donnie Sumner's 'I Miss You' then lacking anything else Elvis wanted to record, Sherrill suggested 'Are You Sincere?'. It was a song he sang in a talent contest as a child, he came in second. Sherrill still had the bandages around my head and during the song, blood started running down his forard. So they were the only songs completed by Elvis, although 'Voice' did record a number of demos at Elvis' insistence.

September 22 1973 Elvis Presley's Residence, Palm Springs, California

Sweet Angeline (V.O.) CPA5 4772-NA

September 23 1973 Elvis Presley's Residence, Palm Springs, California

I Miss You CPA5 4774-15
Are You Sincere? CPA5 4775-04

There's also a private recording from that period, where he sings 'Let Me Be The One' and 'Spanish Eyes'.

Sherrill Nielsen : That was in Palm Springs. We were singing duet on 'Spanish Eyes'. Linda Thompson's taped that, because she gave David Briggs a copy, and David gave me a copy. I have it on that record. Whoever put it on record bootlegged it from my record. We were around the piano in Palm Springs, having a good time.

Elvis and J.D. Sumner and The Stamps Quartet; Donnie is to the immediate left of Elvis, 1972L To R: Bill Baize, future Oak Ridge Boy Richard Sterban, Donnie Sumner, Elvis, J.D. Sumner, Ed Enoch, and Nick Bruno
Elvis and J.D. Sumner and The Stamps Quartet; Donnie is to the immediate left of Elvis
L To R: Bill Baize, future Oak Ridge Boy Richard Sterban, Donnie Sumner, Elvis, J.D. Sumner, Ed Enoch, and Nick Bruno.

The Gospel according to Donnie Sumner

It only took one sentence for Donnie Sumner to describe his career in music'.

Everything that I have, I'll ever be, what I've got and all I'll ever have, I have to say thanks be to God for it all, because when I found him, I had nothing', he said. 'My life was totally ruined'. Even if you're not familiar with world of southern gospel, chances are, you've heard Donnie sing. For six years, he toured with and was a close personal friend of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. It was a time in his life that would be a roller-coaster ride of success and heartbreak and eventually redemption.

Music and the church had always been part of Donnie's life. His father was a Pentecostal preacher, and his uncle, J.D. Sumner, was a legendary musical figure'. J.D. was probably one of the three most recognizable names in the whole world of southern gospel music', Donnie said. 'James Blackwell being one and Bill Gaither being one and J.D. being the other'. With a closeness to this lineage of musical greatness, it was only natural that the younger Sumner would take an interest in the family business. Singing his first solo in church at the age of 7, Donnie studied to be a classical vocalist and a classical pianist, turning down a scholarship at the Julliard School of Music to go to a Christian College'. All my life I wanted to be in a southern gospel quartet', he said. 'I got through college, but my heart was in quartets. That's what I've been doing for 48 years'.

After spending time in a couple of different groups, he finally got the call from Uncle J.D. to join his group, the Stamps, as a pianist. In three months, the lead singer quit, and Donnie got a promotion'. My uncle said for me to sing until they got somebody, and I sang for eight years', he said.

It was when Donnie was singing with the Stamps that they got the call to tour with Elvis Presley. After a 10-year layoff, the megastar had decided to hit the road again. J.D'.s 'zoom bass' was always a favorite of Elvis, who loved southern gospel music. Donnie was with the Stamps until the Aloha from Hawaii concert in 1973.

He left the group to form the Tennessee Rangers and began performing country music with a year residency at the Grand Old Opry. But Elvis never forgot Donnie. Eventually, Charlie Hodge, Elvis' right-hand man called and said they needed someone to help out with the high notes'. If he wanted to kiss somebody or do karate, he'd point at me, and I'd hit the last note', Donnie said. Elvis hired the group, which became Voice, Inc., to be part of his stage show and also to live with him and sing Gospel music for him at night.

You would have thought that reaching the pinnacle of Sumner's career as an artist would leave him with very few problems, however the more Donnie enjoyed success, the deeper and darker his life became. Elvis made sure that each of the performers in his entourage were well taken care of, which means they had anything and everything at their fingertips'. I will tell you flat out, one of the liabilities of the entertainment industry is your removal from the normal life of home, church and friends', Donnie said. 'It's kind of a world of fantasy'. There's no such thing as a superstar, it's all in the audience's mind. After awhile you begin to believe it and you turn into not the kind of person you should be because you think you're better than everybody else'. That's the chain of events that happened from struggling artist to big artist. Reality is home, church and friends'.

Even when performing in a southern gospel group, temptation is still there'. I had been involved in the drug culture ever since I entered the industry. It was more or less a social thing for the first few years and it progressed', Donnie said. 'When I was with Elvis I had plenty of money, plenty of safety, plenty of access to anything I wanted. I hate to say it, but I turned into a stone drug addict'.

In 1976, Donnie was doing $200 of cocaine and a handful of Quaaludes a day. He tried to overdose on cocaine twice, attempting suicide three times. Finally, it all came to a head.

On the Saturday morning before Labor Day in 1976, he stood on the balcony outside Elvis' suite trying to get the nerve to jump'. I cried out for some help and didn't really expect any, but the good Lord was walking around in heaven that morning and heard me and said 'I believe I'll do it', Donnie said. 'He embraced me and rather than jumping, I cried my way back to the room for a brand new beginning'.

Deciding that he needed to leave the tour and enter rehab, Donnie first had to tell his boss, who was in the hospital at the time. Upon hearing the news, Elvis told Donnie that he was proud of him and said that he wished that he could go somewhere and start over but 'I guess I got to keep on being Elvis'.

That was the last time Donnie talked to Elvis face to face. Donnie cleaned up his life and took a long break from performing. Music was in his blood and eventually he returned to the stage, this time with a much different focus'.I don't really consider it 'show business', it's just me', he said. Over the years, Donnie has served as a minister and evangelist, taking his message all over the country. Recently, he was welcomed into the Bill Gaither 'Homecoming' family, performing alongside other legends of Gospel music.

As a changed man, Donnie brings a new message of hope'. My emphasis is really on just one simple thing', he said. 'I sing fast songs, slow songs, old songs, new songs, funny songs, and sad songs'. In the end, every one of my songs says that no matter where you're at or what you're involved in, you can make it. Jesus is a new life, Jesus is an abundant life and Jesus is everlasting life'. That's my story, and that's my song'.

Donnie Sumner : The Gospel according to Elvis

The King of Rock 'n' Roll also known for his religious music

By Cary Mcmullen
The Lakeland Ledger

The story goes that in 1951, Elvis Presley, then 16, walked into the First Assembly of God in Memphis, Tenn., and struck up a friendship with another teenage boy, Cecil Blackwood. Blackwood's father, two uncles and older brother were members of a famous Southern gospel group, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, and Presley admired their music. Blackwood himself was part of another quartet at the First Assembly in Memphis, the Songfellows, and Presley wanted to join. But when he finally got the chance a few years later, Presley's personal flamboyance and distinctive vocal style didn't fit in with the uniform appearance and carefully controlled harmony required by the Southern gospel style. After several weeks, he signed a contract with Sun Records and went on to rock 'n' roll stardom. Raised in poverty, he earned a fortune, then gave away most of it. He rarely went to church or read the Bible, according to one close associate, and his partying and overindulgence in food and drugs eventually led to his death at age 42. Yet his backup groups throughout his career - The Jordanaires, The Imperials, The Stamps - were gospel groups, and after his concerts, Elvis frequently held impromptu gospel singing sessions that lasted into the early-morning hours.

And as if to vindicate his original desire to be a gospel singer, Presley's only three Grammy awards were given for his own gospel-music recordings. Presley recorded three gospel albums. 'His Hand in Mine' (1960) includes some old songs and spirituals, like 'Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho', but it also contains 'You'll Never Walk Alone' - a signature song of his later Las Vegas years, but not exactly a gospel tune.

'How Great Thou Art' (1967) won Elvis his first Grammy for Best Sacred Album. The album includes an instant classic, 'Peace in the Valley'. Another non-gospel song, 'Crying in the Chapel', that became a pop-chart hit.

'He Touched Me' (1972) - a gospel standard of Bill Gaither - earned Presley his second Grammy for Best Inspirational Album. Presley continued to record gospel songs - more than 100 in all, by one account - and a live recording of 'How Great Thou Art' in 1974 earned him the Grammy for Best Inspirational Song.

Presley's style of gospel singing was reverential, in contrast to his rambunctious rock 'n' roll vocalizing, but he had a penchant for songs with big endings.

Joe Moscheo, who was a keyboard player and singer with The Imperials when they backed up Elvis from 1969 to 1972. He called Presley 'the greatest gospel singer who ever lived'. 'He had a feel and a passion for it. Because of his ability as a performer, he could interpret a song and perform it in a very purposeful way', said Moscheo from his home in Nashville, Tenn.

Donnie Sumner holds another view. The Lakeland native sang in The Stamps quartet that backed up Elvis from 1971 to 1973. He said Elvis did not have an ideal voice for singing gospel but made up for it by conveying the power and emotion of the music. 'He had a pitch problem. His vibrato would be a quarter-tone on either side of the note. Everybody thought he was a great singer, but what made him great in rock and roll was his appearance. What made him great in gospel was his ability to tell a story. Absolutely nobody can communicate the lyrics of a gospel song like Elvis', Sumner said from Nashville.

Sumner said stories of Elvis growing up in church are exaggerated. His mother took him occasionally, and he knew the basics of Christian teaching, but he was otherwise 'religiously illiterate', Sumner said. He was a fan of TV evangelist Rex Humbard, but otherwise gospel music was his whole religious world. Besides the Blackwood Brothers, Presley idolized J.D. Sumner - Donnie Sumner's uncle and one of the founders of The Stamps.

Elvis insisted his backup groups gather to sing gospel music after his concerts, sometimes until dawn. Sumner remembers on one occasion singing all four verses of 'In the Sweet By and By' 18 times in a row at Elvis' bidding. In a further contradiction, those sessions were often conducted in a drug- or booze-induced haze, Sumner said. 'We'd be wired most of the time. But when we'd sing for him, it was like throwing a bucket of cold water on a fire. It was a cleansing of emotions. He'd get so relaxed and peaceful.

It was the only thing in this life that brought him relief', he said. Those who knew Elvis agree he felt trapped by his fame. Moscheo called him 'a lonely person'. Sumner recalled that when he told Presley in 1976 he was leaving to shake his drug habit, Presley said, 'I wish I could do that, go somewhere and start over, but I guess I'll have to keep on being Elvis'. Within a year, Elvis Presley was dead. 'I don't think anyone could judge him', Moscheo said. 'I think he was a Christian, a believer. He had personal problems and demons, but he did a lot of good in his own way. He introduced gospel music to a secular world. In a way, he was an evangelist'.

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