Interview with Per-Erik 'Pete' Hallin about Elvis Presley and gospel
In 2006 Thomas Melin interviewed Swedish musician Per-Erik Hallin, who sang and played piano with Elvis in 1973 and 1974 (when he was Voice's piano player). 'Pete', as he was called by Elvis, has mostly worked in the genre of gospel music, and the interview was done for a one-hour radio program titled 'Rock Me Lord' dedicated to Elvis religious songs and broadcast on Easter, 2006. As only parts of it were used in the program, Thomas has taken the time to type the transcript and we are able to present it here for you.
Per-Erik really has a lot of interesting things to say about Elvis, and especially his love for gospel music ...
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'.
Interview with Per-Erik 'Pete' Hallin
You played with Elvis - when was that?
I did it in 1973 at a recording session, and then I was a member of a warm-up band [Voice] who toured with Elvis for a year until the end of 1974.
How did you end up playing with Elvis?
A gospel quartet called the Oak Ridge Boys had visited Sweden and recommended me for this warm-up band.
How did it happen when you met Elvis?
The first time I met Elvis, I was over to audition for the warm-up band and didn't know from the beginning that I would meet with Elvis then. But in the midst of the few days I spent in Nashville, they suddenly said that Elvis was now doing a recording session, so we're going down there. The three singers in the group would sing on his album but the rest of us would just go along. Then we were in Elvis' house, in Graceland, and played a few songs that I had rehearsed with them. But I didn't really understand at once that the songs were proposals that he might bring with him to the recording session, but it was. I then heard how the producer and Elvis said, that if we choose this song, then maybe this guy [Per-Erik Hallin] can join in and play a little too. And I thought I had probably heard wrong, this is something I won't take out in advance. But it actually turned out so that I could join in and play a few songs. And there was another pianist in the studio too [David Briggs], so we were two, and sometimes we played double-keyboard as well.
Which songs did you play on?
It was on a few songs that ended up on two different albums, one was called Promised Land and the other called Good Times. When it came to the repertoire, it was very mixed, both musically and content wise, but there were several songs that had a really strong gospel touch as well.
Among them, the first one?
Yes, the very first song I got to play on, it wasn't much of a gospel music wise, but it was definitely such a text, and it was called 'I Got A Feelin' In My Body'.
And how did it go?
Well, it went well, I probably would have been more nervous today, I think, than I was then, I was so young (laughs). But it was really fun, because he recorded most of it right away, something most artists don't, not even then when you record the rhythm track first and then the singer does the vocal overdub sometime later. But this was more like a live performance, even the background chorus was recorded directly.
How was the mood in the studio?
Very relaxed, very relaxed.
There were no rehearsals, but they were playing a demo again and again and again. And then, all the musicians wrote down what they heard, chords and such.
And then they used numbers, it was the first time I've seen it. Instead of the name of the chords you wrote 1, 2, 3 and 4. They called it 'the Nashville number system'. Then suddenly it was time to make a recording and that was more like a 'jam', it was very relaxed and inspiring.
What do you think about the first song, 'I Got A Feelin' In My Body?'
I really like it, and it has actually been an inspiration to me as well, to a song that I wrote later.
It's in a style of music that I like.
You said you recorded gospel material as well, are there any other songs you remember from the recordings?
Yes, one of the songs does have very nice lyrics, and it's called If That Isn't Love. But I didn't play piano on that particular song, David Briggs did. But it's an incredibly strong and beautiful gospel text, I think.
What did you think of Elvis when he sang these gospel songs?
I felt that Elvis gave everything on every song. But his very special relationship to gospel music I didn't notice fully on that occasion, as it was the first time. That was something I noticed more and more as we spent time with him during that year, because we spent a lot of time together with Elvis privately, after the concerts.
What happened then?
Well, then we were often around a piano, and then he sang just because it was fun. And then it was really evident the tremendous love he felt for the gospel songs.
In what way?
Because he wanted to sing them, and it wasn't necessarily he who sang, many times he just listened or sang a part, and he especially liked to sing bass. And I think he felt that a lot of what was in the show that he did was quite superficial, but now it was serious in a way, it was obvious that he did this with all his heart. I've been thinking a lot about it afterwards, Elvis was exposed, I would almost say, to an idolatry that had no limits at all, it went way out of hand, and still does many times. And in the midst of it all, he was just an ordinary, simple person. And it felt just like this [the gospel singing] became a refuge for him. I also think it's pretty touching to think that a person being exposed to so much idolatry likes to just be one of the gang and sing songs like 'There's Somebody Bigger Than You And I' and the like. It's as though everything gets a different perspective in gospel music. In ordinary music you look up to the singer who stands there on stage. But I tend to think that in gospel music, you get to raise your eyes and focus on the one that has given the singer the gift to sing, and then everything gets a more healthy perspective, and I think he felt something of this very strongly.
What relationship did Elvis have to gospel music?
I think I can say without hesitation that gospel was simply the type of music he liked the most. And I think that if anyone of those who knew him well, and perhaps better than I did, would sit next to me, they would nod and agree and say, 'yes that's the way it was'. And it has been said many times and I myself have experienced it.
In what way did you notice that this was the music that mattered most for Elvis?
It was noticeable in his whole attitude towards it, and with the heart that he suddenly sang with, and the reverence he showed for the music as well.
'He Plays One Of The Most Fantastic Pianos'
Elvis also sang religious material on stage when you were with him, including 'How Great Thou Art' which originally is a Swedish hymn, called 'O Store Gud'. I know you tried to convince Elvis of this, but that he didn't believe it. Would you like to share some thoughts on that?
Yes (laughs). My recollection of it was that I had heard that it was a Swedish song from the beginning. But I myself wasn't 100-percent sure. But I said to him, 'I think this is a Swedish song'. But he just thought I joked with him. He probably thought that just because he liked it so much, I had to say that it was Swedish, he didn't take it seriously. And I got a little unsure and didn't hold my ground, so nothing more was said. Unfortunately, like many Americans, Elvis thought that it was American. But afterwards I have learned more about 'O Store Gud', and know very well that it's Swedish. Although no one really knows where the music comes from, the original lyrics are written by Carl Boberg in the late 1800's.
You were on stage when Elvis performed 'How Great Thou Art'. What did you think of his performance?
I liked it a lot. But the strongest memory I have of it, was one time when I wasn't on stage, and could listen to him perform it, I remember I was very moved by it. He did the song with an incredible feeling. I was just on stage during a particular period, and that was because I was standing in for a guy in the background chorus. That was during a tour in March 1974. And here's something that is worth telling, because I think it's funny to us Swedes. Elvis won three Grammy awards during his career, and not one for a rock song. The first Grammy was for a gospel album called just How Great Thou Art, that he made in the 60s. And then he got a Grammy for He Touched Me, [sic, Grammy was for the Album by the songs title] and that song exists in Swedish as well. 'Han Fann Mig', it's called, and it's a Christan song also. Then he received a Grammy a third time, and that was precisely for how he sang 'How Great Thou Art' at that concert in 1974. And I didn't understand that until many years afterwards. The same day that someone told me, I had hung a picture of 'O Store Gud', a painting on that theme, in my living room, and someone called and told me that Elvis had been awarded a Grammy precisely at that occasion. And I was actually so moved that I cried, it felt very nice, just because I knew what huge feelings he had for these particular songs.
What role did gospel music play during the tours?
There were two kinds of gigs when we were with him, sometimes we stayed put in one place, it would be Lake Tahoe or Las Vegas, and then he sang on the same stage night after night, and sometimes it was a tour. But whatever it was, there was always a piano, I think, in the suite where he stayed, if he had seen to it or however it happened. So this thing, that we gathered and sang gospel music, it applied throughout. It was as much on tour as when we stayed put in one place.
You yourself got to perform a song, 'I Couldn't Live Without You', a few times.
Can you tell something about it?
Yes, I actually played several songs that I'd written for Elvis, and I'll be honest and say that he didn't decide on any of them except one. But it was very nice that he liked that particular song. And I told him that this song, it's no ordinary love-song, but the one this song gives its love to, it's Jesus. It's about Jesus, and he was aware of that. And so it's a special feeling that he asked me to sing it at various times. And it's a fond memory for me.
You have never recorded it?
I still haven't recorded it, and it's been 30 years. But I will record it soon, actually. It feels good. I had not thought it would take so long, but that's how it is.
What impact do you think that Elvis' religious recordings have had on gospel music and for the public?
I have heard many people say that they notice that he sings these songs with a very special feeling. I also believe that Elvis probably has reached many people with these songs that might not normally have listened to them that much.
How religious was Elvis, in your opinion?
It's a very difficult question. And I tend to generally hesitate to say how religious a person is, that I know or have known, whoever it might be. But I can say with certainty that he had faith in God, no doubt, and that these songs corresponded to a very deep longing that he had. But I also believe that he longed for making it even more consumate in some way, and more fully than it was. In some way, he was imprisoned in his own success. It was not easy being Elvis, so to speak.
What is your strongest memory when it comes to Elvis and gospel?
That isn't easy to answer ... I would like to say that it's all the occasions when we were singing privately, in total. It's the finest and the best memory I have from that time, absolutely.
How was it then that you stopped playing for Elvis?
I honestly thought that I had an opportunity to make an album of my own back home in Sweden, but it didn't turn out that way. But it was the biggest reason I moved back then.
How was it to say goodbye to Elvis?
I didn't think then that it was going to be a final goodbye, I didn't know that it was the last time I saw him, I thought we might meet again. So ... But because of various circumstances we never bumped into each other again before he died in 1977. And that felt very, very sad.
Have you stayed in touch with some of the musicians from that era?
A little, I actually have contact with a guy named Tony Brown, among others, who took over my role as a pianist in the warm-up band. Because that was what I was, I was not in Elvis band, that is.
But Tony Brown went on to become Elvis' pianist as well, during the last years. And I know that he also has told some very good memories, I've seen a documentary that is based precisely on this that we're talking about, and in it Tony has told some very nice things about these moments, which went on after I left, when he continued to sing gospel music. I think it's something he did during his entire career, from the beginning there was this love of gospel music, as I understand it.
How often do you think about your time with Elvis?
Quite often, actually, because there are many very nice memories. But there are also things that ... I also saw the downsides that come with such incredible fame. And I remember the one time when he was going to show all his gold records. If you can imagine that you would have, in your own home, a large room with a bunch of gold records that look like a whole museum, what an odd feeling. And it was for him as well, actually. I remember that he said, 'When I enter this room I can't believe it's me who has done all this'. So he expressed some kind of disorientation in front of the phenomenon that was Elvis Presley.
But there stood the man Elvis, who was an ordinary person and couldn't quite grasp what had happened. And there is nobody who can live up to being put on a pedestal, as is often the case with this kind of fame. It gets pretty lonely up there. And it's not so easy to have a normal friendship, to know who would have been your friend, even if you had not been rich and famous. So life isn't so simple. But I thought that those of us that still came pretty close to him, that for us it became like a real friendship, and when we sang together and he was one of the gang who was singing, and all that. Those are very, very fond memories.
Elvis won three Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy for the Recording Arts and Sciences.
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