Elvis lived to rock, but loved gospel


If the King of Rock-and-Roll is known for anything, it might be the gyrating hips, the troubling addictions, the kitsch of Graceland.

But the Elvis Presley remembered by Joe Moscheo, a gospel singer who sang backup vocals for Presley as a member of the Imperials, was a deeply spiritual man who would leave screaming fans, retreat to his hotel suite and croon old hymns until dawn.

"When he left the building," Moscheo writes in his forthcoming book, The Gospel Side of Elvis,"most nights, Elvis wanted nothing more than to go somewhere with a few friends and a piano, a place they could gather to sing and listen to the gospel music that nourished the heart and soul of this American musical and cultural icon."

Thirty years after his death, Presley is better known for his spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than his place in the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame.

But his gospel side is a rich one. Some of his first recorded songs were "Softly and Tenderly (Jesus Is Calling)." He won two Grammys for his gospel albums, "How Great Thou Art" and "He Touched Me," and according to John Styll, president of GMA, there is the simple "fact that he loved gospel music."

A Hackensack record store owner said Elvis' gospel records are enjoying a revival.

"I just sold [a CD] on eBay and I had a ton of bids," said Craig Stepneski of Hackensack Record King. "They're the easiest thing to sell because everyone has all his regular stuff. At this point, people are looking for something fresh, something different."

Presley, who was raised in a soul-filled Assembly of God church in East Tupelo, Miss., eventually had to abandon regular church attendance as his popularity skyrocketed. After he nearly started a fan frenzy one Easter at First Assembly of God in Memphis, he decided to limit his spiritual diet to gospel music recordings and Sunday sermons from his favorite TV preacher, Rex Humbard.

That's why, Moscheo speculates, Presley's after-hours gospel singing and his well-worn gospel records gained greater significance for Presley as personal time with God.

An Elvis aficionado in New Jersey said Presley's gospel recordings are particularly powerful, laced with his yearning for redemption.

"When he sings it, he puts all his heart and soul in it, and he can't help but get through to you," said Roberta Gooley, president of Memories of Elvis -- New Jersey. "It touches your heart."

Gooley, a Hunterdon County resident, is a member of the Reformed Church and is familiar with many Protestant hymns that Elvis covers on his records. But she said Elvis' renditions always come off as intensely personal. "I feel it's almost a different translation," she said. "It's like God is sending a message."

As Presley's career progressed, though, he began experimenting with numerology and astrology, drifting away from the orthodoxy proclaimed in his favorite hymns.

But Moscheo maintains that Presley never departed from his Christian roots.

"I feel like it was mostly curiosity," Moscheo said of Presley's involvement in alternative spirituality. "He didn't ever give up the notion that he was a Christian. ... He knew his roots and what his mother had taught him."

Nevertheless, Presley took a downward turn in the mid-1970s. After years in the spotlight as America's favorite performer, a painful divorce, weight gain and dependence on prescription drugs unraveled Presley's personal life.

Moscheo recalled the night in 1975 when he visited his friend's hotel room. He brought a copy of the Living Bible, an easy-to-read translation of the Scriptures.

"I told him, 'I know you're having trouble. It's obvious,' " Moscheo said. " 'You don't need to keep looking around. All your questions are answered here, in simple language.' "

Presley appeared appreciative of the gift. But not long afterward, on Aug. 16, 1977, he was found lifeless in a bathroom at his beloved Graceland, dead at age 42.

A Hackensack priest and Presley fan said the singer's tragic fall doesn't detract from his spirituality.

"Elvis, like so many of us, was a weak human being," said the Rev. Gerard Graziano of Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church. "But God often chooses the weak to confound the strong.

"And through Elvis' music, especially his Christian music, he brought many people to God."

For Moscheo, his friend will always be "the greatest gospel singer that ever lived." And it's not just because he connected with fans like no other performer could. It's also because the words, the inflection, the timing of his songs showed he connected with a higher power.

"When you're praising God through a song, it comes through at the right time, with the right phrasing," Moscheo said. "When it's time for a word to be important, it comes out."

Read EIN's review of The Gospel Side of Elvis

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