The Gospel According To Elvis

- Spotlight by Nigel Goodall

In celebration of the new BMG release of 'I Believe: Elvis Gospel Masters' acclaimed author and EIN contributor Nigel Goodall explores this least appreciated influence on Elvis’ career.

More than any other musical genre, gospel played a consistently important role in Elvis’ life, from his childhood to his final years on the road.

During the dark years of the 60s, when Elvis' recording career came close to collapsing in a sea of trivia, his spiritual releases acted as a beacon of artistic quality. Yet this side of Elvis' great legacy is too often ignored by the general public.

More than any other musical genre, gospel played a consistently important role in Elvis Presley’s life, from his childhood to his final years on the road. Gospel music brought Elvis his only Grammy awards, and also became his consolation in times of stress or depression. He fused the rhythms, harmonies and texts of scared and inspirational songs with enormous skill and feeling and, and during the dark tears of the 60s, when his recording career came close to collapsing in a sea of trivia, his spiritual releases acted as a beacon of artistic quality.

Elvis' love for gospel music began at an early age, when he attended the First Assembly of God Church in East Tupelo, Mississippi. After the Presley family moved to Memphis in 1948, Elvis made occasional visits to the black East Rigg Baptist Church and also attended gospel quartets at Ellis Auditorium by renowned white groups like the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen.

Though gospel remained closest to his heart, it was rock 'n' roll which brought Elvis to stardom. But he never denied his roots, and as early as 1957, on his third appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, he performed Peace In the Valley alongside his latest rock hits - neatly defusing the accusations that he was a threat to the morals of America's youth. When Elvis concluded his moving performance, Ed Sullivan told the audience that he was "a real decent, fine boy", and added "we've never had a pleasanter experience on our show with a big name than we've had with you, you're thoroughly alright". (This performance is documented on the 1984 box set, ‘A Golden Celebration’).

A week later, Elvis recorded Peace In The Valley at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, at the same session which produced All Shook Up. With the Jordanaires, he effectively had his own gospel quartet, and led then through four songs which made up his first religious release and the best-selling gospel EP of all time, ‘Peace In The Valley’. 

That song had earlier been captured on tape during the so-called ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ session held in Sun Studios, Memphis on 4th December 1956. Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry lee Lewis taped approximately forty songs that afternoon, many of them gospel. For the impromptu Peace In The Valley, Elvis sang lead with vocal support from Jerry Lee. You can hear the track, albeit not a serious studio recording, on the recently upgraded BMG release of this session, which was initially released first on Charly and then afterwards on RCA. 

The four spiritual songs from the EP session were also included on ‘Elvis' Christmas Album’ at the end of 1957 - a surprisingly controversial release that was banned by many US radio stations, who felt Elvis wasn't treating sacred hymns with sufficient respect, but which still achieved double-platinum status.

Elvis didn’t record any more spiritual music until after his return from the army in 1960. During an all-night session on October 30th/31st at RCA’s Nashville’s studio B, Elvis and the Jordanaires covered a range of gospel styles that included the traditional spirituals, Joshua Fit The Battle and Swing Down Sweet Chariot, the white gospel quartet showcase I Believe In The Man In The Sky (in an almost identical arrangement to the one used by the Statesmen), and an original gospel composition, I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs, written by Cully Holt, a member of the original Jordanaires. With another seven tunes, these songs made up Elvis’s first gospel album, ‘His Hand In Mine’ released in August 1961.

Five months earlier, Elvis had performed one of the LP’s songs, Swing Down Sweet Chariot, at his benefit show for the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii – as documented on the ‘Elvis Aron Presley’ box set. Meanwhile, another song from the 1960 session, Crying In The Chapel, wasn’t included on the ‘His Hand In Mine’ album. In fact, it was held back by RCA until 1965, when it became his first No.1 single since the arrival of the Beatles.

He returned to Studio B in Nashville in May 1966 to record another gospel LP, ‘How Great Thou Art’, which won a Grammy award in the Best Sacred Performance category and was also nominated for Best Engineered Album, thanks to the efforts of James Malloy. The gospel arrangements on the album owed much to the Statesmen and the Blackwoods – not only on traditional numbers like Run On, So High, Where Could I Go But To The Lord and the black gospel standard Stand By Me, but also on a duet with Jake Hess on the Statesmen classic, If The Lord Wasn’t Walking By My Side.  

Hess had long been Elvis’ favourite vocalist, and he’d recently assembled a new combo, the Imperials, whose involvement helped to restore Elvis’s enthusiasm in recording after years of lacklustre movie material. "He had been making movie after movie". Producer Felton Jarvis recalled. "It’s hard to have to sing to a chicken. Elvis was tired of it".

Elvis’s original idea for the ‘How Great Thou Art’ album had been that it should be mixed and balanced to capture the way it would have sounded in church. But the result was that it was difficult to distinguish Elvis’s voice from the Jordanaires and the Imperials, so the mix on the final LP was changed without his permission to bring him to the fore.

RCA prepared a special version of the ‘How Great Thou Art’ LP designed for Palm Sunday Programming, which is now worth £400.


(Right; Rare Air-Play special Promo)

Although Elvis didn’t undertake another major set of gospel recordings until 1971, he did cut the occasional spiritual song in the late 60’s. We Call On Him and You’ll Never Walk Alone were taped at the same 1967 sessions in Nashville which produced the hit single Guitar Man. They were coupled on a single in 1968, and also included on the UK budget LP, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in 1971.

That album also sampled tracks from the 1957 gospel sessions, plus a couple of soundtrack songs that had a spiritual flavour. Sing You Children, from the 1966 movie ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, had been recorded in Paramount, with the Mello Men taking the place of the Jordanaires. For Let Us Pray from the 1969 film ‘Change Of Habit’, the Blossoms were the vocal group – as they had been in 1968 when Elvis recorded a medley of Where Could I Go But To The Lord, Up Above My Head and Saved for his NBC TV Special (heard on the soundtrack LP).

(Go here for review of the 2008 40th Anniversary box-set.)

A new version of Swing Down Sweet Chariot was cut the same year at 'The Trouble With Girls' session, again, with the Mello Men, but remained unreleased until 1983, when it appeared on volume four of the ‘Legendary Performer’ series.

Then in 1969, Who Am I became the final track laid down at his highly productive Memphis sessions. The song received the same lush, pop production as the rest of the songs he cut at American Sound in Memphis; it wasn’t released until the posthumous ‘He Walks Beside Me’ LP in 1978.

Elvis’s last gospel session was held at RCA Studio B in Nashville between 15th and 21st May 1971, when he recorded 31 songs – a mixture of Christmas and sacred material. The latter appeared on the LP ‘He Touched Me’, a collection of contemporary spiritual songs which featured some exceptional close harmony work by Elvis and the Imperials. The album earned Elvis his second Grammy award in the renamed Best Inspirational Performance category.

Several songs from the album, like Lead Me Guide Me, Bosom of Abraham and I John were included in the ‘Elvis On Tour’ movie, as Elvis rehearsed them backstage with J.D Sumner and the Stamps.

He regularly included How Great Thou Art in his concerts, and won a third Grammy for the live recording made in 1974 at the Midsouth Coliseum, heard on the album ‘Elvis As Recorded Live On Stage in Memphis’. The LP also included a version of Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me Lord which had been a feature of Presley concerts since 1972.

Although these were the only two gospel songs with a constant place in his live repertoire, Elvis did occasionally feature others: I John had been performed in Vegas as early as 1969; Crying In The Chapel was performed during his December 1975 Vegas season in a medley with (bizarrely) Rip It Up; and he sang Where No One Stands Alone at Johnson City during his early 1977 tour. God Calls Me Home and You Better Run also received occasional live outings.

Those songs were never recorded, but there were more version of Why Me Lord and How Great Thou Art taped at concerts in Dallas and Jackson during the 1975 tour (on the ‘Elvis Aron Presley’ box set) and the astonishingly powerful How Great Thou Art from his final concert tour, recorded in Omaha in June 1977 for the CBS-TV special ‘Elvis In Concert’.

That tour proved to be Elvis’s last, and he never had the chance to work on another gospel album after 1971. But he still left behind a fine legacy of spiritual music – plus the memory, in the mind of those who worked with him, of the countless impromptu gospel renditions he gave backstage or during rehearsals. Singing this music, whether it was with the Jordanaires, the Imperials, JD Sumner and the Stamps or the female trio, the Sweet Inspirations, have him the chance to shed off his everyday superstar identity, and lose himself in the purity of quartet singing. When we hear Elvis sing gospel, we can hear music that not only brought out the best of his unique voice, bit carried a spiritual message that was always close to his heart.

spiritual songs from the soul...

Spotlight by Nigel Goodall.
-Copyright EIN March 2009. Do Not reprint or republish without permission.

The original version of this article appeared in the Record Collector: December 1994

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Go here for more relevant EIN reviews and articles:

EIN review of the 2009 'Gospel Masters' Box-set

EIN review of the Complete Comeback Special 2008 box-set.

In depth review of FTD 'His Hand In Mine'

EIN exclusive interview with Jordanaire Ray Walker

EIN spotlight on Gordon Stoker of The Jordanaires

Review of FTD 'Easter Special'

Click here for a fascinating interview with Ernst Jorgensen about this 'Easter Special' FTD

Review of BMG 'Million Dollar Quartet'

Book review the Gospel Side Of Elvis














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