'Elvis Presley Gospel Singer'
An Inspirational Life
By Madeleine Wilson
Book Review by Nigel Patterson, August 2022
Elvis Presley, Gospel Singer:
An Inspirational Life
by Madeleine Wilson
Shalom Publishing, UK, 2022
Reviewed by Nigel Patterson, August 2022
With added EIN Reader Feedback below
Elvis, “The King”, many times said publicly that there is only one King, and that is Jesus Christ. He not only acknowledged the Lord but also worshipped Him and prayed to Him, often.
It has been said that the formula of a great tragedy is that a fatal flaw prevents tremendous potential from being realized, and the ending is one of ruin not of joy.
In many ways, the life story of Elvis Presley can be seen as one of tragedy…
(from the Introduction)
Madeleine Wilson’s new book, Elvis Presley, Gospel Singer: An Inspirational Life, documents the seminal influence and importance of his Christian faith and gospel music and tradition, in Elvis’ life.
Considering how central gospel music was to Elvis, it is surprising there is not a larger and more robust catalog of books on the subject. Compared to the hundreds of books on Elvis’ life, music, and films, there only around a dozen books focusing on Elvis and gospel music, and a number of these are not solely about the theme. Even fewer consider the binary forces of Elvis’ Christian faith and gospel music, in shaping his story.
As most fans know, during his lifetime, the only (three) Grammy awards Elvis received were for his gospel recordings.
In this context, the release of Madeleine Wilson’s thoroughly researched and thoughtful book is long overdue, and a welcome addition to the Elvis literary canon. The author has a strong Christian faith, and this is reflected in her consideration of her subject, and arguably gives her a greater understanding of how those forces impacted Elvis.
Ms. Wilson’s approach is impressive and makes her book stand out from others. She has written Elvis Presley, Gospel Singer in biographical format, interweaving the role of Elvis’ Christian faith and love of gospel music at each stage and event in his complex, and storied life. It is essentially Elvis’ Christian biography.
As the basis for Elvis Presley, Gospel Singer is to focus on his faith and gospel music as they impacted his life, the author does not dissect Elvis’ studio gospel sessions, but rather, draws attention to particularly important recordings in the context of his life and career (including home recordings, Crying In the Chapel, and the gospel songs he sang in concert).
Ms. Wilson has a strong and easy-going writing style which engages the reader.
Her description of how Elvis’ life evolved is rich in detail and context. For example, her discussion of Elvis growing up in Tupelo resonates with important information about the Bible Belt, raising patriots, the terrible destruction of the tornado that ripped through Mississippi in 1936, and Vernon Presley’s unfortunate incarceration. It details the Presley family’s involvement at church and how the foundation for Elvis’ faith was established.
In a passage reflected slightly differently in the current Elvis biopic from Baz Luhrmann, the author observes that Elvis regularly attended the AoG (Assembly of God) church in Adams Street, East Tupelo, and:
It was here that one Sunday morning, the shy two-year-old Elvis, slipped from his mother’s lap, ran down the aisle and scrambled onto the platform to join the choir.
Elvis’ generosity to others is well documented, and Ms. Wilson comments:
Elvis’ generous habit of giving to others throughout his lifetime is a result of his upbringing and Christian beliefs, following the words of the apostle Paul, “You yourselves know that thee hands of mine have ministered to my own needs and those of my companions. In everything, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus Himself: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20: 34&35)
In the face of success, distractions and temptations, it can be difficult to maintain and practice one’s faith. The author discusses when the dominance of Christian faith started to weaken in Elvis life, it coincided with him becoming a film star in Hollywood. Importantly, Elvis realized the issue, and it weighed heavily on his mind:
He [Elvis] passed a note to one the ushers to give to pastor, Rev. Hamill, to ask him if he could meet him in his office after the service. Elvis was shown to the office and waited for Rev. Hamill, who recalled, “When I walked into my office, Elvis was sitting down, but he quickly got up. He said ‘Pastor I am the most miserable young man you have ever seen. I have got more money than I can ever spend. I have thousands of fans out there and a lot of people who call themselves my friends. But I am miserable. I am not doing a lot of things you taught me, and I am doing the things that you have taught me not to do.’….
Rev. Hamill wanted to help Elvis, so told him he would find the address of a pastor friend of his in Hollywood, to whom he could go in times of trouble. Elvis did receive the address, but never got in touch with the pastor.
While Elvis’ Hollywood years would see him drift apart away from direct involvement with the church, the connection he had with his faith continued to be experienced through his love of gospel music, both at home, and in the recording studio. In this respect, while many biographies downplay Elvis’ film career, at least through the 1960s, Ms Wilson celebrates the gospel music offered in Elvis’ final two narrative films, The Trouble With Girls and Change of Habit.
During what is regarded as Elvis’ concert years (1969-1977), his connection to his faith was apparent in his live performances where songs such as How Great Thou Art, Why Me, Lord?, and the inspiring, An American Trilogy, were mainstays in his song list.
As An American Trilogy suggests, the narrative is not confined to Elvis’ gospel songs. The author notes that a number of Elvis’ non-gospel recordings, like Trilogy, are inspirational. In discussing Always On My Mind, Ms Wilson poignantly comments:
This song had a profound effect on a member of my family. This person is the mother of three children, now all adults. Sometime in late August in 1997, one of her daughters suddenly confided in her mother that as a teenager she had felt very insecure and “not good enough”. That was a surprise for the mother as her daughter had always been very outgoing and vivacious.
Because [the mother] was an Elvis fan, she had recently purchased the recording and a few days later she was led to carefully listen to the words of Always On My Mind again. While she was listening, she shed many tears, mostly of regret, that she hadn’t always treated her daughter “as good as I should have,” that “I didn’t take the time to tell her that I am so happy that she is mine,” or “to hold her in all those lonely, lonely times.” She was “so sorry that I was blind and made her feel second best.”
When reading Elvis Presley, Gospel Singer, we also learn many things that we may not have previously known or had long forgotten. For instance, Elvis’ comments to promoter, Jerry Weintraub, on having to play Madison Square Garden in 1972 may surprise some readers:
“I’m not a New York City kind of artist. You know, they’re not gonna like me in New York City. They like me in Alabama and Georgia and Tennessee, you know, but I don’t want to go to New York City, Jerry. You’re gonna have trouble selling shows in New York City.”
While Elvis may have had doubts, history shows that he was the first music act to “sell out” four consecutive shows at the Garden, playing to a total of 80,000 appreciative fans and producing one of his most exciting “live concert” albums!
Not surprisingly, the chapter around Elvis’ death is full of emotional recollections and moments, including a contribution from Wanda June Hall, who recorded some of her telephone conversations with Elvis, and provides Elvis’ take on his life and death.
The chapters, Life After Death and The Beat Goes On, discuss how Elvis’ gospel music continues to be celebrated worldwide post his death in 1977, from being an integral part of fan club meetings and the European Walk A Golden Mile In My Shoes tribute artist contest, to Gospel events during Elvis Week at Graceland and as part of annual Elvis festivals in countries as far flung as Australia (Parkes Elvis Festival) and Germany (European Elvis Festival).
Reflecting the diverse range of information in the book, there is also information about churches based around Elvis, Elvis’ Induction into the Gospel Hall of Fame, Elvis receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the He Touched Me: The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley DVD, Where No One Stands Alone CD, and also the burning question, “Does God visit shopping malls?”
Many readers will also be interested in the (albeit sometimes brief) coverage of:
- Sam Phillips’ faith;
- the slippery slope of Elvis making so many films in Hollywood;
- was Elvis racist?;
- Elvis and prescription drugs;
- the “Bodyguard” book (Elvis What Happened?);
- academic examinations and conferences around Elvis’ faith and gospel music; and
…………. various other important issues, that populate the book.
The text also includes neat moments of humour:
“He enjoyed sharing the talents of his backing singers with us. In 1972, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps were featured in every show doing Walk That Lonesome Road, a song that J.D. had written, Elvis proudly informed us. But Elvis the practical joker used to throw water over them when Ed Enoch hit a certain high note. He soon learned to wait for that!
Adding gravitas to the author’s informative narrative is the use of quotes by those who knew, were family, and/or worked with Elvis. Those providing quotes about Elvis as a person and his relationship with his faith and gospel music include Priscilla Presley, Dixie Locke, Little Richard, B.B. King, James Brown, J.D. Sumner, Sammy Davis Jr., Terry Blackwood, Joe Moscheo, David Stanley, James Burton, Ronnie Tutt, Jerry Scheff, Patti Perry, Patsy Gambill, and Wanda June Hill.
One striking quotation is from Rev. Jack Hyles, who shared a radio station lift with Elvis in Texas. Rev. Hyles struck up a conversation with Elvis and asked him if he died that evening, did he know for sure that he would go to heaven. Elvis replied that he did know, and when questioned about how he knew, Elvis replied that:
…when he was young, he had gone down to the altar in a small Pentecostal church and had given his heart to Jesus and asked Him to be his personal Saviour.
The author’s Epilogue is titled, Why? It ends with a clever statement comprised of song titles that Elvis may have said to his fans if he was still alive today.
The book closes with five interesting Appendices:
- Living the Good Life
- More About the Christian Faith
- How Radio was, and still is, vital to Elvis’ success
- South & Mid-South Radio Stations
- (a comprehensive) Bibliography
The book is dotted by various montages of photos from throughout Elvis’ life. They are mostly in colour and while the images are quite small, they are diverse, interesting, and relevant to the narrative.
Elvis Presley, Gospel Singer: An Inspirational Life is available in both softcover (ISBN-13: 978-1802272550) and e-Book (ISBN-13: 978-1802272567) formats.
Overall Verdict: As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, Elvis Presley, Gospel Singer – An Inspirational Life, is a long overdue entry in the Elvis literary canon. By interweaving how Elvis’ Christian faith and gospel music influenced his life and career, Madeleine Wilson has written a cogent and wonderful account of what were primary forces in determining who Elvis Presley was, both as a person and an artist.
About the author: Madeleine Wilson lives in the UK. She is President of the Elvis Gospel Fan Club and Founder of Elvis Gospel Ministries. Visit the Elvis Gospel website.
Madeleine previously wrote Prayers of Elvis (Shalom Publishing, 2002, ISBN-13: 978-0954323004).
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Book Review by Nigel Patterson.
-Copyright EIN August 2022
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EIN Reader Feedback
From: Prayerful Warrior Davis: How wonderful to learn of this amazing book! I can’t wait to read it! Thank you for your intriguing review.
I have known of Elvis‘s faith my whole life. My dad‘s younger siblings and cousins attended school with Elvis at Humes High in Memphis, and became close friends with him. We all have Musical, Pentecostal & Mississippi roots. I also got to know some of his family well when I lived in Atlanta, Georgia. They were my neighbors, and very nice Christian people!
My Grandfather pastored a small Pentecostal church in Center Hill, MS, while working and raising his family in Memphis, after selling the family farm down in the MS Delta and moving to Memphis in the early 1950’s.. Elvis worked with him and once told my grandfather that he wanted to use his musical & vocal talents to glorify God, from whom his gifts had come. But first his family needed money, so he was going to make enough from rock n roll to buy his mother a nice home, then do only gospel after that since it didn’t pay well enough (at that time) for him to afford a nice home.
Although Gospel songs were what Elvis loved and preferred to sing, obviously the Hollywood and R&R industry requirements would not allow Elvis Presley to live his dream and show the world who he really was. Amazing to know that his only Grammy awards were for his Gospel songs. That tells you a Lot right there, about what those secular industries think of their very talented performers who also sing & record Gospel and boldly stand up for Christ like Elvis did.
Oh but what an influence on the world, and what an impact he had on both industries! Elvis Presley certainly fulfilled God’s purpose for his earthly life, even though it was made miserable and cut short because of trying to continue to fulfill the harsh demands of the R&R industry. That sent a clear message to the world and, no doubt, has prevented countless young talented lives from being sold out to the unrelenting secular empires. I am sure that Elvis will eternally enjoy God’s rewards!
From: Stephen Hendy: Thanks for this review, it helped me decide to buy the book.
There is always more to learn about Elvis and his spiritual inspirations. While I am a little wary of yet another brother-in-law book Madeleine Wilson has added something new to the Elvis' legacy.
I found that the book is written in a nice style and I love being able to read quotes about Elvis by people that knew him well.
It made me go out and play Elvis' gospel albums all over again. Such good and inspired music.
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