Today marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. In the film “Elvis” and his exceptional performance by Austin Butler, Australian director Baz Luhrmann makes a slight reference to Elvis’ Christian origins, the impact of black music on his career and his deep and abiding love for gospel music.
On the first of these, Baz is virtually silent except for a fleeting reference to a young Elvis “in the spirit” in a black church. However, it makes up for that with great clips of Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and a dazzling performance of Tutti Frutti by a young Little Richards. In the same scene, he references Sister Rosetta Tharpe, BB King, and Mahalia Jackson, indicating the influence of black musicians on Elvis’ music.
In the 1940s, Beale Street was a thriving neighborhood of black commerce, culture, music, and storefront churches. The street was home to many black-owned businesses, clubs, and restaurants, and was the creative hub for new music that would eventually sweep America. This is where we find our young white boy from Tupelo, soaking up the music of Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, BB King and all the other black performers who played the streets regularly. They too, like him, will one day become icons of American pop culture.
Elvis’ dream was always to be part of a gospel quartet, which is hardly surprising as he came from a deeply religious Pentecostal background. Raised in the Assembly of God church, Christian music, including gospel, was always at home. It was an essential part of Elvis’ life, and he often accompanied his parents to the Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis where he heard his mother’s favorite band, The Blackwood Brothers.
In the neighborhood where he lived, he also often sneaked into black churches with friends, experiencing their music and spontaneous worship.
After graduating in 1953, Elvis held several jobs, including one as a truck driver, before getting his big break. In 1954, he made his first recording, “That’s All Right”, and a year later signed for RCA under a deal struck by Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, and performed brilliantly in Tom’s film Hanks. In 1955, Elvis had his first No. 1 hit, “Heartbreak Hotel”, his first No. 1 album, and a year later signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, starring in 33 films.
Despite his hugely successful music and film career, major hits, 18 No. 1 singles, and countless gold and platinum albums, Elvis never received a Grammy Award for any of these. What may be surprising is that the three Grammys he won were for his gospel music. The first of these, “His Hand in Mine”, was released in 1960; the second, “How Great Thou Art”, and his third, “He Touched Me”, which included songs by Andrae Crouch and Bill Gaither, two emerging gospel writers at the time.
The Jordanaires were the first white quartet to sing spirituals, and Elvis’ music was also influenced by this. The group became his backup singers, and he included them in his biggest hits, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock”, even insisting that they be named on his albums, which was unusual for musicians. , producers or engineers at the time.
For an uninterrupted 14 years, the Jordanaires have supported Elvis on his recordings and live performances, keeping a promise he made to them in 1955 when he first heard them sing “Peace in the Valley”, a Tomas Dorsey classic that Elvis would do. just recorded himself.
Gospel music has always been a part of Elvis Presley’s life, and he took the gospel sound with him wherever he went. He always included a couple of gospel songs in his performances, and when the hip spin was over and the fans had gone home, he was often found with the Jordanaires singing gospel songs from his hotel room to the wee hours of the morning.
“I Believe” was one of the first religious songs the Jordanaires recorded with Elvis, and it had sales of over 400,000 singles. Later he added eight more songs to this and released it as his first Christmas album.
In 1960, after returning from military service in Germany, Elvis recorded his second gospel album, His Hand In Mine, which contained 13 of his favorite gospel songs. The album reached No. 13 on the album chart, a more than respectable position, with over a million sales.
“Crying In the Chapel” was another worldwide hit from Elvis, and the single sold over 1.5 million copies in the United States and reached number one on the UK charts.
By the late 1960s the world of music had changed and new music ushered in by artists like the Beatles, Mersey Sound and Tamla Motown had ushered in a new era. Sales of Elvis records fell sharply.
In this same period, he released “How Great Thou Art”, a song suggested to him by Ray Walker of the Jordanaires and made famous by George Beverly Shea, who sang it on Billy Graham’s Crusades. The album reached number 18 on the album chart, sold over three million copies in the United States, and became one of Elvis’ best-selling albums.
Following the success of “How Great Thou Art”, in 1972 Elvis released what became his final gospel album – He Touched Me, with the title track written by Bill Gaither. It was the most contemporary of the gospel albums he made, won him a Grammy, and reached sales of over a million copies.
Elvis was a troubled soul who had his demons, but he always turned to gospel music for peace, comfort and consolation. He was always at his best and at ease singing gospel music, the music he knew as a child, the music that shaped his life, and the music he loved.
“It was to gospel music that he turned for inspiration and solace,” said Frank Breeden, president of the Gospel Music Association. “He was a person who seemed to be conflicted; he wasn’t doing what he loved in life…he had a career that just took him captive.”
On August 16, 1977, Elvis died at the age of 42. Yet despite all the millions in sales and the Grammy Awards, what he left behind is his love of gospel music, hymns and inspirational songs. In 2001, he was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Association Hall of Fame, in recognition of his faith and contribution to the music that was his first love.
Roy Francis is an award-winning former producer of BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’ and the author of “Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain”.