Elvis Presley once said,
“All I knew was gospel music. It became such a part of my life, it was as natural as dancing. A way to escape my problems, and my way of release.”
It was indeed the King of Rock and Roll’s first dream to become a professional gospel singer. Such aspiration can be traced back to his childhood and despite being too naïve, Presley had remained true to it. That’s in spite of the tremendous fame and success his career had reached in off-secular music, particularly in rock and roll.
In honor of Presley’s 41st death anniversary today, we bring you some interesting reads to make you miss and love him even more. In this article, we’ll try to put aside talking about his signature sounds to focus more on his first love – gospel music. It isn’t a fresh topic to read about but it’s sure worth your time. And if you’ll continue reading until the end, you’ll find something ‘steamy’ about him, a sort of additional trivia.
Several sections of this post made reference to an interview with Darlene Love, Presley’s former backstage singer, and The Blossoms’ lead voice. The interview was conducted by Michael Musto and was shared on Presley’s Official Fan Club site named Elvis Australia.
Going back to our main topic, Presley began showing a profound interest in songs for and about God at a very young age. Thanks to his parents who became his primary and greatest influence for his love of gospel music. Without them, perhaps Presley might have otherwise become the person we all know today. And certainly, we won’t be talking something about him on his death anniversary.
His Family, His Inspiration
Elvis Presley was born to parents Vernon and Gladys who hailed from Tupelo, Mississippi. The Presleys had a simple life. Living in just about four hundred square feet size house, their situations mostly could have been poorer. Regardless of their economic conditions, Elvis’ life had been prosperous in terms of the love and support he received from his family.
Vernon was the most supportive type of a father he could ever have. He never left his son’s side and had been Elvis’ No. 1 supporter in pursuing his dreams. He worked hard and never failed in providing assistance for his son. Even when Elvis had some financial lapses in later years, Vernon was there to aid him.
Despite such, Elvis developed a deeper and more lasting bond with her mom. Apparently, this attachment began in his childhood. She’s been there watching him grow up. They go to school and come home together every day. Such routine continued up to his teenage years. Her commitment and faithfulness are two important characteristics of his mom he would always remember. Hence, Elvis would normally run to his mother in times when he’s in search of guidance and enlightenment.
Music Runs in the Family
Known to many of their neighbors in Tupelo, the Presleys are a family of musically-inclined people. During his earlier years, Elvis received his first-ever present which was a guitar. In the evening, the residents in their small town would see him playing his guitar and singing in front of their tiny house. There were also times when his relatives would come and join him in singing just to pass the time. Yes, singing was just a pastime for young Elvis back then. Little did his neighbors who oftentimes hear his voice know he would become a famous performer in America’s music industry.
Baptized as members of the First Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, the three Presleys are devout followers. They were regular church-goers and it was through this spiritual practice where Elvis developed his love of gospel music. His mother, Gladys, would normally tell the enthusiasm of Elvis in dealing with gospel songs even as a toddler. He would wriggle out of his mom’s lap and run toward the choir’s area. He stood in front of them and would sincerely listen and even imitate what they’re doing.
In an interview with Darlene Love, the singer attested to Elvis’ mother being his greatest influence in gospel music. Gladys herself loved gospel music and she was able to pass on such passion to her son. Love gladly stated,
“I found out years later, when we were doing the comeback special, that his mother’s favorite music was gospel. He would always sing gospel around her.”
His First Life’s Dream
When Elvis was around eight or ten years old, he and his parents attended a gospel singing program of a real quartet on a hot summer night in Tupelo. He has heard them sing on the radio and he’ll be watching them sing live for the first time. He’s probably the most excited person among all the attendees to the event. But being the squirmish kid that he is, Elvis is imagined getting restless and could hardly wait for the show to begin.
When the preacher finally led the crowd in a few songs to warm the stage up, Elvis and his family couldn’t help but join and sing at the top of their lungs. When the show formally started, and the performers have been introduced, Elvis was all eyes on them. He seemed to want to capture every detail of their looks, styles, and movements. As soon as the piano player began a lively intro, Elvis instantly recognized what the tune was – “Jesus, Hold My Hand.” As the quartet is all smiles to the crowd while performing, Elvis felt like he was the only audience to the show. He felt the sincerity in every word of the song as if they’re being sung only for him.
After the show, the young Elvis fell into a deep thought. First, he regarded those performers as his heroes. He then pictured himself being the one standing on stage in front of a crowd. Wearing a crisp, tailored suit, he would be singing songs familiar to the audience much to their pleasure and enjoyment. In his young mind, Elvis had thought of becoming a professional gospel singer. Young as he was, he may not have fully realized the truth in those thoughts back then. But, that first dream of his life had never left him completely. He remained true to it until the time he departed from this world 41 years ago.
His Gospel Music
At this point, it has become very clear to us that Elvis Presley’s first love was gospel music. And if only the said genre had offered him a lucrative source of income, it’s certain that he’d chose to be in that sphere. After all, that’s his first life dream. He might have become the King of Gospel Music instead of rock and roll as well.
“I think if he could have had a big career in gospel music, that’s where he would have been,” Love confirms.
At the height of his fame and throughout his career, Presley would always come back to singing gospel songs. Even during his concerts, he would sing a couple of sacred tunes at the beginning to warm up. He never failed to incorporate in his shows those performance techniques he learned from the church and from a number of gospel quartets he admired. Certainly, the audience has equally come to love all of his styles. Terry Blackwood of The Imperials, one of Presley’s favorite gospel quartets, emphasized how much his love of the gospel has influenced Presley in everything he did.
It’s interesting to note that a significant portion of Presley’s success came from gospel music. In particular, the King of Rock of Roll’s three Grammy wins were all for his gospel recordings. Two of which were associated with two of his gospel albums and the other for his live rendition of the classic “How Great Thou Art.” Charles Hughes who heads the Memphis Center at Rhodes College said,
“Gospel was one of the most important elements in his musical identity.”
Apart from performing and recording gospel tunes, Presley made another salient contribution to American musical history. That’s his overt demonstration of how sacred and secular music could borrow from each other. Seemingly, this has become more prevalent nowadays. Following his death in August 1977, Presley was inducted into the Gospel Music Association hall of fame.
His Hand in Mine (1960)
Presley had always wanted to record a full album of gospel music. It was at the onset of the ‘60s decade when this desire has finally materialized. On November 10, 1960, he released his first-ever gospel album called His Hand in Mine. This was his fifth studio album overall and was issued under the RCA Records. Consisting of 12 tracks, the album’s recording took place in a fourteen-hour recording session.
A track from the album, “Surrender” became his first single in 1961 and went on to top the chart. Another charting hit from the album was the song “Crying in the Chapel” peaking at No. 3. This song though has been reissued as a single only in April 1965. Moreover, his adaptation of “In My Father’s House” was also included on the album. His Hand in Mine entered the Top 20 of the Top Albums chart peaking at No. 13. On April 1969, it received gold certification from RIAA and eventually becoming a platinum record in 1992.
How Great Thou Art (1967)
Presley’s second gospel album How Great Thou Art seven years after his maiden sacred record. Just like His Hand in Mine, this album was also a Top 20 occupying the 18th spot. It was this album that gave Presley his first Grammy win. Specifically, he brought home the Best Sacred Performance title for this album. How Great Thou Art also consisted of twelve tracks with the inclusion of “Crying in the Chapel” which was originally recorded on his first sacred album. A year after the album’s release, it became gold certified. As of October 2010, How Great Thou Art has reached a triple platinum status. Watch Presley’s live performance of “How Great Thou Art” below.
He Touched Me (1972)
Another Grammy Award-winning album for Presley was his 1972 record He Touched Me. Comprised of twelve tracks, the album was the third and final gospel studio record of Presley. Among his three sacred albums, He Touched Me was considered as the most contemporary. It first reached a gold certification in 1992 and then a platinum one seven years later.
Had Presley not died 41 years ago, he’s definitely recorded and released more gospel albums. But even after his untimely demise, several compilations of his sacred recordings continue to appear and find a place in the music shelves.
Amazing Grace: His Greatest Sacred Performances (1994)
Included on this two-disc compilation of Presley’s gospel songs are the recordings from his three studio gospel albums. Disc one covers the songs from the first two albums and additional five unreleased singles. On the other hand, disc two consisted the whole of the third album and another five previously not released selections. Some of these became sides of certain singles including “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Only Believe,” and “Help Me.” Also added to the album were two concert recordings, namely “How Great Thou Art” and “Why Me Lord.” In 1999, the album achieved a double platinum status from RIAA.
Peace in the Valley: The Complete Gospel Recordings (2000)
In 2000, this gold certified triple CD compilation of Presley came out. At the beginning of 2001, it was a Top 15 on Contemporary Christian Album chart reaching No. 13. That was Presley’s highest entry on the chart, thus far. All in all, the album contained 89 tracks which attempted to surpass the 1994 double-disc collection.
Where No One Stands Alone (2018)
Last August 10, Presley’s latest compilation of gospel songs came out. The groundbreaking album consists of 14 original recordings of gospel tunes. It features newly-recorded instrumentation plus backing vocals from legendary singers who either performed with Presley on stage or in the studio. These music legends include The Stamps, The Imperials, Crissy Houston, and Darlene Love. Also featured on the album’s title track was a duet of Presley and his only daughter, Lisa Marie.
In her notes for the album, Lisa Marie expresses her gratitude for the chance of performing with his father. She wrote,
“It was a very powerful and moving experience to sing with my father. The lyrics speak to me and touch my soul. I’m certain that the lyrics spoke to my father in much the same way.”
The album was created to commemorate Presley’s enduring love of gospel music. Listen to their reimagined duet of “Where No One Stands” below.
Additional Trivia: The Flirty Side of Elvis
As mentioned earlier, one of Presley’s backup singers and famed actress, Darlene Love of The Blossoms, appeared for an interview to further discuss her participation in Presley’s latest album. But aside from giving highlights to his overt love of Christian music, Love also dished out some juicy details on their flirty relationship.
Love and Presley performed together in “Let Us Pray” which was featured on his last film Change of Habit in 1969. Prior to that, the two had worked together in the earlier movie ’68 Comeback Special. Love disclosed that her participation in their earlier movie has been due to Presley’s insisting. He specifically wanted The Blossoms to perform in the show’s music section. For that reason, Love and Presley had spent an ample time together. Being the man who enjoys the company of glamorous women that he was, Presley’s relationship with Love during their stint can hardly be thought of as purely professional. So, when Lovely was asked if there was any sexual tension that existed between them, she was quick to admit, “There was.” But she’s also fast in clarifying that she wanted to keep it professional. Yet, his flirting side was something she can’t totally deny.
“Something about dating someone you’re working for, it takes away from that. ‘I know he’s never gonna look at me the same after this’. [Laughs] He’d start playing with me. He’d tap you on the shoulder or do a hip shake, and [I] and Elvis knew what that meant.”
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