Calling all history buffs: Elvis and sg

Is it verifiable, documentable and documented truth that southern gospel was Elvis’s favorite music and/or that he REALLY wanted to grow up and be a gospe quartet man but couldn’t sing harmony (well enough)? Or this is all old lore that just collects and perpetuates itself among sg types? I really would prefer/do need chapter and verse citations from historians or other published sources (since my move, I can’t find the box in which Goff’s Close Harmony is packed away). Just post to the comments so everyone can have the benefit of (y)our shared knowledge. And thanks … in advance.

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  1. Tom Brynan wrote:

    Check out this web site.

  2. NG wrote:

    Best starting point for the early days of Elvis is “Last Train to Memphis” the first part of a two-book biography of Elvis by Peter Guralnick who did his research. On Page 77, there is the story of Elvis trying to join the Songfellows a group with Cecil Blackwood. He told his girlfriend of the time that he didn’t get the position because the guy they thought was going to leave decided to stay. Elvis apparently didn’t believe that reason as he told his dad: “They told me I couldn’t sing.” (Elaine Dundy, “Elvis and Gladys” Pages 175-176.) Jim Hamill (later a Kingsman and son of Elvis’ pastor) said: “Elvis, why don’t you give it up?” (Hamill quoted by his dad in “Early Elvis”).
    I’ve seen similar stories elsewhere but don’t have the books or magazines handy.

  3. Sheldon wrote:

    pg 313-314 of “The Music Men” by Bob Terrell has the story of Elvis applying for a job with the Sonfellows who were managed by Cecil Blackwood and Jim Hamill. According to Jim Hamill they turned Elvis down because he “couldn’t sing harmony” and when he learned to sing harmony he had a contract with Sun records and wasn’t interested in singing in a Quartet anymore.

  4. RK wrote:

    One must use caution when studying “Elvis-ology”, because for any flashpoint event in his life, you can usually find at least three different eyewitness accounts–often varying widely–from people who were close to Elvis.

    In the biography “Elvis”, written by Albert Goldman and published in 1981, an entire chapter (#6) entitled “Quartette” (sp) is included. It details Elvis’s fascination with what is now called Southern Gospel and his relationships with notorious singers as a young man.

    Goldman’s book makes no mention of direct rejection by a gospel group. Here’s what is says:

    (Page 94) “[Elvis] wanted to be a professional gospel singer. What’s more, he almost reached this goal. Having befriended at church the son of the minister, Jimmy Hamill, and developed a good relationship with his Sunday school classmate, Cecil Blackwood, Elvis was hovering around a newly formed gospel quartet called the Songfellows. At first, he was just a hanger-on, a guy who would go along for the ride whenever the group got a gig. Then, one night when they were all in the car, one of the boys starting praising Elvis…From that time forth, Elvis was often invited to sing with the group.”

    (Page 99) “Not two weeks after the [Blackwood Brothers airplane] crash, Cecil [Blackwood] turned up one day at Elvis’s house with important news. He announced that he was leaving the Songfellows for the Blackwoods. Now there would be an opening in the junior group [The Songfellows]. Elvis could have his long-sought chance to become a professional gospel singer.

    “Elvis listened to Cecil with obvious astonishment. Then his expression changed to one of chagrin. “I can’t do it!” he snapped. “Why not?” demanded Cecil. Elvis paused for a moment. Then looking Cecil hard in the eye, expecting perhaps a rebuke, he repeated, “I can’t do it.” This time he added the surprising explanation, “I done signed a contract to sing the blues.”

    Acknowledgments indicate that Goldman did obtain this account from an interview he conducted with Cecil Blackwood while researching the book.

  5. smells wrote:

    This is bizarre that you have this topic up today, you must have watched the Oprah show yesterday like I did about her visit to graceland. After that show, I had this question wandering through my head. If Elvis were still alive today, do you think he would have gone back to his roots, and if so what impact would that have on sg today?

  6. NG wrote:

    Albert Goldman’s book was put down by many critics. Goldman appeared to hate Elvis and his Southern culture and attacked all aspects of it. I did read it and as noted he interviewed Cecil Blackwood. It’s is generally conceded that Guralnick’s two-book biograpahy is the best available. That doesn’t mean his verison of the Songfellows story is the most accurate. As we know people remember things differently. In an article by Charles Wolfe, he says JD Sumner told him that after Elvis started singing rock at Sun Records he was approached by a “major” gospel group to join them and couldn’t decide what to do. His father told him to stay with the rock. I haven’t seen this story elsewher and have no idea if it happened. (From “Images and Fancies, edited by Jac Tharpe. University Press of Mississippi.)

  7. Dean Conklin wrote:

    In the fall of 1954 at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo., where Hamill was a student for a semester or less, Hamill was telling acquaintences that Elvis had wanted to sing with his quartet, but that he was rejected because he couldn’t sing well enough to be part of the quartet. Dave Kyllonen (later Couriers bass) and I were there at the time.

  8. RK wrote:

    Indeed, the Goldman book has been criticized by many because: a) he develops a very condescending attitude toward Elvis and the culture surrounding him; and, b) many Presley loyalist were unwilling to embrace the not-so-positive aspects of his life at the time the book was release (circa 1981). However, most of the facts contained within it have stood the test of time.

    To answer your original question (was southern gospel Elvis’s favorite music?), my review of most of the definitive biographical works–Guralnick, Alannah Nash, Goldman, etc.–reveals no certain answer.

    It cannot be disputed that Elvis embraced, appreciated, and sang southern gospel from late teenage years in the early 50’s until his death in 1977. His earliest influences as a child were church hymns and the blues that were performed by black artists in his native Tupelo.

    As a teenager, he gravitated to both southern gospel and black rhythm and blues at the same time. He seemed to identify more closely with gospel because the gospel “stars” of the time–the Blackwoods, JD, etc.–were more accessible to him and he could more closely relate to them.

    If Elvis were alive today, I doubt he would have ever returned to southern gospel in any permanent fashion. His taste for an extravagent lifestyle and giving lavish gifts would have kept him in secular music (at least primarily) because of the income it can provide.

  9. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Isn’t it obvious from the behind the scenes videos that have been made available that Elvis loved Southern Gospel? Also, he almost always had a male quartet from the gospel world to back him on his recordings and in concert, and used groups like the Stamps to sing gospel music as part of his programs, AND had Southern Gospel prominently featured at his funeral.

    The stories like him trying out for the Songfellows and being rejected are sure to get stretched a bit as time goes by. However, it’s safe to say SG was high on his list, based on everything about Elvis/SG that we know to be true.

  10. Kyle wrote:

    I actually talked at length once with Richard Sterban, bass singer for The Oak Ridge Boys, about his experience with Elvis. Richard, before joining the Oaks, was the “second bass” singer for the Stamps with JD Sumner, and he spent two years touring with Elvis. He told me that many nights, after a show, Elvis would still be pumped, and would retreat to a hotel room or dressing room with the group and just jam all night. In Richard’s words, Elvis “liked to TRY to sing bass,” referring to how Elvis always loved bass singers, and would often imitate them.

  11. Thom wrote:

    Does anyone remember the double album that JD and the Stamps put out right after Elvis died -title was something about a ‘tribute to elvis”? There is a LONG monologue on there where JD says over and over again “Elvis Wuz not on drugs, Elvis wuz not on drugs.” Interesting.

  12. Trevor Haley wrote:

    There’s a CD available called “Peace In the Valley - His Greatest Sacred Performances”. The liner notes contain a lot of information on Elvis’ Gospel influences, as well as some quotes from Jim Hamill on Elvis’ audition for the Songfellows quartet. Hamill cites Elvis’ inability to sign harmony at the time as the reason Elvis did not make the cut.

    Also included on that CD are some fascinating rehearsal cuts, where Elvis jams with JD Sumner, various members of his backup band and the Stamps Quartet. They run through several Gospel quartet classics, and you can hear Elvis attempt to challenge JD on the bass parts.

    Elvis was also in attendance several times at the National Quartet Convention in the early 70’s, and many pictures have been published.

  13. Dean Adkins wrote:

    “I first met Elvis when he was very young and identified with gospel quartet singing…Elvis attended many of our concerts. I met him befoe he became a superstar because he followed gospel music closely. Even after he became a star he used to attend many of our concerts when his schedule and anonymity would allow. This is the point where we became close friends.
    Elvis used to enjoy hearing the Statesmen because he felt Jake Hess and the Big Chief were the epitome of gospel entertainers.”
    Hovie Lister from the introduction of “Where is Elvis” by Ed Hill.

  14. Trent wrote:

    Nick Bruno has stated that part of his job in working with the Stamps in Vegas in the late ’60s was to play piano for those late-night gospel jam sessions. If Elvis was in the mood for it, they would sing and play gospel music all night long.

  15. Ian wrote:

    See the following for Cecil Blackwood quotes on the subject:

  16. Alan Berry wrote:

    I have been acquainted with Bill Baize - former tenot for the Stamps. Bill has stayed in my home on many occasions. He told me that he heard Elvis tell about being rejected by a quartet. The reason was he could not sing harmony. Bill said Elvis never did learn to hear harmony very well. he could memorize a part but he could not improvise when singing harmony.

  17. Bob Jones wrote:

    I asked Jim Hamill what the true story was regarding Elvis and the Songfellows. He told me that even if Elvis was singing lead or the melody he would switch over and double a harmony part. In my opinion Elvis would have eventually made a great lead singer. I don’t think they were patient enough with him. It take time and guidance to learn to sing in a quartet. However, the world would not have had his great musical contribution.

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