The Gospel Side of Elvis

Last night I saw 9/10s of the Gospel Songs of Elvis Presley or some such titled documentary that ran on PBS. I’m sure I’m mangling the title, but it’s on older piece (by the looks of it from the early 90s). Whenever PBS needs to drum up money, it pulls out old faithfuls like Elvis or Pavarotti. Anyway, I’ll have to defer to the avfl resident expert on all things Elvis, Rob Knodell (RK to most of you), as to the accuracy of the potrayal. But as an innocent bystander, I was struck by the documentary’s somewhat heavyhanded narrative: according the documentary, Elvis was a modern minister of the gospel in song, alternately haunted and driven by the rural southern evangelicalism represented most powerfully in his life by his mother and gospel music (black and white/southern). By playing up a few high-profile instances of Elvis’s singing gospel standards to national audiences (the documentary’s main piece of evidence here is the Ed Sullivan show appearance, though the documentary tries to make a great deal of Elvis having reportedly told a fan with a Elvis is King banner that, “No, Jesus Christ is King”), the documentary depicts Elvis as a prophet rejected in his own land, victimized by a shallow, secularized entertainment-frenzied culture unwilling and unable to hear the real message of Elvis’s career. Lay off my blue suede shoes … and turn to Jesus. Or something like that.

The immense pressures of international megastardom might well have strained Elvis’s religious or spiritual commitments, but this notion of Pious Elvis as victim strikes me as naive at best, willfully ignorant and misrepresentative at worst. Presley clearly held his faith in high esteem, but it doesn’t take an authoritative psychobiography of his life to conclude that Presley was complicit in the manufacture of his own cult of personality and that he kept a coterie of gospel singers and sg votaries around him rather like one uses a talisman or an entourage. In Elvis’s case, the Jordanaires and especially the Stamps and others seemed not just to provide friendship but also to give Elvis a reason NOT to face the reality - material and moral - of his world when the make-believe of the evening’s concert was over, as well as, one imagines, to keep the demons of his conscience and its self-recriminations at bay (you can take the boy outta the rural evangelical country church but you can’t the paralyzing guilt and the general affliction of often crippling self-doubt outta the boy).

Watching that old footage of the late Elvis foisting “How Great Thou Art” or some other gospel standard on his thoroughly uniniterested audiences just because he could (and hearing the crowds scream and squeal at the end of these gospel songs with the same preprogrammed, uncomprehending, cultlike regularity they generated for Elvis’s love-me-tenders and swivelling hips), you don’t so much see a brave messenger of the gospel as you do a self-deluded and heartsick man in over his head, tryng to create the conditions of his own redemption, night after night.

Update: As I’d hoped, RK weighed in with an insightful comment that I strongly recommend. RK is especialy good in contextualizing the place of Elvis’s gospel entourage within Elvis’s broader career and life. Money quote:

It is important to remember (and is historically authenticated) that the gospel singers who spent time with Elvis saw only one side of him: they were not given the access to be aware of full extent of his drug use, womanizing, or other obsessive behaviors, though I am sure they heard the rumors at the time that every one else did. Their recollections of their wholesome experiences with Elvis are real and valuable—despite possible embellishments—but cannot be taken to implicate a broad understanding of Elvis’ spiritual condition.

Read the whole thing.

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Comments

  1. Chrystal wrote:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! You have just said what I have felt myself, and wanted to say, but was not able to articulate. When I saw the Gaither Homecoming series tribute to Elvis, I felt the exact same things you expressed above. Elvis’s love of Southern Gospel music was apparent and admirable, but never did I see him as the messenger of the gospel that Gaither’s video made him out to be.

  2. Trent wrote:

    Avery, great post. Elvis loved gospel music, but he sought solace from his guilt for living a free-wheeling lifestyle by listening to SG music & performing it. Alas, the music is not the source of comfort; the One the music is about is the source. The jury will always be out on whether Elvis ever got past the music part.

  3. A B wrote:

    Insightful and interesting post and comments, abeit a bit judgemental. I know I’m not anybody justifiable enough to wonder what Elvis’s motives were or if his spirituality was there or not. I, like everybody, certainly do not approve of a lot of the things that Elvis did, but then again, the same applies to a lot of our beloved gospel singers as well. A lot of folks heard gospel music by Elvis who never had heard it before. Some liked it, some didn’t, that’s just the way it goes. Those that sing gospel music are great messengers regardless of the lifestyle they live, and IMO Elvis no doubt falls into that category as well.

  4. RK wrote:

    The documentary is certainly entertaining, with its onstage and backstage music clips and stories told by those who interacted with him. The stories contained within are by-and-large accurate, or at least are consistent with authoritative biographical accounts.

    Where the documentary runs into trouble is when it attempts to weave those stories into the broader implication that Elvis’ affiliation with gospel music was some real spiritual reflection of his own life or faith.

    It sanitizes the spiritual experiences of Elvis’ adult life, omitting both his experimentations with non-Christian religious thinking or rituals and the distaste for organized religion that was present during his post-Army life.

    It is important to remember (and is historically authenticated) that the gospel singers who spent time with Elvis saw only one side of him: they were not given the access to be aware of full extent of his drug use, womanizing, or other obsessive behaviors, though I am sure they heard the rumors at the time that every one else did. Their recollections of their wholesome experiences with Elvis are real and valuable—despite possible embellishments—but cannot be taken to implicate a broad understanding of Elvis’ spiritual condition.

    Elvis was many things to many people. Many people today claim to have been a close confidant to him, yet the truth as told by his inner circle is that almost none of them were. The cocoon placed around Elvis by his “Memphis Mafia” entourage both protected his safety and enabled the destructive behaviors that destroyed him.

    That his gospel singing friends were outside that cocoon somewhat jades their perspectives on him, and allows them to honestly and wholeheartedly participate in the ongoing rehabilitation of Elvis’ legacy which brings economic gain and added fame to all involved.

  5. Chrystal wrote:

    Well said, RK.

  6. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Trent, the jury won’t be out forever. Well, there might not be a jury in that trial, but there will be a Judge.

    (Of course I know what you meant…we won’t ever know this side of eternity which side Elvis chose in the end.)

  7. Thom wrote:

    Isn’t it intersting how many different groups have claimed the story of Elvis trying out with them when he was young and being turned down? I’ve heard it from at least 3 different quartets. Could it be someone is making up tales or is it that Elvis kept trying out with different groups and nobody would hire him? Which is it?

    And another point, everytime I hear anything about Elvis I can’t help but flash back to the double album recording that JD Sumner and the Stamps issued shortly after Elvis’ death, “J.D. Sumner and the Stamps present Memories of Our Friend Elvis.” I may still have the album. In between the tracks of the Stamps singing -(with Ed Enoch singing Elvis’s high notes)- there are several tracks of J.D. going on and on repeating the mantra “Elvisss Presssly wuz not on drugzzz” “Elvisss Presssly wuz not on drugzzz.” Did J.D. honestly believe this was the truth or was he trying to protect Elvis’ image? The recording was made, and the album released long before the truth came out about how Elvis was medicated to death. Comments?

  8. CVH wrote:

    Is this the Gaither production we’re talking about? A friend gave me the DVD and I’ve watched it a couple of times. With all due and sincere respect to Gaither and all he’s done (and still doing) in so many aspects of the business, there does seem to be a bit of ‘historial airbrushing’ on this production similar to others focusing on various personages in SG. There’s a tendency, unwitting or not, to engage in revisionism when we look at SG history.

    I’d like to see an honest, factual, colorful book or DVD produced about the history of SG. Not another soft-focus puff piece, but something that acknowledges both the good and bad of its past (and present for that matter). Who would be qualified to write it? No idea, but ideally it would be someone who is intimately familiar with the history of SG (someone who grew up in and around the business?) and at the same time enough of an objective writer to capture all the passion, blood, sweat, tears and spirit of this genre of music we love in a historically accurate way.

    I wonder sometimes, do we ’sanitize’ the past out of respect for those who’ve gone before, or to convince ourselves that they were all great people, every deal was a clean one and nothing untoward ever went on?

    I’m not suggesting we point fingers or that it be done in an tell-all, sensationalistic way. I just think we all, the world, and SG itself would best be served by something that was revealing and honest. I don’t believe it would take anything away from the ‘legends’; after all, the people inside the business already know the ’stuff’ and those who are outside (fans) could benefit from an understanding that these folks had feet of clay just as we do. In other words, it would be a historical book, not a PR piece, more scholarly than entertaining perhaps.

    Just a thought.

  9. Trent wrote:

    RK, I disagree that the gospel singers who worked with Elvis saw only one side of him. I think the gospel singers who were interviewed for this Gaither production only shared one side of him…or perhaps some of their comments were left on the cutting room floor. If you were to ask Ed Enoch, Nick Bruno, Donnie Sumner, Bill Baize, Ed Hill and any number of others who worked with Elvis in any capacity–and they were to tell you honestly and off the record–they would tell you that they got a really good look at Elvis off stage. I think they knew him very well.

  10. Lacey wrote:

    You know, reading something like this makes me wonder what the public opinion and actions of Elvis would be if he were alive and coming into his fame today. Are the “allowances” made for him now so many years after his death just because he was such a legend and pioneer of sorts and like many of the artists of his generation he released gospel albums? Or would he have today an image that would allow him this sort of “white washing” bio 40 years from now? Yes, he liked gospel music but it seems to me that having gospel groups sing back up for him was a clever way to add a sense of reassurance and stability to combat his hip swinging performance for the shocked conservative parents who were outraged at their precious daughter’s heated response to him. Whether or not this was actually a motive at all I don’t know but from a marketing viewpoint it makes sense to me. And actually, it still makes sense today because the fans from back then are of a certain age that mellows the craziness of youth and that’s what they want to see of their “hero”. Am I off base to think this?

  11. CG wrote:

    CVH wrote:

    I’d like to see an honest, factual, colorful book or DVD produced about the history of SG. Not another soft-focus puff piece, but something that acknowledges both the good and bad of its past (and present for that matter). Who would be qualified to write it? No idea, but ideally it would be someone who is intimately familiar with the history of SG (someone who grew up in and around the business?) and at the same time enough of an objective writer to capture all the passion, blood, sweat, tears and spirit of this genre of music we love in a historically accurate way.

    Actually, it has been written by Calvin Newton. The title is “The Bad Boy of Gospel Music”. It’s a great read.

  12. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    How controversial do you want it? A number of readers have commented they were shocked to see I included individuals such as Jimmy Swaggart in my book. I guess they were expecting me to pretend nothing bad ever happens in SG.

  13. CVH wrote:

    David,

    I have appreciated your writing and work in the business so thanks for offering a comment.

    I guess what I’m talking about would be, basically, a reference book. A few years ago Mark Allen Powell wrote a pretty exhaustive history of contemporary Christian music. It’s well over a thousand pages and while, in places, he errs by injecting some personal editorializing, the work is outstanding in both its depth and breadth, offering personal history of the artists and groups, their relationships with each other and their record and publishing companies, as well as providing a complete discography wherever possible. Perfect? No. But the best, more comprehensive work I’ve seen on the subject.

    That’s the type of work I’d like to see available. CG suggested the book on Calvin Newton. I’m sure it’s a good read, however I don’t want something that focuses on one artist, but all the groups as they began, interacted, developed and grew through the decades. How the changes in society and technology changed them; and yes, the foibles and the triumphs they faced. I have not had the opportunity to read your book yet, but I understand what you’re saying about peoples’ reaction to including Swaggart. So the book I’m proposing would not be something any group would probably want to buy from the publisher and put on their product table. It probably wouldn’t be accepted for advertisement in some of the publications.

    As I asked in my original post, aren’t there people who would want to read such a book? Or are they mostly, as you suggest, unwilling to accept the truth about many of the individuals who’ve made this genre what it has become through the years? And if their question is, well why drag people through the mud, especially those who are gone? Because unless you do, you dishonor the greater truth and ignore the deeper message that could be brought, which in its simplest form is, that God uses people. Sometimes mean, hopelessly flawed people. People who have addictions, people who don’t even fully embrace the message. Does Elmer Gantry come to mind? God isn’t shamed in the process. And what made a lot of these people so colorful and good at what they did was the exact thing no one wants to talk about…their flawed humanity. Look at the Old and New Testaments; hardly a slickly polished PR piece on many of the historical peronages of the Bible. Yet it’s there and we are not ashamed.

    Objectivity is a hard lens to look through. AFL does a fine job of asking these sorts of questions and providing a forum for the conversation. I’m thinking it would almost have to be published by a university press or a botique publisher because it would be a niche product, yet one of huge historical value.

  14. CG wrote:

    CVH wrote:

    CG suggested the book on Calvin Newton. I’m sure it’s a good read, however I don’t want something that focuses on one artist, but all the groups as they began, interacted, developed and grew through the decades.

    It definitely does not focus on just Calvin. It’s a pretty good “tell-all”. So good in fact, that, apparently, it was, at least for a while, banned from product sales at all Gaither Homecoming events.

  15. Trevor Haley wrote:

    Lacey, I can’t agree with the theory that Elvis hired Gospel singers to try and tone down his image as a rebel. The Jordanaires were already accompanying a lot of secular artists on recording sessions, not just Elvis. They were very active in the Nashville session scene at that point. Brock and Ben Speer were actually part of the vocal group that backed Elvis on some of his first RCA recordings. I think Elvis hired groups and singers like these because he preferred their sound. He was also able to relax and get into a creative mood by singing Gospel songs.

    Now whether the actual Gospel recordings were a marketing move, I really don’t know. Elvis really had nothing to gain by recording Gospel music, except maybe it gained him a little more acceptance by the older audience. When the “How Great Thou Art” album was recorded in 1966, it was at one of his lowest commerical periods, and the album’s release did not change that, but it did help to recharge him creatively. The Gospel LPs were not big sellers initially, but had a very good “shelf” life, and sold continually through the years.

  16. Lacey wrote:

    Ok, Trevor, I guess that was the point of my question. I figured I would throw that theory out there and see if anyone would have any insight on it. Especially since this post was questioning the accuracy of the “Pious” Elvis being put forth in the documentary.

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