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.Email this Post