I know. The outlay of Elvis Presley product can seem as gaudy as his 1970’s concert outfits. Every year, it seems, there is some anniversary or other excuse to supersede compilations, box sets, and hits collections once thought to be definitive with new must-haves. The mammon-driven myth that chased him to his grave took over long ago, and what was true and good about Elvis’s art became mixed with the false, the bad, and the merely expedient.
If one is interested in returning to Presley’s music, or discovering previously missed aspects of his oeuvre, the challenge is to find as many original releases as possible, thereby experiencing the music the way it first hit the world. This is certainly true of his religious records. There were only three of those during his lifetime (not counting Christmas albums), but the current glut would have you believe that you missed box-loads of gospel goodies. So I will take this opportunity to earn my keep as a music critic by presenting the Cresset Guide to the Gospel Recordings of Elvis Presley.
First, avoid any release with “Ultimate,” “Complete,” “Greatest,” or “Hits” in the title. These will not provide you with an ultimate or complete experience of Presley’s greatest hymns. Also, bypass Amazing Grace and Take My Hand (yet more collections), and Inspirational, one in a recent series of monochromatic one-word compilations (“Rock,” “R&B,” “Movies,” etc.); neither will these satisfy your spiritual hunger. You are looking for two albums in their 2008 configurations on Sony/BMG. These are His Hand in Mine (22673), the original 12-song album plus four bonus tracks, and How Great Thou Art (22672), now a thirteen-song album with three bonus tracks. This is the canonical stuff, the recordings that bare the soul of a devout country boy who knew his gospel and loved to sing for the Lord—pure joy drips from every well-turned phrase and meaningful melisma on these albums. You can study their historicity or meditate on their sincerity, but Elvis’s intention was to accompany—to come alongside of—fellow Christians on their journey. Here Elvis is not the unwitting revolutionary who divided a nation but the gentle neighbor boy with the forceful, angelic voice who brings so much to the Sunday choir. As he sings these hymns, spirituals, “Dorsey’s” and inspirational numbers, Elvis will never sound less like an icon and more like a friend.
Elvis’s forays into Christian music can be thought of in terms of relish, relief, and routine. His Hand in Mine was his first all-gospel long-player, released in 1960. (A four-song EP, Peace in the Valley, came out in 1957. Its selections now make up the bonus tracks.) His roots in what Greil Marcus has called “hillbilly Calvinism” flowered in the studio—with the mighty Jordanaires singing behind him. With great relish, he sings his fans into church. He sings the old songs that he knows and loves, impeccably and with much conviction, and the new material he invests with authority. Each song is a story he’s been waiting to tell.
By How Great Thou Art (1966), Elvis is singing himself into church, each Spirit-filled sigh voicing relief from the pointless world of mediocre singles and movie soundtracks he had come to inhabit. The performances are no less convincing and convicting than those of its predecessor, full of energy and subtlety, but the feel is different. His Hand catches you up in the rhythm of worship, as if you’ve snuck off with Elvis and his Assembly of God Sunday-School buddies to marvel at Rev. W. H. Brewster’s “colored” congregation down the street. With How Great, there is a sense of privilege. The listener has entered a room where Elvis is relaxing with meaningful song and is allowed to stay. The singing is robust; the arrangements understated. The addition of a second vocal group makes the sound even richer—and these are not “background” singers; Elvis sings praises or laments from within a worship community. The dispirited performances of He Touched Me, his third gospel album in 1972, are purely routine. One gets the feeling that an “inspirational” collection was released because that’s what the schedule called for. Here gospel gets the shaft that he would eventually give pop, rock, and rhythm & blues.
While I have my favorites (my original LP of The Sun Sessions is played out, and I helped make “Burning Love” a Top Ten hit in 1972), it is Elvis the gospel singer who is most loved by this fan. There’s no living without “Little Sister” or the 1968 comeback version of “One Night,” but there’s no life without Christ. Presley gives voice to this necessity with such care that his music—like that of gospel greats Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams, R. H. Harris, and others—can be truly life-giving.
Church music, whether inside or outside the sanctuary, is meant to be lived, not merely sung. When we listen to a gospel singer, we must attune our ears not to the performance only, but to the life of the performer. That is the mode of so many secular listeners, who appreciate an Al Green or Tramaine Hawkins for the “Wow!” factor. Great God a’mighty, one can be “blown away” by such powerful singers! Awesome! What can so impress an unbeliever are the intensity and the passion in gospel music, not the selfless faith that makes them possible. Christians need to be careful about falling into the same “Wow!” mode of passivity. Gospel music is not just another form of entertainment; we of all consumers should know this.
So, one should listen to Elvis here, and listen through him. Outside the Sun material and some early RCA sides, there is no more authentic work in his entire catalog than these two albums. How remarkable that the insouciant swagger and bold sexuality could so quickly be set aside for a more existential kind of need. Marcus places Southern Christianity within a set of cultural forces that “could have held [Elvis] back and worn him down as easily as they gave him life.” The Hillbilly Cat sings as if reminded there is a freedom for which he did not have to fight. All the hard dreaming that generated respect and refusal regarding his early circumstances required a fierce pride with which to remake himself. There is pride here, but it is a Pauline pride taken in what the Lord has done and can do. Elvis sounds pleased that a place has been made for humility in his professional life.
When Elvis sings about “living below in this old sinful world,” he knows more about it than he ever expected to. There is no sweeter sixties performance than that of How Great’s “Stand By Me.” The prescient poignancy runs chillingly deep when Elvis sings of being tossed like a ship in the raging storms of life—those storms would never let up. On a 1967 bonus track, Elvis asks what could have been a life-saving question, “Why don’t we call on Him before we lose our way?” You can hear on this album the passion and precision, the great vitality of his talent that was otherwise bottled up, ready to explode. The road to the comeback begins here. Later, Elvis would become confused about just what it means to have “the Lord always walking by my side,” and the confusion of such a mythic American could not help but provoke our own. These performances of songs by Mosie Lister, Thomas A. Dorsey, Albert Brumley and others resound with the last bit of spiritual clarity available to a genius child of God.
Listen, then, to the life in these performances. May they help you hear your own.
J. D. Buhl is currently living in Philadelphia.