That Voice! Elvis Presley is not just the greatest singer to emerge from Rock & Roll, he is not just one of the greatest singers to emerge from America—and that includes Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday—he is one of the greatest singers in the history of the vocal chord. Range, expression, phrasing and particularly, strength and power—Elvis can be compared to the greatest Opera singers. I prefer his Rock & Roll, but truth be told, there is no better showcase of the absolute power, diversity and complexity of That Voice than the newly released, 4-CD box set, "I Believe" The Complete Gospel Masters.
I happened upon the Sun Sessions, quite by accident, in my youth. It was the first time I took Elvis seriously, and this uncanny record turned me into an Elvis fan for life. Elvis got under my skin. For a while I worked on a book project on Elvis; it never got off the ground but I wound up reading dozens of books as research. Elvis fascinates me. Elvis irks me. Elvis captivates me. Elvis haunts me. He is now and forever, the King of Rock & Roll.
A few weeks a year, throughout a year, every year, I just play Elvis. We call this the Elvis Jag. Why it happens, when it happens, I cannot explain. But when it happens, only Elvis matters. Only Elvis makes sense. Forget about the persona, forget about the truly awful movies (although many have some great music), forget about that gaudy jump suit. Even forget about the biography, a charismatic poor country boy with some extreme musical gifts, still half-feral when he became the biggest star of his time, eventually dropping dead while sitting on a golden toilet in Graceland at age 40, bloated, pill-addicted, isolated, grossly obese. He made a lot of great music, timeless recordings. His hits are only the tip of that amazing musical ice berg.
If you love Rock & Roll, and you don’t love Elvis, you don’t know what you love, you don’t know what you’re talking about.
The Gospel recordings are not mandatory. If you only have a small dose of Elvis love within you, you may even want to avoid these weird, intense and Elvis-teric recordings. I have each of the five-CD box sets that mark each decade of the King’s tenure in this life—50s, 60s & 70s. And, I have the two-CD Elvis at the Movies, which has the best songs of the films. Gospel Elvis—well, I had one on cassette. The bulk of the tracks on these discs were new me.
Soon after Sam Phillips sold the Elvis contract to RCA, Elvis began recording Gospel music and continued to do so until the Lord called him home in 1977. This new box set is really the only collection where we hear the voice throughout his career—growing deeper, richer and more powerful. He released Gospel tracks on records, movie sound tracks, TV specials, in addition to complete Gospel albums—the closest he ever came to a concept album. The complete albums and the scattered Gospel iterations are all gathered here. Most of the tracks are rare, either unreleased or not available for decades.
The Gospel recordings are the shadow career of Elvis. They are the best documentation of his incredible, once in a millennium, velvet revelation of a voice. That Voice was the core of his mega stardom. That Voice changed the way we listen to music, the way music affects our personal lives and the dominating influence pop music now has on our culture.
The Gospel recordings showcase That Voice at its most remarkable, and often in form that is more pure than his monumental Rock & Roll tracks. “How Great Thou Art,” an inspirational classic, reveals how That Voice was capable of an unbelievably astounding power. That Voice is smooth thunder. The range it travels, the length of time he holds the notes, just awe inspiring. No matter your religious beliefs, no matter your previous relationship with this song, you will exclaim, My God, That Voice! For the most part, all the tracks here have that same jaw dropping impact.
In his better known secular works, Elvis more often than not, post-Sun, worked with vocal groups, such as the Jordanaires, J.P. Sumner & the Stamps and the Blossoms. Take a listen to his classic “Suspicious Minds,” the reason that terrific recording continues to affect listeners is how well Elvis interplays with the back up singers. As much as the Gospel Masters is a tribute to his voice, it is also a tribute to how well Elvis can sing as part of the choir. With few exceptions, each track features Elvis singing in either a choir context or high-intensity interaction with back up singers.
From the release His Hand in Mine, which features the Jordanaires, the interplay is extraordinary. On, “In My Father’s House,” which is taken from John 14, often read at funerals and is about heaven, which is pretty much straight gospel—Billy Graham revival stuff, and the Jodranaires give the song a rich, full breadth. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the truly loopy croon of “I Believe in the Man in the Sky,” where the narrator is expressing his faith—God is the man in the sky—and spouting proverb type lines—“If a sparrow is all I may be.” Like all good back up singers, the Jordanaires start off repeating the lines, or just humming behind the Elvis as he sings the verse. The Jordanaires sing the choruses. Then Elvis starts doing some falsettos, stretching out notes and the Jordanaires—in distinct baritone, tenor, covering all the vocal bases—these different registers begin vocalizing different syllables, almost like unified discordance. Then the Jordanaires start singing the verses and Elvis is background singing to the background singers! Then, Elvis is singing the choruses. Switching the vocal roles back and forth occurs fluidly and induces a delightful vertigo in the listener. The vocal arrangement in this song is as complex as anything you hear played by an orchestra, a multi-layered labyrinth of voice.
From a different era, we get “Why Me Lord,” a Kris Kristofferson song from a 1974 concert. Here, the lead is sung by J.D. Sumner of the stamps, the deepest baritone I have ever heard. His testicles must be the size of basketballs. Elvis sings back up, but he leads the full choir, and while as lead his voice remains paramount, it is always within the group. Elvis revels in this rare back-up vocal role. This contemporary call & response song is elevated in this box set; the Kristofferson ditty becomes as spiritual as the better known, centuries-old standbys.
Elvis dips into some other weird things in his Gospel journey, including a folksy “Joshua Fit the Battle,” an incredibly bouncy “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and a salvation army-esque, tent revival jam of “Down by the Riverside>When the Saints Go Marching in.” In the 70s, when Elvis was experimenting with some new sounds, trying to regain stature and chart position, we hear “A Feeling in My Body,” a respectable funk number, with that era’s wah-wah guitar, fat bass beats, high-hat cymbal percussion and hot Hammond organ licks. “Shaft” was influencing a lot of the pop music when Elvis recorded this tune, a blatant, albeit failed attempt to be with it and have a hit. The King wanted to prove he too could get funky! Yet, Elvis was astute enough to see where that funk music came from. He didn’t just bring Funk to Gospel, he gives the Gospel roots back to Funk. It is one of the few “black” sounding gospel songs on this 4-disc box, sort of ironic since Elvis did so many Gospel-derived, Ray Charles songs, yet for the most part, when The King turned to Good News tunes, he generally went for the more “inspirational,” Southern Baptist sounds, the unabashedly white-bread, mainstream arrangements. Yet, they are moving, soulful and the most compelling examples of that genre ever recorded.
The first Elvis Gospel songs were recorded as part of the sessions of his Christmas Album, beginning with “I Believe.”—yes, that one: I believe in every drop of rain that falls a flower grows song. Mawkish, there’s that element, you can’t really sing this type of inspirational music without coming off as a little mawkish now and then. The attributes of that connotation are negated by the absolute sincerity of Elvis. In spite of all the weirdness of his personal life, he had a Christian world view—and he actually was a voracious reader of spiritual texts, including Kahlil Gibran, the Gnostic gospels and Saint Augustine. He contemplated spiritual ideas. The liner notes point out that he was raised and thought of himself as a member of the Assembly of God church, a Pentecostal protestant denomination. Being a musician, his deeply held belief in a personal God was expressed when he sang these songs, many of them he had grown up with. He struggled with Faith, as we all do, but he also took joy in it and took time to contemplate Christian theology. You can not sing these songs at the level of intensity he achieves without that sincerity of faith. That sincerity is infectious, and in spite of any of your subjective feelings about Christianity, the listener can not help but be inspired by the love the Faith espouses that Elvis so confidently conveys.
Elvis had a gospel-inspired hit, “Crying in the Chapel,” included here and the liner notes also point out that his only three Grammy Awards were for his Gospel albums, which probably says as much about how lame the Grammy Awards were as to the high caliber of these recordings.
Maybe this box set is for the die-hard fans and completists. I’m the former and fast becoming the latter. When it comes to Christian music, I’m more inclined towards bluegrass and country Gospel—or Dylan’s (always Dylan) Slow Train period. That I love these songs by Elvis surprises me. Several of them rock, but mostly they are highly orchestrated. They have the sound popular with the 700 Club audience. That Voice overcomes any of the material’s drawbacks or biases against the presentation.
That Voice is the Alpha & the Omega. You get That Voice. That Voice! In all its versatility, in all its glory. You’ve probably heard “How Great Thou Art,” “In the Garden,” or “Amazing Grace,” before, likely at a funeral or maybe during a bought of insomnia when those really weird televangelist shows come on the cable. I guarantee, you will forget those versions and hear these songs with fresh ears when you hear them sung by The King.
The box set includes some informal recordings of Elvis, relaxing and killing time between his professional studio recordings. The “Studio Highlights” included in other Elvis collections are certainly better. These sound like open mike affairs, voices bleeding into one another. Some were recorded in a living room, not a studio. Elvis liked to sing the old gospel tunes he remembered when he kicked back.
Elvis is even playing piano on “Nearer My God To Thee,” and his voice is all over the place, he hits high notes, goes into a falsetto, tries tenor, tries deep, giggles through a some lyrics. The cluster of voices from the Stamps and those hanging out around the piano follow Elvis. Sometimes they harmonize, sometimes they are off key. This is informal singing. It is obvious not everyone in this Glee Club is sober. The song goes on and on. You hear titters and out right laughter as they slog through the old chestnut. Not a must-have recorded moment, not an overlooked or discovered lost gem. Not the best song on the box set by any means, but revealing and enjoyable nonetheless. You hear how musical this guy was, how music was deep in his bones, inseparable from his soul. Music was at the essence of his very being. There’s a lot of tragedy in the life of Elvis, he died young from a lot of mistakes he made and the isolated lifestyle he sustained. But this strange outtake shows the unfathomable depth of his talent and the pleasure he took in singing, and quite possibly, his greatest pleasure may have been singing gospel tunes with vocal groups small and large. If you want to hear just That Voice, this is the box set to get. My next Elvis jag is coming soon. These spiritual tunes will be added to that ever expanding set list. Have faith in that, have faith in That Voice.