Graceland To The Promised Land
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
I’ve been struggling for the better part of two days, trying to figure out what to say about Elvis.
It’s easy to dismiss him as another white singer who rode to fame on the coattails of obscure black artists in the Fifties and Sixties.
However, after listening to his early work, I realize there’s something much deeper going on. It’s a common thread that weaves its way from gospel singers like Dorothy Love Coates and Archie Brownlee to secular artists like James Brown and Guitar Slim. It’s an extra “something” that gives a precious few artists unusual intensity and appeal.
It’s the “spirit.”
Rock and Holy Rollers
Elvis had a lifelong obsession with gospel music.
Raised in The Assemblies of God Church, he grew up with no-holds-barred gospel singing, Fire and Brimstone preaching, and the “Annointing.”
The “Annointing” is another term for spirit possession. Speaking in tongues, body movements known as “the spirit dance,” and a state of religious ecstasy are all manifestations of the Annointing.”
When Elvis was accused by Northern niddle class critics of being vulgar and obscene, not only was he hurt, he was genuinely baffled. He wasn’t doing a bump and grind (at first), merely his own version of the spirit dance. The Gospel according to Elvis
Listening to his early music, it’s easy to hear the gospel influence. His first albums are filled with cover versions of songs by popular black artists and groups.
He wasn’t the first white artist to cover black material, there were many others.
Some were passable: Johnny Burnette – “Train Kept A Rollin’
Many were at least bearable: Bill Haley – “Shake, Rattle and Roll”
A few completely ludicrous: The Stanley Brothers’ version of “Finger Poppin’ Time”
And of course, there was Pat Boone.
Unlike the rest of them, wherever possible, Elvis retained both the arrangement and “feel” of the R&B singers.
When he ventured into gospel, he made history.
The Gospel, according to…
Elvis recorded black gospel, using white quartets and the original arrangements. He was, and still is, the only artist to ever use that combination.
Out of all the groups, there were two whose arrangements he used several times.
-The Golden Gate Quartet – The ‘Gates sang with what was known as “Jubilee” style. They were known as “The Mills Brothers of Gospel” for their razor-sharp harmonies and phrasing.
-The Harmonizing Four Of Richmond, Virginia – The Harmonizing Four sang both Jubilee and the later “quartet” styles and featured a bass singer named Joe Jones.
When Elvis recorded “Way On Down,” their bass singer Joe Jones was his first choice to sing the subsonic notes. For various reasons it didn’t work out and J.D. Sumner, who later led his onstage quartet, got the gig.
Here are some of Elvis’ best gospel songs, listed along with the original groups:
“Joshua Fit the Battle” – His version was a note-for-note cover of The ‘Gates’.
“Swing Low Sweet Chariot” – The same.
“Milky White Way” – Originally a million-seller for The C.B.S. Trumpeteers.
“Working On a Building” – The Harmonizing Four
“Farther Along” – The Harmonizing Four
“You Better Run” – The Swan Silvertones
“Crying In The Chapel” – Sonny Til and The Orioles
“Peace In The Valley” and “Precious Lord” – Thomas Dorsey compositions. Elvis sang “Peace In The Valley” on Ed Sullivan.
In the movies, he took a couple of old favorites and modified them slightly
“Follow That Dream ” – He used a song called “There’s a Leak In This Old Building” – The original was sung by a white evangelist named Brother Claude Ely. Elvis rewrote some of the words, but left the music intact.
“Frankie and Johnny” – He sings a medley, combining “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” with Rosetta Tharpe’s version of “Down By The Riverside.”
“Roustabout” – “There’s a Brand New Day” is actually “Lord, Remember Me” with new words.
After he returned to the stage, there were several documentaries made. In every one of them, there are scenes of him singing gospel with “the boys” backstage.
The footage of his last shows is hard to watch. He stumbles around the stage a cruel parody of his former self, forgetting the words to songs and mumbling jokes. But then, the band plays the intro to “How Great Thou Art” and we get a glimpse of what he once was. The eyes close, that voice rises over the entire orchestra, and for a few brief moments he’s back in church, filled with the spirit, and there’s peace in the valley.
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
About the Author: