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BY MICHAEL MCCALL

Gospel music was as primary to the makeup of Elvis Presley as blues, R&B, country music, and early rock 'n' roll. If not for his love of gospel, he never would have started singing. If not for his love of gospel, he never would have met the famous performers who showed him how to
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  capture a crowd's attention. Indeed, if not for his love of gospel, he wouldn't have sounded the way he did. Perhaps most surprisingly, if not for his love of gospel, he wouldn't have moved as he did. What we rarely envision is Elvis the gospel singer. After all, isn't this the man who preachers railed against as vulgar, while arranging bonfires of his 45s?  
 
Gospel didn't just influence his youth and set the seeds for his revolutionary sound. Throughout his life, he turned to gospel music for solace and for escape. Perhaps most tellingly, whenever he sang music on his own time, he sat down at a piano and performed gospel song after gospel song. And perhaps most poignantly, in his final years, as he slipped ever deeper into a confused and detached state, it was in gospel music that he occasionally found peace.

"I've always really liked gospel songs," Presley once said. "I grew up with it for as long as I can remember, since I was two years old. It always puts your mind at ease. It does
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  mine." This aspect of Presley's life often gets overlooked, but that may change thanks to a new documentary that expertly probes the importance of gospel music to the King of Rock 'n' Roll. "He Touched Me: The Gospel Roots of Elvis Presley" convincingly displays how big a role religious music played in the singer's artistic development and in his private life. The documentary, directed by Michael Merriman with help from the Presley Estate, will air in two parts on the Nashville Network. The first hour-long segment airs in late November; the followup will come in early January.

Gospel was always a part of Elvis' life. As author Peter Guralnick explains in "Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley," Presley

 



"He Touched Me, The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley"
can be seen on TNN on
January 8 at 9:00 pm EST.

A companion cd and video are available for purchase.
Check with your favorite local music and video retailer.

For more information about Elvis Presley,
please go to www. elvis-presley.com


first heard music performed while attending church, the First Assembly of God in Tupelo, Miss. It's where a young boy first felt the power of music to move people, and it's where he learned to sing.

Perhaps more importantly, a young preacher at the First Assembly of God taught an 11-year-old Presley to play guitar. Later, that same pastor, Frank Smith, goaded the shy young man to perform solo in front of the congregation. Elvis would never have asked to do it, and he had to be encouraged to get past his stage fright to stand in front of a crowd of people to play and sing. But he did it, and reportedly the reaction was so positive that the young man began looking forward to each Sunday service, so that he could sing and hear the applause once again. Even as Guralnick moves forward in Presley's life, he finds sources who repeatedly bring up the prominence of gospel music.

James Ausborn, a schoolmate of Presley's in Tupelo, became a close friend partly because young Elvis loved listening to the honky tonk and rockabilly music made by Ausborn's brother, Mississippi Slim, who performed on a local radio station. "He was crazy about music," Ausborn says of Presley. "That's all he talked about...I think gospel music sort of inspired him to be in music, but then my brother helped carry it on." Ausborn also remembers Presley boasting that some day he would appear on the Grand Ole Opry, then the most famous music program in the South. But when he performed, he sang gospel songs, Ausborn recalls.

When his family moved to Memphis when he was 13, Presley gained more exposure to...---> --->
  the great R&B, blues and early rock 'n' roll that had become staples of the city's groundbreaking radio stations. He loved that music too, hearing the fire and passion of the gospel put into lyrics that reached far beyond the devout topics of hymnals.

But even after he was introduced to rock and to R&B, Elvis remained a fervent gospel fan--especially of the impassioned quartet vocal sound as represented by such acts as the Golden Gate Quartet, the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen. He would attend every one of the all-night singing extravaganzas held at the Ellis Auditorium, and the shy, thin, hyperactive youngster would hound the performers with questions.

Jake Hess of the Statesmen told Guralnick how the young Presley stood out in a crowd of young admirers. Presley was so passionate about the music, Hess says, and he asked so many penetrating questions that he couldn't help but start recognizing him in the crowd.

Bass vocalist J.D. Sumner was the same way. As discussed in the documentary "He Touched Me" Sumner became so familiar with



the energetic young teen that he noticed his absence at one of the monthly all-night singings. The next month, Sumner asked him what happened. When Presley said he couldn't afford the small ticket charge the previous month, Sumner told him to never worry about that again. From then on, Presley would show up at the stage door, and Sumner would escort him in free. Decades later, when Elvis heard that Sumner's bus had broken down, the famous singer gave his old friend a blank check and told him to go buy a new one.

Presley's famous stage moves may have even been inspired by gospel music. Jim Wetherington, the tall bass singer for the Statesmen, would accentuate a passionate moment in one of the quartet's songs by shaking one leg vigorously, then the other. Every time, the audience would react ecstaticallyÑespecially the women. That stage move, which some preachers criticized at the time, likely persuaded Presley to come up with a similarly excitable, leg-twitching style.

"I think Elvis felt his best when he was singing gospel music," says James Blackwood, a longtime friend of Presley's as well as leader of the Blackwood Brothers, one of the rocker's favorite quartets. "It reminded him of home and of where he came from, and that gave him a kind of comfort."

Gospel always remained with him. After he first started staying in Hollywood, he returned to Memphis one weekend and stopped by for a visit at Sun Records, where his career had started. While there, he met up with the label's other stars: Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and the label's newest hot act, Jerry Lee Lewis, who had just released "Whole>>---> --->

 

  Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" two weeks earlier. Sam Phillips, Sun Records founder figured it would be good to capture his current stars in a photo with Presley.

What he didn't figure on was how well the four would get along. As it turns out, they started jamming. With Lewis and Presley taking turns on the piano, they started an impromptu singalong. They started with gospel songs, with Elvis making the recommendations. On the subsequent "The Million Dollar Quartet" collection, nine of the first11 songs they sang together were gospel numbers, including "Peace in the Valley" and "Blessed Jesus (Hold My Hand)."



For the rest of his life, Presley would find entertainment and consolation in playing those same songs. During his years off the road, when he spent most of his time in Hollywood, he often enlivened parties by singing gospel songs at the piano. Later, during his Vegas years, his band members knew that they were expected to join him after every show in his suite, where they would sing gospel songs until dawn.


Tony Brown, president of MCA Nashville, played piano in Presley's band during his final years. In the documentary film, Brown remembers a concert where a row of young women stood and held a banner that read, "ELVIS, YOU'RE THE KING." Presley saw it and stopped singing for a moment. Looking at the women, he said, "No, Jesus Christ is king." The women, embarrassed, quickly sat down.

These revelations underscore how complex an individual Presley was, and that he was far more dimensional than any of the stereotypical images of him convey. Even after all that's been said and written of him, there's still more mystery to ponder and more guises to investigate. As the documentary makes clear, there's still plenty about Elvis Presley that is misunderstood.

"He Touched Me" does more than shed light on an under-recognized aspect of one of the most studied and most fascinating individuals of the 20th Century. It also sheds some light on the human side of a man too often seen by some as less and others as more than human.











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Sander Vanocur, famed broadcast journalist, hosts and narrates "HE TOUCHED ME".

Dish Magazine spoke with Vanocur at the beautiful little church where his scenes were shot.

Dish: Did you ever meet Elvis Presley?

Vanocur: I first saw him on the Ed Sullivan Show, but I never met him. I always loved ballads and gospel music because I never understood rock & roll and I still don't. I appreciate the respect Elvis paid the words (of his songs) --the same kind of respect for lyrics as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett always displayed.

Dish: How do you feel about hosting this show?

Vanocur: Honored--because he's a great artist. There's a great resonance for people who love his music as I do.

Dish: What do you find most interesting about this?

Vanocur: Elvis' attraction to gospel music from such an early age. I covered Civil Rights In the late 50's and 1960 and that's where you learned the importance of gospel music in the life of the South.

Dish: Do you have any thoughts to share about Elvis?

Vanocur: He won only three Grammy's and all for gospel music. I'm sorry he's gone.
www.Dishmag.com / Issue 2 - October 2014
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