Showing posts with label Jake Hess. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jake Hess. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Gospel Elvis

There’s a fine essay by Charles Wolfe, titled “Presley and the Gospel Tradition,” in the now somewhat aged but excellent book edited by Kevin Quain, The Elvis Reader (1992). A typical discussion of Elvis’s music inevitably, and certainly correctly, cites country and blues influences, but as Wolfe points out, “these sources . . . account for only a part of his music” (13). Indeed, it was primarily only the 50s in which Elvis was a rock singer. In the 1960s and 70s, Elvis would surpass his narrow classification as a rock singer and became one of the central figures of American popular music. In my own estimation, From Elvis in Memphis (1969), recorded more than a decade after his first singles for RCA in 1956, is not only one of Elvis’s greatest records, but one of the greatest records of American popular music. But it's not a rock album. Wolfe is no doubt correct when he observes that one of the reasons why the influence of white gospel music on Elvis has been unaccountably neglected is because there is so little research on the subject. He writes (this in 1992, remember):

No one has yet written a serious history of the genre, and most of the information currently available has to be drawn from original research or from various self-serving press releases and fan newspapers. Numerous gospel performers, such as the Blackwood Brothers, the Speer Family, and Jimmy Swaggert, have written “biographies,” and while these are useful to an extent, they are more often than not designed as “inspirational” reading rather than factual accounts. The very term gospel music has become confusing to the average reader; in recent years the term (which originated in white “revivalist” hymns of the 1890s) has been appropriated by scholars to describe black religious singing, though it is still generally used by the public (and the musicians) to refer to white singing. (14)

Elvis’s discography, of course, contains some excellent gospel records, even if those records were never among his biggest sellers. The LP, His Hand in Mine (1960), was the follow-up to the Peace in the Valley EP (1957). How Great Thou Art (1967) appeared a few years later, and the gospel album that won Elvis a second Grammy, He Touched Me, appeared in 1972. Peter Guralnick (Last Train to Memphis) observes that Gladys Presley’s favorite quartet was the Blackwood Brothers; according to Wolfe, the Blackwood Brothers were “the most highly visible and exciting musical group in the Memphis area” before and after Elvis moved to that city (16). Elvis was a fan of the Blackwoods in the years prior to his own rise to fame; he would ask the Blackwood Brothers to sing at his mother’s funeral in 1958. Moreover, during the twenty-one years that Elvis was a national figure, he used three different gospel groups as back-up singers: the Jordanaires (1956-67), who were providing back-up vocals for him when he sang “Peace in the Valley” during his 6 January 1957 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; the Imperials (1969-71)—they appeared in 1970’s That’s the Way It Is and backed him on 72’s He Touched Me; and J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet (1972-77)—Elvis had known J. D. Sumner since he’d joined the Blackwood Brothers after the disastrous plane crash that killed the group’s original bass singer in late June 1954.

Perhaps the more important issue regarding Elvis and gospel music, though, is to identify the precise nature of the genre’s influence. Charles Wolfe argues that the influence “was not in the content of his songs,” but rather “in Presley’s singing style and performing style” (25). I’ve blogged previously about the influence of Dean Martin on Elvis’s vocal style, but Wolfe, citing Jerry Hopkins’ Elvis: A Biography, argues for recognition of the important influence of Jake Hess of the Statesmen Quartet. Hopkins cites Johnny Rivers, who revealingly said, “If you’ll listen to some of their [the Statesmen Quartet’s] recordings, you’ll hear some of that style that is now Elvis Presley’s style, especially in his ballad singing style. He was playing some of their records one day and he said, ‘Now you know where I got my style from. Caught—a hundred million records too late.’ It was really funny. I think he idolized Jake. Jake and the Statesmen and the Blackwoods” (qtd. in Wolfe 26).

I’m not entirely happy with the following juxtapositions, but this video, identified as being from a 1950s airing of the Nabisco TV show, contains a lively performance by the Statesmen (with Jake Hess in the lead), singing “Move That Mountain,” a song Elvis would have certainly liked. This second video is Elvis singing “By And By,” a song in the same vein. In the years since Wolfe published his article, more emphasis has been placed on Elvis’s gospel recordings, such as the He Touched Me set, available here. In any case, I strongly recommend Charles Wolfe's fine article to anyone interested in this dimension of Elvis’s music.