CRYING IN THE CHAPEL

Elvis’s Forgotten Gospel Masterpiece

The King of Rock ’n’ Roll self-identified as a hard-charging gospel singer, too. The proof is in the majesty of his gospel masterpiece, How Great Thou Art.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Were there a gathering of past rock and roll years, the resident mack daddy and the accompanying belle of the ball would would be the calendar pages bearing the imprints 1966 and 1967 at the top. Everybody who was a rock titan—Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Hendrix, Cream—unleashed major works whose impact would echo down the years. We’re talking 104 weeks of new sounds, envelope pushing, artists one couldn’t have anticipated, concept albums, feedback platters, psychedelia and burgeoning metal blending as one, music to blast the detritus out of your brain, tune you in, turn you on. Heady stuff.

But what if someone was to say that an artist from the 1950s—which seemed like forever ago—cut an album at the level of anything anyone did during that period, without delving in any finesse songwriting on his own, any brave new electric experiments, with a clutch of performances that looked more towards the heraldry of Jerusalem than the moons of Jupiter? Because that’s exactly what Elvis Presley did with his gospel album How Great Thou Art, that other top-shelf disc from rock’s glory run that is every bit the work of art as Are You Experienced? or Sgt. Pepper.

Elvis in 1967 was a singer you probably wouldn’t have expected much from. The Sun sides of the mid-1950s were so old as to feel like Urtexts, and the classic run of hard-rocking RCA singles had been impeded then dashed to the past forevermore by a series of album soundtracks that people still like to make fun of. The Beatles had met the King, and came away disillusioned. Whose King was this? Surely not the monarch for rock and roll upstarts.

We all know that Elvis had his big comeback in 1968, when he performed in the round in Burbank and made what might be the finest live rock recording by anyone. Even if you’re a quibbler, it’s top ten list material, but Elvis’s return to ass-kicking officially began Feb. 27, 1967, when his gospel album, How Great Thou Art, hit record store shelves.

Elvis had an early gospel release in 1960’s His Hand In Mine, but you could just as easily call that record a blues set, spirituals by way of rockabilly with an R&B beat. Some people self-identify as things we’d never primarily think of them as. For Elvis, that was hard-charging gospel singer. He once stated that there wasn’t a gospel song he didn’t know, and when it came time to perform a set of them, there wasn’t a gospel number Elvis couldn’t transform into something wondrously secular, universal, free of cant and creed, music as equally suited for the valley as the nave, and the air of all outdoors as the ether heading heavenward. Plus, gospel Elvis could rock your balls off.

The genesis of How Great Thou Art was a business plan hatched by Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. He thought it would be an easy way to make a buck: gospel albums were a consistent selling market, any half-talent could tap into some fervor and cop some sales, so, the thinking went, Elvis should be able to rake it in here doing some singing for the Lord. This would be the first Elvis LP without a soundtrack component since 1962, which to Elvis signified freedom. You want your gospel album for the market, Colonel? I’ll give you an album—just ain’t going to be what you think.

If you’d like to hear how well Elvis could sing—and we’re talking one of the top dozen or so voices of the twentieth century, in terms of power, technique, breath control, command, range—listen to the title track that starts this record. You need not give more of a fig about a long-haired dude on a cross than the flavor of Pop Tart you had for breakfast, but so far as ballad singing goes, this is a veritable torch song of self, of assertion, of things lost becoming things reclaimed. If it puts you on your knees, it does so because Elvis’s voice is that moving. A reactionary like John Lennon would have hated it, but a deep musical thinker like Paul McCartney would have heard something here that he could work into his own singing style a couple years later with “Let It Be.”

“Crying in the Chapel” bookends the album in similar ballad mode, but it is between those two songs that we hear Elvis cut loose, and with swing. “If the Lord Wasn’t Walking By My Side” is so ebullient that Elvis and the Big Man might as well be heading out to a post-Prom kegger. The rhythm is all sashaying beats, Elvis singing just a touch behind them, pushing the momentum forward, until his voice topples over the rise at the end of each verse. The bridge brings the call-and-response funk so vigorously that you’d think the song had been tasked with inventing a new genre in twenty seconds.

“Farther Along”—for which Elvis gets an arranger’s credit—is a vocal tour-de-force. Few singers could sound both sotto voce and all-encompassing like Elvis does for the first several measures, his breathy, volumized words playing against sparse piano notes. When the background choir kicks in, Elvis manages to make you feel like he has the larger vocal presence. This is a blues, a number you could imagine Son House tackling, but with a dreamy quality and a clarion voice beckoning out of the night-scape. You can’t sing much better than this.

The outtakes from the session show us an Elvis finally untapped creatively, getting back in that old ring. He tries various approaches just because he can, workshopping his new-found freedom, fostering a haven of studio creativity not so very far removed from what the Beatles of this era were up to at Abbey Road.

I recall reading a comment once by someone who had discovered a live version of the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,” and now they had flipped over the furniture in their apartment and were dry-humping it. You listen to that song and, yeah, you can kind of see that, and if you listen to Elvis’s “Where Could I Go But Up to the Lord” on How Great Thou Art, you get this impetus to press yourself up against everything you come in contact with, laws permitting. It’s almost impossible not to stand up and move to this song, which swings as hard as anything Basie did, but swings slower. After all, with Elvis, a lot of the swing is in the hips. The song is actually mid-tempo, but it manages to feel slower, this ball of compact energy that doesn’t discharge, only builds. Someone—probably Elvis—snaps his fingers all the way through, as if metaphorically underscoring that here, for these three and a half minutes, all has clicked right with the world. Synched up, synched deep. Swing high indeed, son.