The Gospel according to Elvis

Elvis Presley in 1957 with the gospel quartet, The Jordanaires, who were his backing singers for many years.(Photo: Capitol Records)

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. In the film, 'Elvis' and its stand-out performance by Austin Butler, the Australian film director Baz Luhrmann makes slight reference to Elvis's Christian background, the impact of black music on his career, and his deep and abiding love of gospel music.

On the first of these, Baz is virtually silent except for a fleeting reference to a young Elvis 'in the spirit' in a black church. He, however, makes up for this with stunning in-your-face clips of 'Hound Dog' by Big Mama Thornton and a dazzling performance of Tutti Frutti by a young Little Richards. In the same scene, he refers to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, BB King, and Mahalia Jackson, indicating the influence of black musicians on Elvis' music.

In the 1940s, Beale Street was a flourishing area of black commerce, culture, music, and storefront churches. The street housed many black-owned businesses, clubs, and restaurants and was the creative hub of a new music that would eventually sweep America. It's there that we find our young white boy from Tupelo, soaking up the music of Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and all the other black performers who played regularly on the street. They, too, like him, would one day become icons of American pop culture.

Elvis's dream was always to be in a gospel quartet group which is hardly surprising as he came from a deeply religious Pentecostal background. Raised in the Assembly of God Church, Christian music, including gospel, was always in the home. It was an essential part of Elvis's life, and he often accompanied his parents to the Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis where he would hear his mother's favourite group, The Blackwood Brothers.
In the neighbourhood where he lived, he would also sneak out often with friends to black churches, experiencing their music and spontaneous worship.

After graduating in 1953, Elvis worked in several jobs, including one as a truck driver, before getting his big break. In 1954 he made his first recording, "That's All Right", and a year later, signed for RCA in a deal struck by Colonel Tom Parker, his manager, and played brilliantly in the film by Tom Hanks. In 1955, Elvis had his first No 1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel", his first No 1 album, and a year later, signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, starring in 33 movies.

Despite his hugely successful music and film career, big hits, 18 No 1 singles, and countless gold and platinum albums, Elvis never received a Grammy Award for any of these. What may be surprising is that the three Grammys he won were for his gospel music. The first of these, "His Hand in Mine", was released in 1960; the second, "How Great Thou Art", and his third, "He Touched Me", which included songs from Andrae Crouch and Bill Gaither, two emerging gospel writers at the time.

The Jordanaires were the first white quartet group to sing spirituals, and Elvis's music was influenced by that too. The group became his backing singers, and he included them on his biggest hits, 'Don't Be Cruel' and 'Jailhouse Rock,' even insisting that they be named on his albums, which was unusual for any backing musicians, producers, or engineers back then.

In a 14-year unbroken spell, The Jordanaires backed Elvis on his recordings and live performances, making good a promise he had made to them in 1955 when he first heard them singing "Peace in the Valley", a Tomas Dorsey classic that Elvis would himself come to record.

Gospel music was always part of Elvis Presley's life, and he took the gospel sound with him wherever he went. He would always include two or three gospel songs in his performances, and when the hip gyrating was done and the fans had gone home, he would often be found with The Jordanaires singing gospel songs in his hotel room into the early hours of the morning.

"I Believe" was one of the first religious songs that The Jordanaires recorded with Elvis, and it racked up sales of over 400,000 singles. Later he added eight more songs to this and released it as his first Christmas album.

In 1960, after returning from military service in Germany, Elvis recorded his second gospel album, His Hand In Mine, which contained 13 of his favourite gospel songs. The album reached number 13 on the album chart, a more than respectable position, with over a million sales.

"Crying In the Chapel" was another of Elvis's worldwide success, and the single sold over a million and a half copies in the US and reached number one on the UK charts.

At the end of the 1960s, the music world had changed and a new music ushered in by the likes of the Beatles, the Mersey Sound and Tamla Motown had ushered in a new age. Elvis' record sales dropped sharply.

In this same period, he released "How Great Thou Art", a song suggested to him by Ray Walker of The Jordanaires and made famous by George Beverly Shea, who sang it at Billy Graham's Crusades. The album reached number 18 on the album chart, sold over three million copies in the US, and became one of Elvis' best-selling albums.

After the success of "How Great Thou Art", in 1972 Elvis released what became his final gospel album - He Touched Me, with the title track written by Bill Gaither. It was the most contemporary of the gospel albums he made, won him a Grammy, and reached sales of over a million copies.

Elvis was a troubled soul who had his demons but he always turned to gospel music for peace, comfort, and consolation. He was always at his best and at ease when he sang gospel music, the music he knew as a child, the music that shaped his life, and the music he loved.

"It was gospel music that he turned to for inspiration and consolation," said Frank Breeden, President of the Gospel Music Association. "He was a person who appeared to be in conflict; he was not doing what he loved for a living ... he had a career that had just taken him captive."

On 16 August 1977, Elvis died at the age of 42. Yet despite all the millions of sales and Grammy Awards, what he left us with is his love of gospel music, hymns, and inspirational songs. In 2001, he was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Association's Hall of Fame, as a recognition of his faith and his contribution to the music that was his first love.

Roy Francis is an award-winning former BBC 'Songs of Praise' producer and the author of 'Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain'.