I think I Believe is the perfect title for a collection of Elvis' religious music because, working with him almost 15 years, I know he believed every word in these songs. It was indeed an honor to know and work with him. We shall always treasure our memories. – Gordon Stoker, The Jordanaires in the sleevenotes of the "I Believe" box-set.
It may surprise the casual observer to learn that, in the length of his distinguished career, Elvis Presley only ever received three Grammy Awards. What may seem even more absurd is that none of those Grammys were for any of his big hits or his revolutionary rock and roll records; all of them were for his recordings of church music.
However, Elvis himself may have been prouder to receive recognition for his recordings of the sacred music he loved so much than he was for all the secular praise his rock, pop and country music brought him. From his early childhood days in the Assembly of God Church in Tupelo, and throughout his entire career, gospel music was always an integral part of his life, whether at church services or while just winding down in a hotel room after a show.
It's hardly surprising that a young boy from rural Mississippi would be exposed to religious music from the earliest days of his life. His mother Gladys once told a reporter: 'When Elvis was just a little fellow, he would slide off my lap, run down the aisle, and scramble up to the platform of the church. He would stand looking up at the choir and try to sing with them. He was too little to know the words, but he could carry the tune'. As he grew older he would not only attend his own church, but also sneak in with friends and enjoy the even livelier services at the black neighborhood churches both in Tupelo and later in Memphis. With his parents and his girlfriend Dixie, they would often attend the all-night gospel sings at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis. Gladys' favorite religious singers were The Blackwood Brothers, whereas Elvis and his father enjoyed the lively showmanship of The Statesmen Quartet and their incredible bass singer 'Big Chief'. So steeped in this music was Elvis that he often claimed to know every religious song ever written.
Elvis was 13 when his family moved to Memphis, and five years later he tried out for The Blackwood Brothers' junior quartet. He was very disappointed when he learned that he flunked the audition. Discouraged, he related to his father that they had told him he couldn't sing.
From the notes of a long lost tape from one of Elvis' earliest Sun sessions, there is evidence that he tried out Martha Carson's 'Satisfied', and at his early live performances, when his recorded repertoire was still extremely limited, he would sometimes throw in an a capella rendition of 'Amazing Grace' to fill out the show.
By the time Elvis first met The Jordanaires backstage at an Eddy Arnold concert on October 31, 1954, the group had already established themselves as successful gospel artists who also doubled as backing vocalists for major country artists, both at recording sessions and in concert. When Memphis DJ Bob Neal brought him backstage, Elvis made it a point to find band member Hoyt Hawkins and to tell him how he had enjoyed their singing, even declaring',I would like to get a group like The Jordanaires to sing with me if I ever achieve the kind of success that Eddy Arnold has'.
Barely more than a year and a half later, he certainly had not only surpassed Eddy Arnold's success, but also reached a level of fame unparalleled in the business. Elvis' dreams were becoming reality left and right those days, and a big one was realized on June 22, 1956. That was the day The Jordanaires made their debut as Elvis' regular vocal group, in three shows at the Paramount Theater in Atlanta. Gordon Stoker, the group's lead tenor, had already contributed vocals to some of Elvis' studio recordings, but this was the first time Elvis had worked with the full quartet. The group would remain with Elvis for the next 12 years.
In Elvis' hectic schedule there was little time to attend church, but the music was with him all the time – in hotel rooms and in the car on the grueling road trips, when Elvis would often sing along to the radio. It was even documented on tape on December 4, 1956 at the Sun studio, where he, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis spent an hour or two just singing whatever came into their heads.
Sam Phillips snuck up on the young performers and started his tape machine, catching the trio singing country, blues, pop and gospel without regard to genre.
One of the songs that Elvis sang at this informal gathering at Sun – part of the so-called Million Dollar Quartet – was Thomas Dorsey's '(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)'.
Only a few weeks later, Elvis chose to perform the hymn in front of a national TV audience, for what would be his last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Gordon Stoker: 'The reason Elvis recorded gospel songs was because his mother loved them. He wanted to make records she would like. Gladys didn't really like his rock and roll stuff. It took a little negotiating with the label, but Elvis was eventually allowed to record a gospel album'.
As part of Elvis' regular recording sessions in January of 1957, four religious songs were recorded for an EP (Extended Play) record.
Gordon Stoker: '‘I Believe' was one of the first religious songs The Jordanaires recorded with him. When we started to record, Elvis wanted me to play organ and sing my part with the quartet. In those days we didn't have that many recording tracks, so on that recording I played organ and sang at the same time'.
If RCA were really concerned, or just saw these recordings as a necessary concession to an otherwise extremely financially rewarding artist, they needn't have worried.
The EP quickly racked up sales of 400,000 copies – as many as most of his secular EPs. Additionally, those four songs were combined with eight Christmas recordings later that year, together constituting Elvis' first Christmas album, making the financial benefit to RCA a sheer coup.
When Elvis was shipped to Germany for the remainder of his army duty, he met fellow G.I. Charlie Hodge. Charlie had sung in a group called Foggy River Boys, and with their common musical background, the two soon became friends. Throughout Elvis' stay in Germany, he, Charlie and Elvis' old friend Red West would join forces, singing and playing their favorite music. Tapes made on the Grundig tape machine Elvis had acquired reveal him running the full gamut of musical inspirations, and as they got closer to his discharge in March of 1960, Elvis started working on songs that he planned to record as soon as he returned to private life.
Religious songs were rehearsed alongside material for his next regular album, and his performances of songs like 'His Hand In Mine' and 'He Knows Just What I Need' seem to suggest that Elvis was getting ready for his next album of religious music. After his return to civilian life – after three more #1 hit singles, two albums, a movie, and two more on the way – the time had come for Elvis to realize his ambition to make a full album of religious music. In one all-night session commencing on October 30, 1960, Elvis recorded a staggering 13 of his favorite religious songs for the album to be entitled His Hand In Mine. It was a loving tribute to all the gospel quartets he had admired as a child and young man, and the repertoire was to a large extent lifted from the catalog of the Presley family's favorites, The Blackwood Brothers and The Statesmen Quartet. Further material was introduced to Elvis while in Germany, as his new friend Charlie