A few months ago a poster from the FECC forum e-mailed Donnie Summer with a question about Gospel Songs that Elvis may have sung after shows that perhaps we hadn't heard. Donnie Sumner kindly replied to his question and e-mailed him a chapter from his book as a way of answering the question. The book is called 'In The Shadow Of Kings". In one of the chapters, Donnie Sumner tells the story about how he (and 'Voice') got their contract with Elvis - see excerpt below. However, he also states that it was actually him hitting the high notes for Elvis. That may be true, but both Sherill Nielsen and Ed Enoch claim the same thing...
"What a voice that man's got!"
I know that's what everyone was thinking when Elvis came to the close of songs like, "My Way," "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," "American Trilogy," "How Great Thou Art" and other "big production" type songs. Elvis would get into his "one of a kind" stance, eight or more carbon arch spotlights would go to full white on him, the orchestra would crescendo to their loudest peak and twelve back-up vocalists would open their mouths so wide, sometimes you could almost see their socks. Together they would attack the last note and the audience would rise to their feet with admiration at Elvis' rendering of his climatic last note.
Surprise! Usually, it wasn't him. It was ME! It wasn't that Elvis couldn't hit hi notes, because his vocal range was phenomenal and most of the time he did sing the last note, but more than frequently he would point to me and I would hit it for him due to the fact that he wanted to do something else. If you notice our show videos real closely, you will see that very often after Elvis attacks his last note, it appears he is still singing but he is either kissing someone or involved in a martial arts kata of some sort.
This, along with arranging the backup vocal parts, was my main contribution to the Elvis show during the time I was with the Stamps Quartet and before I organized Voice Inc. It was this ability that prompted a phone call to my home shortly after I resigned from the Stamps Quartet.
After leaving the Stamps, I, along with two other gentlemen, Sean Nielsen and Tim Baty, organized a group known at the time as The Rangers. Elvis would later change our name to Voice Inc.
As the Rangers, we had become a part of the Grand Ole Opry doing background vocals along with a well know female back-up vocalist, Ms. Carol Lee Cooper. Arriving home on a Saturday night after a performance at the "Opry," I received a phone call. Charlie Hodge was on the other end and he said, "Hey, man! This is Charlie. What's happening?"
After we "howdied" for a minute he said, "I'm calling for Elvis. He heard you had a new group and he wants you to do him a favor." “Of course,” I said, "What is it?"
Charlie went on to explain why he had called. "Tom Jones is working at Caesar's Palace and the desert air is getting to his throat and Elvis wants to hire you to come out and do his high notes for him."
Quickly considering the venue from which I had just returned and the offer to go be with Tom Jones and Elvis in Vegas, I swiftly replied, “Far out! When does he want me?” When Elvis wanted something, he usually wanted it ASAP or quicker. In about three hours, I had made the necessary arrangements to cover our absence from the Opry and Sean, Tim and myself were at Big Brother Aircraft in Nashville preparing to board Elvis' private jet, soon to be en route to Las Vegas.
For the next seven days, three "Opry Hillbillies" got to play "star" courtesy of my friend, Elvis. The following Saturday night, Elvis closed out at the Hilton, Tom Jones finished at Caesar's Palace and several lounge acts were concluded that starred such celebrities as Red Fox, Marty Allen, Bobbie Gentry and Jack Lord.
With all his friends closing their schedule on the same night, Elvis decided to throw a big party after everyone's second show and consequently all the above mentioned artists along with the afore mentioned "Tennessee Redneck's" all found ourselves in Elvis' suite on the twenty eighth floor of the Las Vegas Hilton having a most enjoyable evening. After several hours of loud and boisterous activities, the time eventually came that I was to come to know as Elvis' favorite time of the evening. Unaware of it at the time, I was about to embark upon my "first," "Private Gospel Music Concert for Elvis."
From across the room someone hollered, "Hey Donnie!" It was Elvis and I responded to his beckoning that night, just like I would eventually do countless times in the future. I said, "Yes, Sir!" Elvis called me over to where he and Linda were seated between Tom Jones and Mr. and Mrs. Jack Lord and said to me, "You remember that song you sang with The Stamps that I like so much?' I knew exactly what song he was referring to and I answered him, "Yes, Sir!" Elvis smiled at me and said "How 'bout singing it for me." When Elvis smiles at you and ask you for a favor, how can you refuse! I said, "OK" and called for Sean and Tim to join me.
After going to the piano against one wall in the suite we began to sing an extremely old gospel hymn called, "In The Sweet Bye and Bye".
As we sang, the room got quieter and quieter. When we came to the end of the song, the room was totally silent. Tom Jones spoke first and said, "Nice! That's one of the prettiest ballads I've ever heard. Did you write that, Donnie?" "Heaven's no!" I replied. "Do you like Gospel Music?" I asked him. Tom Jones said, "I don't know too many church songs but I know 'The Old Rugged Cross’. Can you sing that?"
At Mr. Jones' request we sang a verse and chorus of "The Old Rugged Cross." When we had finished, I noticed that Elvis had disappeared and I became fearful that I had offended him by doing a song that perhaps he didn't want to hear. So, I quietly settled into a big chair and began to mind my own business.
In a short while I noticed Elvis coming thru the bedroom door that opened up into the living room and he was walking straight toward me. "O Lord!" I thought, "Here it comes!" As he walked up to me, I noticed he had a folded piece of bathroom tissue in his hand and I wondered to myself, "What in the world is he gonna do?" He stopped in front of my chair and reaching out to hand me the paper in his hand, he said, "Check this out and tell me what you think!" I took the folded tissue and noticed it had writing on it. I unfolded it and began to read.
"I, Elvis Aaron Pressley, agree to pay to Donnie Sumner, Sean Nielsen and Tim Baty, over the next twelve months, the sum total of XX dollars for their full time service to sing at my request.
Once my eyes uncrossed, I said, "Are you kidding me!" Elvis said, "No man! You wanna come back and work for me personally!" I thought for a split second about my former memories with Elvis as part of the Stamps and us being "only back-up vocalists" and now I’m being offered the opportunity to be with Elvis "all the time!"
Without any further delay, I said, "I'd love to!" Have you ever tried to write on bathroom tissue with a ballpoint pen? It’s practically impossible, especially if you are excited. Never the less, the three of us finally got the document signed and after we handed it back to Elvis, he walked over to his dad, Mr. Vernon Presley, and said, “Daddy, I finally got in a quartet!”
Mr. Presley later transcribed the impromptu contract into a legal agreement and once again the three of us were asked to sign it. From the looks of the signatures on that document, still in the possession of Sean Nielsen, we were all in much better states of mind and body at that point than we were at the original initiation.
Never in my wildest thoughts could I have ever suspected that a contract opening the door to my highest dream would have been penned in Elvis' restroom on a piece of bathroom tissue. Starting that night and every night thereafter until September of 1976, at some point du