The 1960’s found Elvis Presley cranking out two or three movies and accompanying soundtrack albums each year. By 1967 it had been almost five years since Elvis had issued a true studio album. How Great Thou Art would be a breath of fresh air for Elvis and his fans. Elvis returned to what may have been his strongest musical love and recorded an album of gospel and spiritual songs. The album would win the Grammy as the Best Sacred Performance of 1967. Interestingly while Elvis received many Grammy nominations the only three he would win were all for sacred music.
I received this album as a present when it was released in 1967. Even in my Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan musical haze, I realized that this was an excellent album. Elvis would never release a bad gospel album. The songs meant something to him and so he would be invested in the recording process. This release was also produced by Felton Jarvis, who from that time onward would produce exclusively for Elvis.
How Great Thou Art would reach only number 18 on the album charts. However, it would continue to sell and ultimately would surpass every one of his movie soundtracks in terms of sales except for Blue Hawaii.
The traditional hymn and title song, “How Great Thou Art,” was a perfect vehicle for Elvis’ voice. A choir introduction leads to just his voice accompanied by a piano for the majority of the song. If anyone wants to hear the 1960’s Elvis at his vocal best, this song is the place to start. “In The Garden” continues the focus on Elvis’ vocals as there is just a subtle backing which includes piano, bass and strings. “Stand By Me” is a true classic as Elvis comes across as sincere in this smooth performance. “Somebody Bigger Than You and I” is a full blown production featuring an organ out front, a full choir plus some strings with Elvis soaring above the mix. The song continues to build throughout as Elvis brings it to an emotional conclusion.
Side two of the original LP release was more up-tempo than side one as it contained three faster numbers. “So High,” “Where Could I Go But To The Lord” and “If The Lord Wasn’t Walking By My Side” are all given a bouncy treatment by Elvis and provide a good counterpoint to the combined seriousness and inspiration of the first side.
The album concludes with the 1965 hit single “Crying In The Chapel.” While it may not be a true gospel song, it certainly fits on this album. It was recorded in 1960 but not included on the His Hand In Mine album. Released as a stand alone single five years later it soared to number three on the charts Elvis strips this old standard down to its basics and gives it a unique interpretation.
How Great Thou Art is one of the superior releases in the Elvis Presley catalogue. The production was crisp and the vocals, even on my old vinyl LP, are crystal clear. The Jordanaires and Imperials provide stellar backing vocals. The album remains a must for any fan of gospel and especially of Elvis Presley.