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I Believe - The Gospel Masters

By Mike Cimicata and Ernst Mikael Jørgensen, April 03, 2009 | Music

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

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stu wrote on April 03, 2009
What great sleeve-notes. Very revealing and worth the price of this collection alone. Throw in the fantastic sound and it's a worthy collection for any music fan.
Herman wrote on April 03, 2009
Didn't they use the How great thou art 1977 live version on this box ? What a big mistake ! That's the best version.
JerryNodak wrote on April 03, 2009
The '77 version of "How Great Thou Art" is way too over the top for me. I prefer the original album version from '66?. A dynamic yet understated performance from Elvis.
dgirl wrote on April 03, 2009
This is a beautiful box and Im sure the sound is improved but how many times can we keep buying the same songs? I mean really this is getting silly. This is the third gospel collection already and its not even complete with 'Miracle of The Rosary' being left off! I will save my money this time. Gospel is nice from time to time but its not something I reach for when I need to hear Elvis.
Vegas Sun wrote on April 04, 2009
I agree with dgirl. If I didn't already have an Elvis gospel box set, this would be for me. I have all of the individual releases, and the Peace In The Valley box set, so I have to pass on this. It really is a case of just buying the same tracks over and over. I have to draw a line at some point. To me there is nothing new, or worthy enough to validate this purchase. I'm glad it's out for others, but I'll take a pass on this one.
benny scott wrote on April 04, 2009
dgirl and Vegas Sun : Amen to that ! Me too having all the individual releases is good enough for me, but as Vegas Sun states : glad it's out for others. Always El.
JerryNodak wrote on April 04, 2009
I have the "Amazing Grace" and "Peace In The Valley" collections, but I still bought this. Why? Because the improved sound blows those other collections away! Plus I can clear space in my CD rack. I no longer need those other collections.
Steve V wrote on April 04, 2009
I have to side with dgirl and some others here. So many times have these songs been released (jeez the albums came out just last year) does improved sound quality really matter on songs I've heard a million times and were recorded 40-50 years ago? Who's not to say another box won't come out in 5 years with super improved technology? Where does it end? I may even have considered this box if it was complete, but buying it and selliing the others would mean losing a song (and one I really like). Plus with the dying CD market you may not even be able to sell old boxsets anymore, so I will keep what I have. Somehwere the Colonel is smiling.
theoldscudder wrote on April 06, 2009
A worthy effort. The box & cover pic are really nice. I however will stick with my 2 cd set. I just can't justify spending the extra $ as I have most of these songs elsewhere & am no longer a completest in my collecting ways. But to those that do not have the gospel music buy it. You will not be dissapointed.
circleG wrote on April 07, 2009
Thanks to jerry i recently bought the albums that were released last year (why were they only available in the states?) and I have to say the improvement in sound was quite noticable. Can't say I'll buy this set unless its cheap (also I believe - haha- that the original albums should be pushed not box sets) but the difference in sound can be heard.
JerryNodak wrote on April 10, 2009
Thanks for the kind words, circleG. Often times the question is asked when "better sound" is touted by recerd labels "Can you really hear the difference?" Yes, in this case you really can hear the difference and it's all good! If nothing else we finally get the original abum version of "How Great Thou Art" without the tape fault near the end. If you don't want to spring for the box set at least do your self a favor and buy the 3 original gospel albums with bonus tracks in remastered sound. You WON'T be disappointed. Yes, you can hear the difference.
Jesse Garon Presley wrote on April 25, 2009
JerryNodak: well said man!! i agree with you ; ) love this gospel box a real must have, great sound