Joe Moscheo is a former member of the Imperials, a gospel quartet that began working with Elvis Presley in the studio in 1967 before backing him at concerts from 1969 to late 1971. Thursday (Aug. 16) marks the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death. In this, the first chapter of his new book, The Gospel of Elvis Presley, Moscheo begins to offer what he describes as “a fresh look” at the American icon.
Almost everybody has an “Elvis” story. Let me tell you mine.
Pick any of several nights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Place yourself inside any of the huge auditoriums scattered across this country, those places capable of holding 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 screaming fans. The concert is over; the adrenaline rush of watching the fast-paced, dazzling performance is beginning to ebb. And then, the booming voice of the announcer fills the vast spaces inside the concert hall: “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.” It’s a signal to the last lingerers and hangers-on that they might as well go on home, or to whatever other after-hours pursuits they’ve planned for this very special evening. Their idol, the one they came to see, to be mesmerized and transported by, isn’t here anymore. Elvis has left the building.
Now imagine a different scene, a couple of hours earlier: You are sitting in a dressing room or a greenroom, the pre-performance nervous energy surging through your veins. You are about to go onstage in front of thousands of people, singing backup for one of the world’s most recognizable and popular entertainers. At certain moments, you can’t believe you’re actually here, and you certainly can’t comprehend the sequence of events landing you in this place, but you are oh, so glad to be experiencing this moment.
Someone walks up to you, taps you on the shoulder.
“You coming up to the suite, later?” he asks.
“Elvis wants to know.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Is everybody coming?”
You ask this question more from habit than anything else; you know that if the situation is typical, there will be perhaps dozens of musicians and friends gathered in Elvis’ suite within an hour of the final curtain.
“Yeah, I think the Sweets are coming, and some of the guys in the TCB Band. Jim, Terry … you know. Why don’t you come?”
“Absolutely. Tell Elvis I’ll be there.” The guy nods. “Okay, great. Do good out there, okay?” “Yeah, thanks.”
He walks away. When he has gone, you allow yourself a tiny grimace, knowing you have just been invited — well, more like summoned, really — to attend a session that could last until the wee hours of the morning, or even past sunup. You know you must call your wife, who is waiting back in a hotel room with three small children, and explain to her, as you have done so many times before, “I’m sorry, honey, but Elvis feels like singing tonight. Don’t wait up for me; I’ve got to go.”
On many occasions, I was the backup singer in the scene you just read. I had the good fortune — I would even go so far as to call it the blessing — of touring and performing with Elvis as a member of the Imperials gospel quartet. We sang backup for Elvis in many of his most memorable performances and recordings. Because of this, I witnessed firsthand a side of Elvis Presley that may surprise you. The Elvis to whom I am referring was not the King of Rock and Roll, clad in a dazzling white jumpsuit and glittering with metal studs and stones of every color — though that charismatic performer was a part of the man I knew. It’s not even the smiling, charming on-screen Elvis of The Trouble With Girls and G.I. Blues, though the native good looks and unassuming grin that made him so bankable at the box office reflected a genuine side of his character as well.
I want to introduce you to Elvis Presley, the lifelong devotee of gospel music. This was the music that lay closest to the heart and soul of this poor boy from Tupelo, Miss. Gospel music, both white Southern gospel and African American gospel, was the first music Elvis knew, and it was etched as indelibly on him as his fingerprints or the shape of his face. When he left the building, most nights, Elvis wanted nothing more than to go somewhere with a few friends and a piano, a place they could gather to sing and listen to the gospel music that nourished the heart and soul of this American musical and cultural icon.
That’s the Elvis Presley I was privileged to know: the generous, humble man who could never quite get his mind around the fame and glitter which came his way; the friend who would do anything within his power to help you with a problem; the devoted son who never forgot the spiritual heritage instilled in him by a loving mother. That’s the side of Elvis I’d like to introduce to you: the gospel side of Elvis.
A few years ago, I helped produce a two-part documentary, He Touched Me: The Gospel Music of Elvis Presley. Due to the tremendous reception of that program, and in recognition of the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death in 2007, I began to think about ways to bring to a wider public this little-known side of a man I admire so much. There are so many stories, so many images, so many memories that could find a place in a story like this. Also, there are so many things already said and shown about Elvis. With everything written about Elvis Aaron Presley, some might wonder what could be left to say.
I offer two verses as a point of departure for this journey of discovery to which I’m inviting you. The first is from the Bible, possibly taught to Elvis by his mother, Gladys, who always made time for Bible instruction, both at home and in their church. The verse is this: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Gladys Presley raised her son to be a churchgoing, Christian young man. Now, if all you think about is the glitz and showbiz and some of the craziness you’ve read about that came to symbolize Elvis’ public career, this notion may seem far-fetched. But consider: The record on the turntable in his bedroom, possibly the last music Elvis Presley listened to before his untimely death, was an acetate recording of three of his favorite gospel songs, specially compiled by his lifelong friend and mentor, J.D. Sumner. Elvis never forgot his spiritual heritage. Somewhere, beyond all the dazzling lights and the flashy capes and the limousines and the throngs of screaming fans, his mind and heart returned again and again to the simple tenets taught to him at an early age by his mother. Gladys Presley trained him up, and I believe, in his heart of hearts, he never turned.
The second verse that points the way on our exploration of Elvis’ life is a lyric from one of his famous gospel recordings written by Doris Akers: “Lead me, guide me along the way/For if you lead me, I cannot stray.” There was, and remains strong in my mind to this day, the overwhelming belief that Elvis was intensely aware of divine influence and guidance for his life. So many times, at critical and even mundane points in his life, he would wonder out loud, “Why has all this come my way?” The fame, the fans, the wealth — Elvis often found it rather confusing. And in his confusion, he turned in the direction his heritage dictated: he turned to God. When Elvis sang the words “He touched me/And made me whole,” more was happening than the manipulation of a lyric and a melody by a talented performer. When Elvis performed the hymn “How Great Thou Art” in his famous Las Vegas show or on one of his concert tours, the power of his delivery was due to much more than the calculation and training of a seasoned performer. As I and so many others who were close to him can attest, Elvis really believed the truth of words like these.
Consider these facts: Of all the records by Elvis Presley, the only three Grammy Awards he ever won were for gospel music. He recorded more gospel and inspirational songs than any pop performer before or since. Could these details possibly be due to mere coincidence, or is there a deeper reason, one that tells us something about the deepest motivations and interests of the man beneath the legend?
I hope you enjoy this fresh look at Elvis Presley. I offer it with the sincere wish that the public could know just a bit of the man I came to know: a warm, sincere man who did his best, admittedly imperfectly, not to permit his overwhelming fame to come between himself and those he cared about. Elvis was one of the most unremittingly public figures who has ever existed. In many ways, the image he projected — and the image projected onto him by the millions who adored him — has overtaken the human side of this shy boy who was ashamed of the shabby clothing he had to wear to school, but who rose to become one of the most influential figures in the history of popular music and culture, not to mention one of the most fabulously wealthy performers in the world. Because of the sheer size of his legacy and legend, it is almost inevitable that some have chosen to focus on their perceptions of his weaknesses and flaws. Having spent the amount of time I did near the whirl of activity and glamour surrounding Elvis, I am all too aware of his human frailties — as I am of my own.
But that isn’t the story I want to tell. Instead, I want to focus on one particular facet of his life, one I believe has not received enough attention when compared with other aspects. I believe this story is an important key to understanding one of the things that made Elvis great. I believe that, more than any other single influence, the spiritual and religious heritage embodied in the words and rhythms of Southern and African American gospel music captured Elvis’ imagination and guided his musical conception. Gospel music was the first music Elvis ever heard, and he was never free from its influences. It was imprinted on him almost from birth, and throughout his life, it was the place he returned to again and again for musical, emotional, and spiritual refreshment. These were the songs that carried him through hard times. And in a very real way, as you’ll see, these were the songs that carried him home.
I attend and perform at dozens of Elvis-related events each year, both in this country and internationally. At each show, we offer a question-and-answer session, and what I’m most frequently asked, especially by the Christian folks in the audience, is my opinion of whether Elvis was a true believer. “Do you think Elvis was a Christian?” they want to know. “Do you think Elvis is in heaven?” Before I go any further with this book, I want to try to lay my cards on the table with readers: I am not Elvis’ judge. That job belongs to God alone. I have opinions about what I saw when I was a close associate and fellow performer, and I certainly have no wish to make any negative statements about him — or about anyone else, for that matter. As I stated earlier, much has been said and written about Elvis’ faults and mistakes. And, to be honest, I’m too busy trying to tend to my own spiritual life to spend a lot of time pointing out the flaws in someone else’s — especially someone I admired and considered to be a friend.
One way I’ve tried to explain all this to myself is in some words I heard attributed to a minister at a funeral for a church member whose life proved too much for him. Standing over the coffin of a man who had tried — and failed — to kick the habit that eventually killed him, this preacher said, “I didn’t lose the same battles he did. But then, I wasn’t in the same war.”
As I think about Elvis’ life, that statement makes a lot of sense to me. Yes, Elvis made some good decisions, and he made a number of bad ones. He brought joy to the lives of millions of people, and for some he fell short. Toward the end of his life, many of us who cared about him were very concerned, believing we saw a great weight of sadness, depression and despair pressing him down more and more. He lost some battles I didn’t have to fight. But he was in a different war. Did he fight the good fight? That’s for God to say.
Another question worth asking is this: How do we measure the impact of a human life? Elvis’ impact on the world of music is almost immeasurable; it is still evident today. Do we assess Elvis by the way his life ended, or by his entire life? Only God can look at the totality of a human heart, but I can personally attest to the good things I saw Elvis do, the generous acts I witnessed, and the intentions and beliefs I heard him express. Does that mean I know any more about Elvis’ eternal destiny than anyone else? No. But as you hear his story through my words, it’s possible you may come to see, as I did, that there was more than one side to this man who was adored by millions but known by only a few. Let me introduce you to the Elvis Presley I was privileged to know. Let me try to reveal to you the gospel side of Elvis.
Excerpt from The Gospel of Elvis Presley used with permission of Hachette Book Group USA/Center Street.