Elvis Presley recorded over 240 songs at Studio B in Nashville Video: Michael Schwab/The Tennessean
Elvis Presley may be called the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but the only Grammy Awards he ever won were for his gospel music.
Nominated 14 times, he took home three of the trophies for two of his sacred albums and the other for a live performance of “How Great Thou Art.” While the music industry and fans supported the work, gospel’s influence on Presley wasn’t confined to his overtly religious albums, but was deeply infused in his discography as well as his life.
“Gospel was one of the most important elements in his musical identity,” said Charles Hughes, director of the Memphis Center at Rhodes College.
Presley grew up rooted in Pentecostalism. He attended church and listened to both black and white gospel music, developing an appreciation for quartets.
“Throughout his career he kept returning to gospel,” said Hughes, who writes about Southern music and history. “Singing gospel songs, recording gospel records and incorporating in his live shows performance techniques that he would have gotten from the church.”
He sang sacred songs to warm up before recording sessions at RCA Studio B in Nashville.
He invited people back to his penthouse suite in Las Vegas for all-night gospel singalongs during his stint of performances in the late 1960s and ’70s at the International Hotel.
Terry Blackwood, who sang and recorded with Presley as a member of the gospel quartet The Imperials, remembers singing backup on stage and then being invited up to Presley’s room to sing into those early morning Vegas hours. (Elvis was a night owl.)
“He loved the sound of gospel. It influenced almost everything he did,” Blackwood said. “On the songs that lent themselves to quartet harmonies, especially on the choruses, you will hear a strong gospel quartet influence in every one of those songs.”
But Blackwood knew about Presley’s love of gospel music well before he sang on his albums and in his Vegas penthouse.
As a kid, Blackwood, the son of one of the founding members of gospel quartet The Blackwood Brothers, recalls Elvis slipping into the back row at the First Assembly of God in Memphis after church began so his celebrity wouldn’t cause a stir. Elvis liked The Blackwood Brothers, who sang at the church, he said.
“At the time he was already a star,” Blackwood said. “He always had a great respect for the sanctuary and he would never want to disrupt. That stood out a lot to me about how he was raised and what was important to him and what he valued.”
But at times, the sacred sound Presley appreciated seemed to stand in contrast to his actions on and off the stage.
His hip-shaking dance moves that whipped his fans into a frenzy drew the ire of some religious leaders. Presley was a sex symbol and a cultural icon known for enjoying the company of glamorous women and a lavish lifestyle. Prescription painkillers were found in his system after his untimely death.
“Elvis was definitely controversial because of his elaborateness, but no one ever questioned his heart,” said Jackie Patillo, president of the Gospel Music Association. “He was always very overt when it came to gospel music and his expression of his faith.”
After his death, the Gospel Music Association inducted Presley in its hall of fame. Three of his gospel albums — “His Hand in Mine,” “How Great Thou Art” and “He Touched Me” — would go on to reach platinum or multiplatinum status.
Presley’s relationship with gospel also helped tear down the boundary between sacred and secular music, Hughes said. He showed that church music and rock ‘n’ roll can borrow from each other.
“He was one of the people that demonstrated at that key moment in American musical history that gospel could and should be directly a part of the pop conversation,” Hughes said.
If Presley wouldn’t have died 40 years ago, Hughes is confident Presley would have continued.
“I think he absolutely would have done more gospel,” Hughes said.