"I Know Practically Every Religious Song That’s Ever Been Written" Or, Elvis Sings Gospel

Can’t let the Elvis flame go out quite yet… Here’s an annotated playlist of 20 […]

David Zahl / 3.10.10

Can’t let the Elvis flame go out quite yet… Here’s an annotated playlist of 20 of the King’s best gospel recordings, interpreting the term ‘gospel’ pretty loosely – anything related to the Bible, God or Christianity qualified. By way of a disclaimer, almost none of EP’s earliest gospel recordings are included. They may be beautiful and noble examples of the ‘gospel quartet’ tradition, but I find them pretty boring, at least compared to his funkier stuff from the late 60s and early 70s. I should also say that despite the obvious kitsch, this isn’t meant to be an ironic or tongue-in-cheek exercise, at least not entirely so. Elvis was dead-serious when he sang these songs – for the most part – and that’s how they should be listened to. His faith was not a put-on; you can hear it in his voice. It’s one of the main things that make these recordings so great. Elvis could channel feeling (spirit?) with the very best of them.

1. Run On. From Elvis’ second sacred full-length, How Great Thou Art. As inspired as Johnny Cash’s version on American Recordings V is (re-titled “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”), I prefer Elvis’. The best example of the aforementioned quartet sound.

2. By And By. Listen for the electric guitar. In context, it was very wild.

3. Adam And Evil. From Spinout, one of Elvis’ final and more forgettable movies, this song notwithstanding.

4. Clean Up Your Own Backyard. Pelagianism never sounded so good! The opening line about the hypocritical back-porch preacher – “come Sunday morning he’s lying in bed, his eyes red from the wine in his head/wishin he was dead when he oughta be heading for Sunday school” – is worth the price of admission alone. Admission to his penultimate film, that is, The Trouble With Girls.

5. Let Us Pray. We’ve covered this one already. That bass sure creeps up on you…

6. Who Am I? The only Gospel tune from his 69 Memphis sessions. Subdued but passionate.

7. Where Did They Go, Lord?

8. I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago. I don’t know about you but I would’ve loved to have seen Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring-around-the-roses.

9. You Gave Me A Mountain. From the Aloha From Hawaii concert. Elvis could do Christian melodrama better than anyone. Eat your heart out, Carmen!

10. Put Your Hand In The Hand. Perhaps the musical highpoint here. As far as I know, funkier white gospel does not exist.

11. Help Me. Originally written for Elvis, Johnny Cash tried his hand at this one on American V too and blew Elvis’ version out of the water. Great lyrics.

12. If That Isn’t Love. From 1972’s He Touched Me. Eric Cartmen would have a field day.

13. A Thing Called Love. This is the only Elvis song that sounds remotely like this, featuring some of his most surprising ensemble singing. His 70s work was normally marred by engineers mixing the vocals way too loud. Not here.

14. He Is My Everything.

15. Seeing Is Believing. More questionable theology, this time of the natural variety, but man, that James Burton guitar rocks! Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy on back-up is no slouch either.

16. I’ve Got Confidence. Perfect song?

17. Only Believe. More indicative of his 70s balladeering than most of the other tracks on He Touched Me. But certainly one of the better examples.

18. Why Me Lord. J.D. Sumner cracks me up…

19. How Great Thou Art. Most Bombastic Version Ever.

20. I Got A Feelin’ In My Body. Gospel-disco from 1973, complete with very ‘adult’-sounding guitar. This one is another anomaly.

Bonus Track: Elvis doing karate on stage in 1974. This really happened.