A few months back I wrote a post about pop music and faith, and I have been astounded by its popularity – the post still has regular traffic from across the world. This has led me to post the following article that I wrote ten years ago, when I was based one summer in Washington DC, for a website that has long since disappeared. The article has a special significance this week, as it was exactly sixty years ago that an unknown 19-year-old recorded his first record. That single was “That’s All Right (Mama)” and it wasn’t long before Elvis Aaron Presley was being dubbed “The King of Rock’n’Roll”.
Only a few hours before Elvis’s death, his close friend Rick Stanley heard him reciting a Christian prayer of repentance. ‘Dear Lord,’ he prayed, ‘please show me a way. I’m tired and confused and I need your help.’ Elvis may well be remembered for shooting televisions, pain-killer addiction, and womanising, but the King of Rock’n’Roll should also be remembered for another side to him. Elvis was, of course, also a deeply religious individual, and his faith was central to his life. Like all of us, he had a flawed personality, but his intentions were clear to all his friends. ‘He was a deeply spiritual man;’ noted Ray Walker of The Jordanaires, the legendary quartet that sang with Elvis for many years, ‘he was more spiritual than anyone around him’.
The Pentecostal faith of Elvis’s childhood certainly shaped his music. Not only did his secular rock’n’roll records borrow from the musical experiences of his Southern church upbringing, but he also recorded gospel songs throughout his life. In fact, Jerry Schilling, one of the Memphis Mafia, Elvis’s closest confidents, claims that Elvis would enjoy nothing more than escaping the mansion and going to the piano at his little gym. There he would sing gospel songs and old spirituals for hours on end. His recorded gospel songs proved remarkably popular, from “Peace in the Valley” and “Run On” in the 50s and 60s to “I Got Confidence” and “Amazing Grace” in the 70s. The record “How Great Thou Art” earned Elvis his first Grammy Award, and he would win two more Grammy Awards for his gospel recordings. ‘I know practically every religious song that’s ever been written’, he once boasted.
It seems, however, that faith was not merely a musical journey for Elvis. His friends have claimed that he knew the Bible better than most ministers do, and in his periods of self-loathing he was said to rely for comfort and grace on the Scriptures. When away from his Bible, his friends recall that he would leave it open on Corinthians 13, St Paul’s great ode to love. Likewise, prayer was central to his life. Before every concert he would insist that his band prayed with him, and, during his 70s concerts especially, he would interject thoughts of inspiration and passage readings from the Bible. His faith also inspired him in practical and humanitarian ways, as he spent time with friends who needed comfort and gave generously to charities. ‘He wasn’t faking it, and people can tell that,’ notes Jason Freeman of the Legendary Sun Studio in Memphis. ‘He was very spiritual, and that attracted a lot of people to him.’
By the mid-sixties, Elvis concluded that he was aimed to fulfil two desires in his lifetime. Firstly, he wished to create a music that brought happiness to people; and, secondly, he aimed to perform a higher purpose or service for God. This higher purpose, he later claimed, would be to show to his fans the truth of Christianity, and the love and peace it brought to him. Certainly his own faith empowered him in so many ways. ‘His religious faith told him “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so”, to quote a popular Southern religious song,’ claims Charles R. Wilson of the University of Mississippi, ‘…so his faith gave him much inspiration’.
It is certainly ironic that an Elvis-religion (sometimes called Elvism, the Presleyterian church, or Presleyanity) is being alluded to by fans and social-critics alike. ‘Fan clubs are churches,’ notes Vernon Chadwick, ‘impersonators are priests, song lyrics are scripture, souvenirs are relics, sightings are Second Comings, and of course Graceland and Memphis are the holy land’. This is surely a far cry from what Elvis himself would have wanted. After all, Elvis’s friend and gospel superstar J.D. Sumner recalls an incident during a concert in Las Vegas. A woman approached the stage carrying a crown on a purple, velvet pillow. ‘It’s for you,’ she said to Elvis, ‘you’re the king’. Without hesitation, Elvis took her by the hand and answered in his kind, drawling voice: ‘No, honey, I’m not the king. Christ is the king. I’m just a singer’.
See also: Rock of Ages: Pop music, faith, and the challenge to the Church today