The Gospel According to Elvis

(RNS) The multilayered Pentecostal faith of his childhood stillseems to shape Elvis Presley's music even decades after his death.

The Mississippi-born singer loved famous hymns, including "AmazingGrace," "In the Garden," "He Is My Everything" and "How Great Thou Art,"as much as he loved peanut butter. Now, a new five-CD release uncoversthe soulful side of this rock 'n' roll legend.

Scholars from the Deep South to the Far West have wrestled with theElvis phenomenon, exploring his complicated personality, his love-haterelationship with his roots and his unparalleled celebrity in the yearssince his death.

Despite the success of his rock music and his movies, Presleyreceived coveted Grammy awards only for his gospel recordings and liveperformances. The best of that music will be released in March inChristian bookstores and retail shops through Provident MusicDistribution and RCA. The set offers 56 recordings, many of them rare.

Many baby boomers remember being -- or watching -- the screamingteenagers who flocked to Presley's concerts. Social historians recallthe dismayed parents who blasted his onstage gyrations. But Presley hadanother side, steeped in the decisive rhythms of Southern religiousmusic. Your spine may tingle just a little when you hear Presley croon"I Have Confidence" or belt out "I'm Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs." Hisis the voice of a man sometimes undone by belief.


"Southern gospel music was one source of Elvis' performing style,"said Charles R. Wilson, a historian of Southern culture who teaches atthe University of Mississippi at Oxford. "The movements onstage, the wayhe dressed, the way he did his hair -- all were influenced by the gospelperformers he saw and studied in the long gospel concerts he went to inMemphis.

"He took the gospel performing style and rocked it, becoming thecelebrity he was."

Wilson, author of the 1995 book "Judgment and Grace in Dixie: FromFaulkner to Elvis" (University of Georgia Press), says faith definedPresley because it empowered him to be who he believed himself to be.

"He came from a very poor family, yet his religious faith told him'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,' to quote apopular Southern religious song that children sing," Wilson said. "Justas his mother told him he was special, so his religious faith gave himmuch inspiration."

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