Elvis Presley's Gospel Dream

As a young child, the singer's love for music brought him to the front of his church choir, imagining a time he'd be on stage.

BY: Joe Moscheo

 

As many people know, Elvis Aaron Presley was born to Vernon and Gladys Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, on January 8, 1935. He was the surviving twin; his brother, Jesse Garon, was stillborn. His parents brought him home to a two-room house barely four hundred square feet in size. His circumstances could hardly have been more humble, but he would remember and appreciate all his life the love he received from his family. His father was a hardworking man who stayed with his son throughout his life, supporting the pursuit of his dreams and, in later years, assisting with the financial oversight of his son's interests.

But it was with his mother that Elvis developed the deepest and most lasting of bonds. She kept constant watch over her son, walking him to and from school each day, even into his teenage years. He would never forget her devotion and her constancy. In many important ways, Gladys Presley's presence would make itself known throughout Elvis' life, often at moments when he was searching for guidance.

The Presleys were known to their Tupelo neighbors as a musical family. One of Elvis' earliest gifts was a guitar, purchased from a local hardware store. Residents of the small Mississippi town recall the Presleys sitting on the front porch of their small house in the evenings, singing. Sometimes, one or more of Elvis' uncles or aunts would come over and join in passing the time with music. Of course, no one in Tupelo at that time suspected they were listening to a voice that would become one of the most distinctive, well-known voices in American musical history.

The Presleys attended the First Assembly of God Church in East Tupelo, pastored by Reverend James Ballard, and later the First Assembly of God of Tupelo, where Reverend Rex Dyson was the minister; the three Presleys were baptized as members of this congregation. Gladys Presley would report that even as a toddler Elvis would squirm out of her lap and run down to the front of the church where the choir stood, watching them and imitating their voices and movements. A fifth-grade teacher once related that Elvis spontaneously demonstrated his musical talents, breaking into his own rendition of a then-popular song, "Old Shep." With her encouragement, he would repeat his performance for a talent contest at a state fair.

Picture this scene: Elvis Presley, probably no more than eight or ten years old, sits in the pews of the Assembly of God Church on a hot summer night in Tupelo. The windows of the church are open, and the women are working those cardboard funeral home fans for all they're worth. Elvis is squirming in his seat with excitement, because he has come, with his mom and dad, to a gospel singing by a real quartet, and he can hardly wait for the show to start. He has heard this quartet sing on the radio, and he can hardly believe he's about to see them in person.

A former neighbor, Janelle McComb, relates her memory of this squirmy kid: "We'd see him around town, see him at gospel singings, but...remember, back in those days, [we] weren't talking about the Elvis Presley that you see now....That was Gladys and Vernon's kid."

Most likely, the group got into town that morning, on their way to or from an all-night singing in Memphis. They went to the local radio station, a 500-watt setup broadcasting only during the daytime and barely reaching the city limits, and made a special pitch for tonight's performance at the church, telling everyone to be sure to attend, and "bring a friend." During the rest of the day, they set up their record racks in the church vestibule, rearranged the podium furniture, hefted the massive upright piano onto the platform, and went somewhere to rest for a little while, clean up, and change into their concert attire.

Finally, when Elvis thinks he can't wait another second, the preacher steps up on the podium. He welcomes everyone and, with the accompanist's help, leads the crowd in a few songs to get things started. Elvis sings out in his clear, child's voice, along with his mother and dad and everyone else. And then it's time for the main event.

"I'd like y'all to welcome these boys," the preacher says, nodding toward the five men sitting in the front pew, smiling and looking perfectly relaxed in their matching suits and ties. "They're going to do some of your favorite songs, and so I'm fixing to turn 'em loose on you now. Boys, get on up here."

The quartet takes the stage. Elvis drinks in the sight of them. Their hair is perfectly combed and the white handkerchiefs in the breast pockets of their coats look as clean and crisp as a brand new dollar bill. The piano player sits down and launches into a lively intro, his left hand loping up and down in octaves and his right hand banging out the chords. Elvis quickly recognizes the tune: "Jesus, Hold My Hand." The four singers are animated, smiling and gesturing to the crowd. Elvis feels as if they're singing every word just for him.

After they've sung for about a half hour or so, the quartet takes a break and the preacher comes back. "Now, folks, these boys agreed to come here and sing for whatever we'd give them, so right now we want to let them take a break while we take up a love offering. Gas is expensive, folks-up to fifteen cents a gallon, the other day-so let's all do our part and help these boys out so they can keep on spreading the Gospel in song."

To young Elvis, these performers were heroes—his idols. In his young imagination, he could see himself standing onstage in a crisp, tailored suit, singing the songs he knew so well, entertaining people and living the life of a professional gospel singer. It was the first dream of his life, and one he never fully left.

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