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.
"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."
Reared in the Assemblies of God, Presley had sensibilities shaped bythat Pentecostal tradition, which is rooted in the early 20th centuryrevivals that added prophecy, speaking in tongues, and faith-healing tothe already colorful spectrum of soulful Southern religion.
The denomination believes in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Wilsonsaid, noting that music also is very important to the tradition. "TheSpirit was alive and well in Elvis. He was drawn to religious music allhis life. That extraordinary session at Sun Records, released as the`Million Dollar Sessions,' showed Elvis' familiarity with the classicsongs of the Southern gospel tradition."
While white Pentecostalism's rituals and behaviors shaped him,Presley crossed many traditional boundaries, also absorbing the styleand ethos of Southern black gospel music.
An Elvis fan once told scholar Erika Doss, "Elvis knew the Biblebetter than most ministers do and studied many different religions,although he only practiced Christianity."
"Much of Elvis' popularity in the mid-1950s and the media attentionhe then received can be ascribed to his cross-race stylistics," Dosswrites, "to the ways that he mixed and blended black and white music andblack and white modes of performance into the emergent hybrid of rockand roll."
Like Presley's fans who keep small shrines to him in their homes,decorate their apartments with his posters and clippings, or immersethemselves in his music, Doss made pilgrimages to Graceland. She studiedwhat have become annual rites in August, when Elvis Week is held.
"Early on, he's pretty mainstream in his religious beliefs,attending First Assembly of God churches in Tupelo and Memphis," Dosssaid in an interview. "He recorded various gospel albums including 'HisHand in Mine' in 1960 and 'How Great Thou Art' in 1967 and 'You'll NeverWalk Alone' in 1971."
"He grew up in a mixed-race culture, having kind of diverse,ritualistic religious experiences, both white and black," Doss said."People talk about how he sat on the steps of black churches andlistened to singers.
"I think he grew up watching preachers express themselves physicallyand I think he incorporated that onto the stage."
A lot of fans told her Presley would've been a preacher if he hadn'tgravitated to rock 'n' roll.
As rock matured and Presley aged, he turned more introspective,delving in the 1960s into New Age ideas, spiritualism and mysticism.When he died, a book about the Shroud of Turin, "The Scientific Searchfor the Face of Jesus," was found with his body, Doss said.
Though his roots were in Christianity, Presley sought a more globalreligiosity. "Whether he practiced any of that is questionable," Dosssaid.
And she sees him leaving a mixed legacy: He bought into the "gospelof success" but is also remembered for his generosity to charities.
"In a sense, he felt he was placed on the planet to bring joy toothers, maybe not in terms of financial giving, but in terms of hismusic," she said.
Another fan told Doss: "I'm not a religious person, but I'm drawn toElvis as though he were a disciple of God. That's probably as close toreligion as I'll ever get."