Most of us know “Love Me Tender,” perhaps the greatest love song sung by Elvis Presley, who is perhaps the greatest icon in 20th century pop culture. What many of us don’t know, however, is Elvis’s deep love for gospel and blues music and how it shaped everything he sang. He grew up listening to it in church and developed a deep love and reverence for what he heard. He said, “Since I was two years old, all I knew was gospel music. That music became such a part of my life it was as natural as dancing. A way to escape from the problems. And my way of release” (Elvis in His 0wn Words, 1977). His biggest influence was Sister Rosetta Tharpe (see our blog post on her). He wrote more than 50 gospel songs and recorded many hymns. He talked about being “limp as a rag” after his performances and linked his moves and complete immersion in his music on stage to what he learned watching and listening in church. (His mother said that when he was a toddler, Elvis would squirm out of her lap at services and run up to the choir, where he’d copy their dance moves and singing.) Although white audiences were lukewarm when he began his career (Elvis had to drive a truck for a while to make ends meet), it wasn’t long before his unique fusion of a roots/black/gospel/country/rock sound took off like wildfire. Elvis helped make mass audiences aware of the roots-based gospel sound, and we all owe him a debt for opening up our ears. Thanks, Elvis. We love you, man.
To hear Elvis’s gospel songs and learn more about his gospel roots, check out:
How Great Thou Art - How Great Thou Art was Presley’s second full-length gospel album and won a Grammy Award in 1967 for Best Sacred Performance