How Great Elvis Art: A roundup of Elvis’s gospel hits
The soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s new film “Elvis” is worth a trip to an actual movie theater. The actor Austin Butler covers some of the King’s most famous songs while facing off against his financially abusive manager Col. Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks.
Among his vast collection, Elvis’ rendition of gospel songs marked milestones in his career. He grew up listening to and singing them at Christian churches. He recorded gospel songs on albums and performed them in concerts throughout his decades-long career. The film’s two-and-a-half hour run time is unfortunately not long enough to include all of Elvis’ gospel hits, but here are some highlights from his career.
Elvis Presley began his career in the 1950s covering blues, country and gospel music. With his innate talent and charismatic performances, and bolstered by Parker’s feral manipulation, Elvis rose to stardom. In the film, a young and impressionable Elvis sings about Daniel in the lion’s den in “I Got A Feeling in My Body.” The lyrics tell of the future fulfillment of God’s promises and foreshadow Elvis’s rise to fame and fortune.
On “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Elvis performed several songs over three separate appearances. During his last appearance on Jan. 6, 1957, he sang the gospel song “Peace in the Valley.” Elvis dedicated his performance to the Hungarian people, who were revolting against a Soviet government, and Sullivan asked viewers to donate to relief efforts. In 2011, he even became an honorary citizen of Budapest for this act of kindness. Unfortunately, “Peace in the Valley” did not make it into the fast-paced film, in favor of better known and more controversial songs like “Hound Dog.”
Elvis covered several hymns, including “Take My Hand,” “Amazing Grace” and “In My Father’s House.” Although not included in the film, he actually won his first Grammy for his famous cover of “How Great Thou Art” in 1967. This 19th-century Swedish hymn based on Psalm 8 was one of his favorites. In 1975, Elvis also won his third Grammy for the concert recording of “How Great Thou Art” live in Memphis.
After military service in Germany and several Hollywood films in the 1960s, Elvis returned to focusing on music full time. His Dec. 3, 1968, televised performance, now known as the 1968 Comeback Special, included a gospel sequence.
“If I Can Dream” is an iconic number from the special that still reverberates today. The film actually depicts Elvis himself writing the song, which is not true. Earl Brown’s lyrics call for racial unity and resemble Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Elvis released two Christmas albums: “Elvis’ Christmas Album” in 1957 and “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas” in 1971. The albums include traditional Christmas carols alongside gospel hymns. In the film, Parker fervently tries to persuade Elvis to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus,” but instead he belts out “If I Can Dream.” Fans can hear Elvis’ cover of “Here Comes Santa Claus” on his 1957 album.
Elvis’s cover of “Silent Night” reflects his own love for his mother, with whom he was close. His ex-wife Priscilla Presley included “Silent Night” on the 2017 album “Christmas with Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra” saying in the liner notes that Elvis was particularly fond of the Christmas album.
In the 1970s, Elvis’s show at the new International Hotel in Las Vegas included the gospel singers the Sweet Inspirations. His set included some of his timeless hits and his iconic white star-studded jumpsuit. The film skips over Elvis’ 1972 Grammy win for “He Touched Me,” which was the last gospel album he recorded.
Elvis Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, but his fans didn’t forget his beautiful gospel songs. In 2001 he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.