Elvis Presley shook, rattled and rolled his way into our world by rocking his hips in uncontrolled abandon to the music that seemed to possess his soul. His sheer energy that bordered on ecstasy, that lightning in a bottle that crowned him King of rock and roll, was so obvious even in Presley’s first real recording, “That’s All Right”, the one that famed Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played 11 times in a row the first time it aired on radio. That same fervor of excitement, evident in every photo of his live performances from the Dorsey Show to Rosswood Park, shot Presley’s records straight to the top, got his hips banned from national television, and made Elvis a household name, if not idol.
Everyone and everyone’s mother seems to have written about the incredible mixture of influences that poured into one young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi and were forged into the greatest icon of popular music and culture of his century. [Okay, everybody’s mother but my own.] Blues, rhythm and blues, country, country and western, jump, swing, church hymns, and gospel were all part of the alchemy that turned Elvis into pure gold 100 times over. This is certainly not the place to rehearse such well-documented history; after all, it took Peter Guralnick two whole books and a myriad of column inches.
Still, we know for sure that, at least in his early years, Elvis went to church. The First Assembly of God in Tupelo, to be more precise, where Presley was—according to his mother—not only a member of the choir, but often a soloist. Church music seemed so ingrained in Elvis’s soul that he was known to boast, “I know every gospel song ever written.” Despite the doubtful veracity of that statement, the King did attempt to put on wax his feelings about the Kingdom: in 1957, at the height of his meteoric rise, RCA released a four-song EP of gospel songs, Peace in the Valley. Upon his return from a European stint in the Uncle Sam’s Army, Presley recorded a tribute to his favorite church quartets, 1960’s His Hand in Mine, backed by the inimitable Jordanaires. Elvis would return to the religious well twice more in his career, releasing How Great Thou Art in 1966 and He Touched Me in 1972. Of course, the title track of the ‘66 album remained one of Presley’s show-stopping numbers in Las Vegas until the time of his death.
It might come as welcome tidings to fans of Presley’s gospel records that the best tracks from those four albums have been compiled together for the first time on the new release Ultimate Gospel. But the truth is, there’s little good news here. While the lyrical content and song titles might indicate that Ultimate Gospel is a religious album, it is surprisingly devoid of fervor of any variety. Missing is the ecstasy that Elvis was able to bring even to such laughable songs as “Crawfish”; the music is staid, prim, and proper stuff, unhaunted by the manic tension of the best gospel music, and the best Elvis Presley recordings. The agony of “Harbor Lights”, the ecstasy of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”; the terror of “In the Ghetto”, and the release of “I’ve Never Been to Spain” are all emotions absolutely lacking here, in what should be the most soulful of Elvis’s recordings.
“Where Could I Go But to the Lord”, one of the best tracks on Ultimate Gospel, still sounds much closer to a lackluster doo-wop tune than to a moving testimony to the presence of salvation. “Swing Down Sweet Chariot” and “Joshua Fit the Battle” are so hollow that it almost seems as if the King is down on his knees, crooning “Mammy”. Hell, it seems as if Elvis put more feeling into “Well, it’s one for the money / Two for the show” than he invested in “When I think of how He came so far from Glory / Came to dwell among the lowly such as I” on “Who Am I?”, perhaps the most emotional studio performance Presley ever put into a religious song.
The real shortcomings of this album are seen in comparison to other gospel recordings, both Elvis’s and others. Two of Ultimate Gospel‘s 24 tracks are, in one example, found on the Blind Boys of Alabama’s masterful Spirit of the Century. Their versions of both “Amazing Grace” and “Run On” are so filled with passion, horror, longing, and an ever-present sense of the possibility of redemption that they make Presley’s takes on these themes to border the one-dimensional. Furthermore, the well known live versions of songs such as “Lord, You Gave Me A Mountain” and “The American Trilogy”, which features an incredibly moving “Glory, Glory Hallelujah”, are far more potent than any of the songs in Ultimate Gospel‘s brew.
Ultimately, there is only water and not intoxicating wine in the bottle labeled Ultimate Gospel. While it might be the best collection of studio recordings that are pleasant enough to listen to on a Sunday morning, they lack a vivacity that would make Elvis seem truly present, much less a King of Kings. There is better Elvis music out there, and there is far better gospel music to boot. That doesn’t mean that this record won’t make a tidy fit into your Elvis collection; I’m happy to have it around (even if I didn’t pay for it). So take that as cautionary advice from a guy who still believes that the most religious recording one young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi ever made remains the ridiculously soulful “Wearin’ That Loved-On Look”.