12 HIS HAND IN MINE
Released in the USA November 23 1960
In the months that followed his release from the Army the quiff of Elvis became ridiculous, tall enough to resemble a portable skyscraper, no windows of course. When Elvis posed for the cover of his His Hand In Mine, his first gospel album, the quiff had been flattened to a respectable height. On the album cover Elvis is pictured playing a piano. This prompted a journalist wag to quip that the piano was not the only instrument that Elvis played badly. The image on the front cover presented a young man that a middle class family would have welcomed into their home. The sneer and sideburns were banished. His facial expression, like it was on the cover of the previous G.I. Blues album, indicated hesitant curiosity. Elvis wore a dark suit.
In my local record store the album cover appeared in the window but in the classical section. What was in the mind of the owner of the store I will never know. Liner notes made a welcome return. The previous five albums had all used the back covers for photographs of the handsome star. The liner notes were written by now forgotten but once rated novelist Robert Kotlowitz, a serious left wing liberal that mixed writing and managing a public broadcast radio station. The description by Kotlowitz of the devout Presleys, though, belonged more to the escapism of The Walton Family TV show than the reality of a southern working class family. No doubt Kotlowitz meant well.
It has been assumed that manager Parker saw Elvis singing gospel music as the next step in the development of an Elvis brand that had widespread appeal. If that was the case, Parker was unconcerned about the sales of the gospel collection being affected by the demand by fans for G.I.Blues. Two months to the day after the G.I. Blues album was released His Hand In Mine appeared. The gospel collection reached number thirteen in the Billboard album charts. With less competition from Elvis himself the record might have achieved more chart success.
Yet His Hand In Mine, like the other two gospel albums subsequently recorded by Elvis, has had persistent sales. At some point the album was certified as having RIAA Platinum status. RIAA is the acronym for Recording Industry Association of America. Gold status is awarded for records that have sold 500,000 copies. Platinum status applies to records with one million sales. The RIAA only aggregates record sales that have occurred in America. Add international record sales and the career of Elvis meant big bucks for Parker. Today the numbers quoted by RIAA also include streams from the Internet. The extent of the commercial persistence of His Hand In Mine is understood when it is compared to the sales of studio triumphs such as Elvis Is Back and From Elvis In Memphis. Those records were greeted with widespread acclaim and had more success in the Billboard charts when released but up to this point they have only achieved gold status.
His Hand In Mine was recorded on the 30th of October 1960, in Nashville and six months after work on the G.I. Blues album had been completed. For his first gospel album Elvis appeared at the studio wearing a sailor cap and a shiny yellow shirt. The material may have been religious and much of the planned music pious but the mood of Elvis was anything but sombre. As he did in the rest of his career, the decision to make a gospel album suggests Elvis was prepared to make deals. In a tradition established by The Sons of The Pioneers and others, Elvis sang what his bosses wanted providing he could record occasionally material that he liked. After five movies Elvis was an actor. More than anyone, actors are obliged to make such deals when accepting roles. His experience in Hollywood might have shaped his relaxed attitude to the choice of material and left a willingness in Elvis to accept gains and losses.
His Hand In Mine is an obvious gain. The album was recorded in a long single session that stretched for fourteen hours and across midnight. One assumes that the rules insisted upon by the American Federation of Musicians were ignored. None of the recordings presented specific problems, and each took around an hour to be completed. Elvis recorded fourteen songs, twelve for the album plus the single Surrender and a fine version of the chestnut Crying In The Chapel. All the songs on His Hand In Mine had been previously recorded by other performers. Some of the tunes had been around long enough to qualify as folklore. Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Joshua Fit The Battle would have been recognised by the wider public including record buyers in Europe. But those two songs also featured in the shows of the Golden Gate Quartet, an African American gospel group that Elvis admired and had met.
The His Hand In Mine collection included songs from The Blackwood Brothers and The Statesman gospel groups, performers that Elvis had seen perform in the all night shows in Memphis. The arrangements Elvis used were not radical but the purpose of the album was to honour a musical tradition that Elvis respected. Because it combined tunes from both the white and black gospel traditions, the impressive range of His Hand In Mine makes it exceptional. Whatever his intentions, no one sings gospel quite like Elvis. If the arrangements lack surprises, the fabulous vocals have invention and real emotion. On the track I Believe In The Man In The Sky homage is paid to the great gospel singer Jake Hess. The performance of Elvis can be dismissed as an imitation of the original recording but the voice of Elvis has a seductive warmth and uninterrupted rhythm that Hess, a more traditional gospel tenor, lacks. The standout performances are Milky White Way and Jesus Knows What I Need. On the Elvis version of Milky White Way there is a swing and optimism that does not exist on the still fabulous original by African American gospel group The Trumpeteers. The Elvis version of Jesus Knows What I Need is low key but within that suppression Elvis finds a drama and tension that make it unforgettable. There is even space on the album for the Jordanaires to have the spotlight. On Working On The Building the role of Elvis is restricted to that of vocal support. He appears to be content in this reduced role. This, of course, was his original ambition, to be a member of a gospel quartet. I doubt that a more modest profile in gospel music would have sustained Elvis and left him unblemished by fame but who knows.
I avoided the His Hand In Mine album until over a decade after it was released. My own family were apathetic atheists. Rather than believe there was no God they settled for a cosmic mystery that could be quietly ignored. To me gospel music was an example of American eccentricity. The interesting and valid American exotica was in the blues and country music. My curiosity in gospel music was eventually stimulated by its inclusion in the Elvis TV Comeback Special and the occasional African American gospel record that I had heard on radio and television. In the middle of the 1970s I bought His Hand In Mine weeks after buying the Aretha Franklin album Amazing Grace. I was interested in both performers and gospel music but I was not building a gospel collection. Someone had advertised Elvis albums for sale in the local newspaper. The woman selling the albums lived in a small terraced house in a reduced Lancashire town that capricious capitalism had left behind. The woman sold me three albums, Something For Everybody, His Hand In Mine and Pot Luck. None were considered classics by me but the woman was selling each for £1 which was about two thirds of the price of new record albums. Back then all record albums carried the same price. The other Elvis albums the woman owned had duplicated what I already had. The woman had looked after her records. The album covers looked more worn than the discs.
I still remember the living room where the woman that sold me the records lived. The room was small, cosy, warm and bright, a defence against long dark winter British nights. Once the three Elvis albums were safely in my hands I asked the woman why she was selling them. Had she gone off Elvis? I asked. The woman said that she still thought Elvis was great but she did not play the records anymore. I waited for an explanation. There’s other things to do these days, the woman said. The woman sat in an armchair. Her husband sat next to me and on the sofa. When you’ve got kids and everything, said the woman. Her husband smiled. I nodded my head and wondered.
Of the three albums that Elvis recorded, His Hand In Mine is neither the best nor the worst. The harsh could say that opportunities were missed and that Elvis was too deferential, that he reduced himself to someone who could only acknowledge others. But if this is true, there remains the voice and a mastery that never falters over a wide range of material. After earning money performing the fluff of G.I. Blues the recording of this album would have been a relief for Elvis and the musicians. The slow pious tunes are blessed by his pure tenor, and he is exuberant on the rest. Elvis recorded three gospel albums in his career. They are all conceptual and each one is shaped by a different idea or ambition. His Hand In Mine honours the roots of his childhood and past. The other more revealing preoccupations, which would permit Elvis to display more originality, we would discover later.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here