28 HOW GREAT THOU ART
Released February 1967
What happened in the four years before How Great Thou Art was recorded in late 1966 is important. In March 1962 eleven tracks were recorded by Elvis in one session. Not all those eleven tracks made the Pot Luck album but the decision to replace some tracks with others previously recorded did not undermine the intention. In the four years that followed that album Elvis recorded, apart from his movie soundtracks, nothing more than twelve tracks in 1963 and three tracks a year later. The intended 1963 album was never released, and those twelve recordings were instead used as bonus tracks for movie albums. Biographer Peter Guralnick has suggested, although not in print, that Elvis had been suffering from clinical depression from 1962. Elvis used these quiet four years to read religious texts and seek other diversions rather than think about his career. Today and to this remote outsider it appears that Elvis was trying to make sense of an existence that had supplied pleasure, a fair degree of personal validation, much loaded economic relief and buckets of guilt. Elvis had been blessed with everything except redemption.
In February 1966, and three months before he had recorded his How Great Thou Art album, Elvis had limped through the contrived rock and roll of his movie Spinout. The great 1950s rebel had been reduced to a celluloid puppet. So it seemed and almost everyone concluded. The three stunning bonus tracks on the Spinout album, though, had offered hope. Two of those recordings came from the How Great Thou Art sessions when eighteen tracks had been produced over four days. Twelve of the eighteen tracks were gospel tunes and these twelve formed the How Great Thou Art album.
In between his movies Elvis carried extra weight. The publicity photographs for How Great Thou Art appeared much later than the album. In them Elvis wore a three piece suit to hide his expanded stomach. In some of those photographs he wore sunglasses. The album cover has a photograph of a church from Massachusetts and an image of Elvis that had been taken a few years earlier. The back cover features Elvis in a head to toe shot. This alone makes the album unique. The pattern on album covers was for head and shoulder photos. Occasionally the image reached as low as his hips. It appeared that whoever was designing the record covers had listened to Ed Sullivan. On the Ed Sullivan show and to avoid offending censors Elvis had been filmed from the waist up. In the image on the back cover Elvis wears a white suit and a pale blue shirt. The expression on his face is solemn. His tie is white and not unlike what vicars wear.
I had been bruised by his previous efforts and in 1967, when the album was released, I was keeping the music of late 1960s Elvis at a distance. But despite the disappointments I continued to look through the Elvis album covers in the local record stores. The inclusion of a track called Stand By Me on the album had me interested but the absurd collar and po-faced pose strengthened resistance. The glory days for Elvis were over. I bought the album four years later and after his renaissance. A record shop in Glasgow was selling the How Great Thou Art album at half price.
What was not shared on the back cover of the How Great Thou Art album were the names of the producer and the other musicians. From when Elvis had signed for RCA in 1956 the producer on his studio albums had been Chet Atkins the talented Nashville guitarist. Atkins was also a power player or pragmatic bureaucrat and a very different animal to the neurotic Elvis. Over the years the friction between the two men had increased. Elvis liked to work through the night. Atkins preferred to sleep through the dark hours. A recording studio is not the quietest location but Atkins would often fall asleep in the middle of the sessions of Elvis. Plagued by insomnia throughout his adult life the reaction of Elvis was hostile. Musicians have reported that Elvis would walk over to the unconscious Atkins and yell obscenities into the startled face of his producer. When someone suggested Felton Jarvis as an alternative for the How Great Thou Art sessions the sleep deprived Atkins was happy to move on.
Jarvis worked with Elvis from the How Great Thou Art sessions in 1966 until the final recording sessions at Graceland in 1976. The reputation of Jarvis as a producer is modest and, like Atkins previously, eager to please Jarvis was not equipped to be a catalyst. Felton Jarvis did, though, have two important qualifications. He was an Elvis fan and, just as important, he could stay awake in the early hours of the morning. Whatever the limitations of Jarvis he did not resist the demands of Elvis. If anything, Jarvis was too willing to accommodate the whims of the singer.
Yet not everything that Elvis had planned for the How Great Thou Art album happened. Elvis had wanted the African American gospel quartet The Harmonizing Four to provide vocal accompaniment. Elvis was a big fan of Jimmy Jones the smooth bass vocalist. Schedules clashed, and it was not possible. Instead the Imperials Quartet featuring gospel icon Jake Hess joined the Jordanaires and four female vocalists that consisted of Millie Kirkham, June Page, Dolores Edgin and hit maker Sandy Posey. The songs on How Great Thou Art were not original. All were taken from albums by famous gospel quartets. The sound on How Great Thou Art, though, was different. Instead of using the traditional quartet and piano, Elvis assembled a twelve person choir and a fourteen piece band. The album had what Jake Hess described as ‘that big sound’.
Elvis was married to Priscilla three months after How Great Thou Art was released in the USA. Gospel material may not have been the first choice of Parker and RCA for the first Elvis studio album in four years but out of date Parker had retained his enthusiasm for adding what he regarded as niche markets to the Elvis product. And at least Elvis had returned to the studio to record material that he took seriously. The interest of Elvis in religious thought persisted throughout his life but it is not unreasonable to conclude that for a short while it had peaked with the recording of his second gospel album. For a brief period after the recording session he sought emotional consolation in other ways. Elvis built himself a ranch in 1967. Once again he attempted to distance himself from his career. This led to a confrontation between Parker and Elvis. Everyone including the Memphis Mafia and groovy hairdresser was reminded that Parker had a business to run and whether they liked it or not they were all on his payroll. This was nonsense of course but through force of will Parker brought his star and the attendants under control. Football managers like their players to marry because a wife can help keep footballers out of nightclubs and away from intoxicants. Bland movie soundtracks had alienated Elvis and his commitment and energy had dissipated. Perhaps Parker figured marriage was just the thing to make Elvis compliant. It could, though, have been a harmless coincidence.
Before all that had happened Elvis recorded How Great Thou Art. Few will agree with me but the album is his masterpiece. Amongst the 57 albums he recorded in his lifetime there are fine achievements but How Great Thou Art is the one example of uncompromising art. It exists as confirmation that mere warblers and strummers can achieve the transcendental. If the cover images of How Great Thou Art promote the idea of religious devotion, the album is much more than that. No doubt its success required musical virtuosity. What makes the album marvellous, though, depends on something other than technical skill. The vocal performances of Elvis on How Great Thou Art are eclipsed by the efforts of Aretha Franklin on her Amazing Grace album but those performances are not likely to be matched by anyone. Her voice is supreme. On How Great Thou Art the performances of Elvis achieve an emotional depth that is not only profound and complex but rooted in the inconsequential existence and capricious fate of ordinary people. His renditions of How Great Thou Art and Where No One Stands Alone may be sublime and powerful but the other performances are also exceptional and in a different way. In his classic rock and roll book Mystery Train the author Greil Marcus claimed that the album was good enough to make you convert. No one, though, needs to be religious to be affected by How Great Thou Art. Elvis communicates what is personal to him, loneliness, dependency and the unfair twists of fate. With his ego parked somewhere outside the studio Elvis became a sensitive and thoughtful man, the person that Parker and his agents in the Memphis Mafia did what they could to discourage. How Great Thou Art captures human experience and isolation. The escapism of Hollywood and carefree rock and roll are abandoned for authentic gloom. Stand By Me which has the line ‘when I do the best I can and my friends misunderstand’ breaks the heart. Humble inadequacy is the common human experience, and glory is rare and short lived. Even God does not provide glory. On How Great Thou Art the God Elvis refers to is the essential crutch many need in their inevitable desperate moments.
In 1971 after I had bought the album I played it for members of my family. All were astonished by its power. It actually sparked a confession in my soon to be wife. Without provocation she recalled treating another man badly. ‘I’m not sure why I’m telling you this,’ she said. ‘It’s the music,’ I said. ‘The difference between what we are and can be. If we do not feel shame, we are nothing.’ How Great Thou Art does not have the melodic invention and moments of surprise that arrived with The Beatles and the peers. Although the performances required expertise the music is not for those listeners who can only respond to technique and invention. How Great Thou Art has the very best of heart music, a cause that Elvis was obliged too often to abandon but that he honoured in his own way. Listen to How Great Thou Art and we hear what is best and fine about a man obliged to be overcome by his flaws. Elvis was able to share with his listeners and fans an ambition that he had described to Priscilla, ‘to let people know that we all have these feelings’. The price he paid for those feelings would become apparent later. But similar revelations, of course, happen to all of us.
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.