Column – Reflections on Elvis and gospel classics

Published 7:10 pm Friday, July 15, 2022

A delightful performance by the Flatland Bluegrass Band at a recent installment of the Downtown Smithfield Summer Concert Series took me back to the church revivals of my childhood as Southern gospel hymns like “Just Over in the Gloryland” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” had hands clapping and toes tapping.

I dearly miss the old classic hymns in this modern age of praise and worship, when “choruses” whose lyrics are displayed on big screens have pushed hymnals from the backs of pews, what few of them are left with padded chairs now the seat of choice in many churches.

This preacher’s kid understands fully the reason for the evolution of church music. The worship experience must stay fresh and current to attract new and younger congregants. Yet, as membership and attendance continue their steady decline, I wonder sometimes if churches have outsmarted themselves with their drums and sound machines and more “contemporary” services.

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Just give me a piano, a songbook and a choir that can belt in four-part harmony.

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Speaking of music, the Elvis Presley biopic currently playing in theaters has the memory bank, well, all shook up for those of us of a certain age. Carrollton resident Tom Allen recalls the King’s handful of visits to the Peninsula, including a little-known, or perhaps simply forgotten, piece of spaceship (Hampton Coliseum) trivia.

Legend has it that Elvis believed the walk from his limo to his dressing room to be far too long, so in preparation for a return visit to Hampton, coliseum officials had a special door cut in the well fortified structure. Known affectionately going forward as the “Elvis Door,” it gave him quick access to his dressing room – and a quick getaway from crazed fans.

Andy Greenwell, who managed the facility for many years, told journalists that the legend of the Elvis Door had nuggets of truth. Yes, Elvis was among the superstars who complained and would benefit, but the door wasn’t installed at his command. Surely it would have been had the command been given.

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Elvis would be 87 this year and, like me, underwhelmed by today’s church music. He counted as influential the Southern gospel sounds he heard as a kid attending the First Assembly of God in East Tupelo, Mississippi. It was a lifetime love affair. Even after achieving stardom in rock ‘n’ roll, he still preferred gospel quartets as his backup singers.

Another Elvis tidbit that might surprise you: His only Grammy awards were for gospel songs.

“We do two shows a night for five weeks,” he once told a reporter. “A lotta times we’ll go upstairs and sing until daylight – gospel songs. We grew up with it … . It more or less puts your mind at ease. It does mine.”

Steve Stewart, a former Suffolk News-Herald publisher, is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is steve.stewart@smithfieldtimes.com.