April 20, 2004

Elvis Presley "Ultimate Gospel"

Even though he will always one of the world's most recognizable images, Elvis Presley's career was one full of rather odd choices and happenings. The boy gets popular, and at the peak of his success, he gets drafted. When he returns home, he trades in his initial chart success for a movie career. He dredges his career in the name of movies and when it seems as if he's totally lost all credibility, he launches a comeback with a mountain of excellent records, which makes him bigger than ever. When he becomes a top draw in concert because of this success, he turns over his recording career in favor for live performance. When he reaches the bottom once again, he releases a single, "Way Down," that seemed poised to revitalize his career. Then he dies, which really launches his career into hyperdrive.

Beneath this pop/country/movie career, he had a secret, lesser-known career as a gospel singer. In fact, out of his mountain of hit records, his only Grammy awards during his lifetime were for his gospel recordings. It's also a commonly-known fact that he started his career singing in the church, and up until his death, he would often would stay up until the early morning hours singing gospel songs with his friends and family. In the past few years, this aspect of Elvis' career has been subject to two box sets (!), and Elvis: Ultimate Gospel is the first single-disc gospel overview that collects many of the better sides from his gospel recordings.

It's quite obvious that Elvis is in love with much of the material. Though several of the gospel numbers from the early Seventies tend to sound a bit bored (a common complaint with all of his material at the time) and the songs aren't as catchy or upbeat as the more traditional material, this complaint is one to be taken lightly, as the material found here is, for the most part, quite excellent. Several of the numbers are fast-paced and upbeat, such as "I, John," "So High," "Joshua Fit the Battle" and "Run On"--and Elvis' spirits have never sounded higher--and it's obvious where he developed his showmanship from; these songs are foot-stompers and hand-wavers of the highest quality, and he does the material right. Even on more serious numbers as "Amazing Grace," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "(There'll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me)," his voice is strong and resonates with a seriousness that his other work never seemed to obtain. The songs are never too serious, too earnest or too sober, and though the collection isn't presented chronologically, it's compiled in such a way that the material never drags.

It is said that from the very beginning of his career, Elvis had every intention of making gospel music. Though he only released a handful of gospel recordings, he never lost the love of good Christian music. Because of his interest in the material and his actual love for the songs, his singing is utterly sincere, makes the performance even more powerful. While Elvis: Ultimate Gospel is far from a complete collection, it's a strong, enjoyable record of some really excellent gospel music.

--Joseph Kyle

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