CCM Classic Blog

The King of Not Only Rock but Gospel, Jake Hess, Terry Blackwood, Armond Morales and The Other Imperials Keeping it Alive; by Philip Mayabb


I will never forget the afternoon of August 16, 1976...I was a 9 year old little boy, at my grandmother's house (she was my babysitter), and I was watching "The Mod Squad" on television (can any of you remember that show?).  All at once, the local station's news anchor interrupted the show, and these were her exact words..."a shocking story, Elvis Presley, the King Of Rock And Roll, is dead...".  It was one of those moments in life that I will never forget, the announcement that one of the most influential performers in American music history, and one of my childhood singing idols, had passed away.

Elvis will ALWAYS be a musical icon...John Lennon of the Beatles was once quoted as saying "before Elvis, there was nothing", and that pretty much sums it up.  Now you all know Elvis' story, I'm sure...from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, he became the biggest performer in the world in the mid 1950s, and influenced generations of musicians that came after him.  You can look online, and see countless stories of how his music set many professional musicians on their career path, but some Christians may not realize the love affair between Elvis and Christian music.  From his childhood, Elvis had developed a deep love for gospel music, and he was never afraid or ashamed to tell anybody that gospel or spiritual music was his first love.  It has been documented that even in his life's darkest hours, Elvis was comforted by gospel music, and many of his friends and associates have corroborated that story over the years.  During his many residencies performing in Las Vegas, Elvis would call his friends and guests to his hotel room, where a piano was waiting.  He would then spend several hours with whoever was singing backup for him at the time (usually the Imperials or the Stamps Quartet), singing his favorite gospel songs, it was how he would unwind.  So it has been established that gospel music was a pillar in the life of Elvis Presley.

He also developed many personal and professional relationships with performers in the gospel music industry.  J.D Sumner, the phenomenal bass singer extraordinaire of the Stamps Quartet, and Jake Hess, the founder of The Imperials, were two of Presley's closest friends in the gospel music field.  His friendship with Hess is of particular importance, because it plays a major role in the album we are featuring for you on Vinyl Revival this week. Prior to forming the Imperials in 1964, Jake Hess spent many years as the lead singer of the legendary Statesmen Quartet, and they were one of Elvis' favorite groups.  In fact it has been said that many of his onstage moves were inspired by the Statesmen's iconic bass singer, James "Big Chief" Wortherington.  However, when Hess departed the Statesmen, and started the Imperials, Elvis took notice of the group's more updated sound, and he loved it.  When he recorded his second gospel album, 1967's "How Great Thou Art", Presley asked Hess & The Imperials to sing backup on the album, and they accepted.  The album was a worldwide smash, and is still considered by many music critics to be one of the greatest Christian albums of all time.  The sound was fresh, much more contemporary than Elvis's first gospel album, (His Hand In Mine) was in 1960, and it was so good that it won the first of his three Grammy awards (all of which were for Gospel music, ironically).

Not long afterward, founding members Hess, and Gary McSpadden left the Imperials, and were replaced by two young men named Terry Blackwood and Roger Wiles.  With bass singer Armond Morales taking control of the group, the Imperials began singing gospel songs with more modern vocal and musical arrangements in 1968.  Two of their early, post Hess era LPs, "Now" and "Love Is The Thing" caught the attention of Elvis, and he invited the Imperials to become his male backup group in 1969.  After working together for 2 years, Elvis decided to record what would be his third, and final, gospel album, with the Imperials providing the background vocals, but that was far from being the only input that the group had on the sessions.  Elvis chose a total of four songs that the Imperials had recorded on the two above mentioned LPs for inclusion on the new record, and the game plan was to make a gospel album that matched the sound and attitude of his live performances. Recorded from March to June of 1971, "He Touched Me" was about as contemporary as you could get, and it featured Presley and the Imperials in top form.  They were a great combination, and it comes through in every note on the album.

Former Imperials lead singer Terry Blackwood recently told me that the group had a wonderful time in the studio recording the album with Elvis.  He said that a Presley session had one major difference from one of the group's own studio dates, and that was the fact that Elvis was willing to experiment with track and vocal arrangements, while the Imperials' sessions were kept more on track...the producers knew what they wanted, and that was what they would put on tape.  With Elvis, the Imperials had the opportunity to tweak the arrangements they used in the studio, making for a more relaxed atmosphere as the album was being recorded. In addition to re-recording some of their own material, the group got to sing fun songs such as "Bosom Of Abraham" and "I, John", songs that became two of Elvis' favorite songs to sing at the piano during those late night hotel room jam sessions. One of the reasons he loved these two songs so much is because they prominently feature bass singer Armond Morales. Legend has it that Elvis had wanted to sing in a southern gospel quartet originally, before he became a superstar, and his dream was to sing bass.  If you listen to both of these tracks, he actually hangs in there rather well beside Morales, who just flat out knows how to sing bass.

One of the four Imperials' songs that Elvis performed on He Touched Me, was Andrae Crouch's classic "I've Got Confidence", however the Presley  version is one of the best recordings of the song (in my opinion). It has an attitude that is missing from both Andrae's and the Imperials' versions, with a far more progressive, rock edge to the music, that sets it apart from anyone else's recording of the song. One of the Imperials' more daring songs, the Jerry Reed penned "A Thing Called Love" was covered rather well by Elvis, using the exact same arrangement the Imperials had used when they recorded the song three years earlier.  Ditto for "Reach Out To Jesus", the original group arrangement was used, and Elvis sang it to perfection.  Of course, the last song Elvis got from the Imperials was the album's title song, Bill Gaither's iconic "He Touched Me", which is one of very few songs in the Gaither catalog that Bill wrote alone.

As for the rest of the album, there really isn't a bad track on the recording.  Some of my favorites include "Seeing Is Believing" which is just straight up Christian rock, with a wicked, nasty guitar solo by the one and only James Burton ("play it, James"), and the all time classic "Amazing Grace", which is outstanding, even though it is performed with a simple, traditional arrangement.  Let's face it though, when you're singing the most recognizable Christian song of all time, do you really need to fancy it up?  Other goodies include "An Evening Prayer", which is just vocals and a piano, but still sounds fantastic, and "Lead Me, Guide Me" which was another one of Elvis' "go to" gospel songs for impromptu performances around a piano.

In my recent talk with Terry Blackwood about this album, he told me that he feels that this is Elvis' best gospel album, because unlike its two predecessors, it showcased Elvis' stage persona, making it a more organic, honest Presley gospel recording.  Sadly, this would be one of the last times the Imperials recorded with Elvis...not long after the sessions concluded, and right before the arrival of Sherman Andrus, the Imperials and Elvis parted ways professionally.  J.D. Sumner And The Stamps took over the role of Elvis' male backup group, and they held that job until Presley passed away in August of 1976.  Terry said leaving Elvis might have been "one of the worst decisions that The Imperials ever made", but in my humble opinion, the work that they did on this album represented some of their best with Elvis, and that is nothing to be sorry about.

As I mentioned earlier, Elvis won a Grammy award for this album.  While most fans have their opinions and picks about which of his three gospel albums was the best, there is one fact that no one can debate...this is by far the most contemporary sounding of the three, and not just because of the Imperials.  This was the only Presley gospel album in which he was backed by his own live touring band (he was not making live concert appearances when he recorded each of his first two),  and since they were using the musicians that toured with Elvis, the producers did not have to worry about creating a traditional sounding gospel album, instead they focused on creating an album that would accurately portray who Elvis was musically, but only with Christian lyrics.  Even though it took a little longer, He Touched Me eventually surpassed sales of over 1,000,000 units, just like Elvis' previous two gospel LPs, so it was very successful on many different levels.

Now I understand that some folks may not like the idea of playing an Elvis Presley album on a platform like CCM Classic, but think about this...Elvis Presley is the only artist who has been inducted into the Rock And Roll, Country Music, and Gospel Music Association Halls Of Fame.  Think about that for a moment...the man had to be doing something right musically to achieve that kind of status.  As a child, I used to hear Elvis quite often on our Southern Gospel radio station in St. Louis, if it was good enough then, why not now?  

SIDE ONE:

1. He Touched Me

2. I've Got Confidence

3. Amazing Grace

4. Seeing Is Believing

5. He Is My Everything

6. Bosom Of Abraham

SIDE TWO:

1. An Evening Prayer

2. Lead Me, Guide Me

3. There Is No God But God

4. A Thing Called Love

5. I, John

6. Reach Out To Jesus



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