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Elvis Presley and “How Great Thou Art”

Mar 24, 2016

“How Great Thou Art” is a Swedish hymn, translated into English in 1949 by Stuart K. Hine. The song gained notoriety when it was performed by George Beverly Shea on a Billy Graham crusade in 1957, and it eventually found its way into hymnals and onto recordings. Accounts vary as to whether Elvis Presley knew the hymn when he chose songs for his second full-length gospel album. One story goes that his friends Charlie Hodge and Red West auditioned a version for Presley by western harmony specialists the Sons of the Pioneers.

Though known as the “king of rock & roll,” Presley loved gospel music. He grew up singing in church and he often attended all-night gospel sings in Memphis, where he heard gospel superstars such as the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen Quartet. Presley also was attracted to the rhythmic sounds of black gospel artists, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the CBS Trumpeteers, and the Harmonizing Four.

Presley spent most of the 1960s making one movie after another, twenty-five in all, leaving little time to devote to his career as a recording artist. During the British Invasion, his chart success suffered. His film schedule took priority, and without new material, recordings made years earlier often were released as singles. In 1965, for instance, he had success with a cover of “Crying in the Chapel,” written by Artie Glenn, and an R&B hit for the Orioles in 1953. Presley had recorded the inspirational song in 1960, and when RCA released it five years later, it reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

In April 1966, though, Presley let his team know that he was ready to record new material. Studio time was booked at RCA Studio B in Nashville, and Presley and his associates began combing through songs for the upcoming sessions. Presley planned to record a couple of new singles, a couple of Christmas songs, and a gospel album. He was enthusiastic about doing the up-tempo spiritual “Run On,” also known as “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” but “How Great Thou Art” would become the crown jewel of the sessions and the title for his upcoming album.

Late-night sessions began May 25, 1966. The recordings marked the first time that Presley had worked with producer Felton Jarvis. Along with the Jordanaires, additional background singers were brought in to give the songs a bigger sound. The added voices included Millie Kirkham, June Page, Dolores Edgin, and Presley’s hero Jake Hess and his newly formed Imperials Quartet. 

The sessions began with “Run On” which was completed in seven takes. “How Great Thou Art” required only four takes. Those watching in the studio noted that Presley poured every ounce of energy he could muster into the final performance, and the song’s crescendo ending left him drained.

The spring sessions ended May 28. Presley returned in June to complete three more songs, for a total of twenty-one. The album How Great Thou Art was released February 27, 1967, and peaked at #18 on the Billboard Pop Album chart. It won a 1967 Grammy for Best Sacred Performance and has sold more than three million copies. 

A performance of “How Great Thou Art” from the album Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis earned Presley a third Grammy, in 1975, and the song was a staple of his live shows until his death in 1977.

—Michael Manning

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