Easter Special is a brilliant compile of twenty (officially) unreleased Gospel songs and features some excellent alternate versions of old favourites as well as some fascinating Studio discussions. From the opening track of 'March of the Dimes' - Elvis Presley's 1957 plea for the support of Polio victims - to the fabulous 1973 finale of 'If that Isn't Love' this CD is a total delight.
I'm gonna tell it to you straight.
I'm not a big fan of gospel music.
Now I've said it.
To be truthful, it's probably the one area of Elvis' career I have least knowledge of. By now I have reviewed well over a hundred Elvis albums, but never a gospel record. As a rule, Presley's religious songs are excluded from regular releases, so to hear Elvis sing gospel, you have to buy a record with that theme. I used to find Elvis' gospel music too syrupy and all that falsetto singing is simply not 'my cup o' tea', to coin a phrase. Just listen to 'Mansion Over The Hilltop' and you'll understand what I'm talking about.
Elvis recorded a gospel EP in 1957 and three gospel albums: His Hand In Mine (1960), How Great Thou Art (1967) and He Touched Me (1972). I think the first LP is overrated and I loathe the third one. The second one gave him a Grammy and that's the one I like best. When it comes to Elvis' spiritual music, I prefer the up-tempo songs, f.e. 'Working On The Building', 'Swing Down Sweet Chariot' and 'Put Your Hand In The Hand', unfortunately none of those titles are included here. 'Milky White Way' is another great song, also not featured on this CD. An alternate take found its way onto the box set Platinum in 1997, so I guess that's why it's not in the track list. Now to the content of Easter Special:
An alternate gospel odyssey
19 alternate takes leaves us with 60 minutes worth of previously unreleased music. The songs are edited together in a good way, but the sound on the 1960 recordings is a little strange. On a more postive note, we get to hear lots of studio banter and a few false starts. The cover features an erect Elvis that represents the capital letter of 'I' in his name. Great photo on the back that I've never seen before. The first track is Elvis endorsing the 1957 'March of dimes', a charity project whose goal was to raise money for polio victims. With the inclusion of this track, a more appropriate title could've been, let's say 'An Alternate March Of Gospels'? Nah, forget it.
The song list spans 16 years, starting out with one of those binaural recordings from 1957. 'It Is No Secret' is the name of it and I can't even find the words to express my disgust for it. But let me tell you this: I heard a Salvation Army version of the song by accident a couple of weeks ago and I liked it better! Nuff said. 'Binaural'? Abnormal! Note: The song's playing time is listed at 1:58, when it's actually 3:55!!! No playing time is listed on 'Stand By Me' and 'So High', so for your information, they're 2:53 and 2:12, respectively. And if you study the track list further, you'll see that Stuart Hamblen is only given half a bracket ('Known Only To Him').
A dream come true
As a young kid growing up in Memphis, Elvis dreamt of being a member of a gospel quartet. Well, the dream came true: the spiritual material from the Nashville sessions in 1960 & '66 is really Elvis singing with the Jordanaires, instead of them backing him. This was the closest Elvis came to singing in a group, and it was all held together by the superb piano playing of Floyd Cramer. The songs from 1966 are far superior, in my opinion. The highlight of the CD is a wonderful take of 'Stand By Me', a touching version that is pure magic. And who can resist the playful charm of 'So High'? Another terrific song is 'Run On'. Listen closely to the drums; they could've used the backing track for 'We're Coming In Loaded' (From the movie Girls! Girls! Girls!) - it's the exact same rhythm!
Track 13 is the first take of a composition from the songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller. The song, 'Saved', was used as the last segment of the gospel medley from Elvis TV Special 1968. Elvis' vocal performance is passionate, but I never did like the NBC band and furthermore, most numbers from that TV show were overly orchestrated. And I haven't even mentioned the awful vocal backing, courtesy of the Blossoms. It's also hard to take the song serious. I mean, come on, it's the story of a guy who used to 'cuss, fuss, lie, cheat, dance the hootchee-coo' and God knows what else, but who finds Jesus and starts 'beating on that big bass drum'... Oh, lawdy!
Over to the heralded (that's sarcasm, everybody!) 1971 sessions. Question: What do you need while singing stuff like 'There Is No God But God'? That's right, a bucket to get sick in! In 1970, Elvis recorded Dallas Frazier's beautiful song 'There Goes My Everything' and here's the religious version: 'He Is My Everything', first take. It sucks big time! Listen for Elvis to sing a few lines on 'Mean Woman Blues'. And then we have 'Rock-A My Soul', ooops!... oh yeah, it's the 'Bosom' song, you know the song about that fat guy Abraham and his melons (?)
The last two songs are from the Stax sessions in 1973. An alternate take of 'I Got A Feeling In My Body' starts off way too cautiously. Elvis desperately tries to breathe life into it, but as it is played in a very restrained manner throughout, the song is deprived of its groove. And my fellow Swede Per-Erik Hallin fucks up his solo completely. Take 1 on Rhythm & Country is much better. I'm having trouble understanding the inclusion of [Voice member] Dottie Rambo's 'If That Isn't Love' in this collection, besides being a rotten song, there's no way that I would classify it 'gospel'! The track info incorrectly claims it was recorded in October.
Talking about music with a religious message or 'feel', regardless of artist, my favourite songs are Paul Simon's bouncy 'Gone At Last' (from the excellent album 'Still Crazy After All These Years', released in 1975) or John Fogerty's ripping '98 live version of 'Working On A Building' (and the 'A' is not a typo, it's a different song!).
I really enjoyed Easter Special. If you're a gospel fan, you'll love it. Go get it while you can!
On a scale from 1 to 5, I give it a 3.
© Crister Berge, Sweden 2002
Follow That Dream CD and Book Reviews
Review - Elvis: Easter Special FTD CD
March Of Dimes 57 / It Is No Secret / He Knows Just What I Need / Mansion Over The Hilltop / Joshua Fit The Battle / I'm Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs / Known Only To Him / Run On / Stand By Me / So High / Somebody Bigger Than You And I / We Call On Him / Saved / An Evening Prayer / Seeing Is Believin' / A Thing Called Love / He Is My Everything / Bosom Of Abraham / I Got A Feeling In My Body / If That Isn't Love