Elvis Presley Albums

How Great Thou Art

From January 1964 to May 1966, Elvis recorded nothing but movie soundtracks, mostly in Hollywood. Unsatisfied with his life for complex professional and personal reasons, he did not venture into the Nashville studios to cut any album material. When he did finally decide to record new material, he returned to the studio with new musicians and a new producer, Felton Jarvis.

How Great Thou Art used several studio musicians new to Elvis Presley's recording sessions, including Charlie McCoy and Ray Stevens.
How Great Thou Art used several studio musicians new to Elvis Presley's
recording sessions, including Charlie McCoy and Ray Stevens.

Elvis went to the RCA studios in Nashville in the spring of 1966 to make a gospel album, How Great Thou Art. As a child of the South, he was steeped in gospel music. Memphis was the center of white gospel music during the 1950s, and Elvis frequently attended all-night gospel sings at Ellis Auditorium as a teenager. Early in his recording career, he developed the lifelong habit of warming up before each session by singing gospel harmonies with the Jordanaires or with his companions.

Felton Jarvis
Producer Chet Atkins introduced RCA staff producer Felton Jarvis to Elvis when the singer was scheduled to record How Great Thou Art, and Jarvis became EMS' primary producer. Born in Atlanta, Charles Felton Jarvis had been something of an Elvis imitator in his youth, recording "Don't Knock Elvis" in 1959. Jarvis became a producer in 1963 with a Presley soundalike named Marvin Benefield, whom Jarvis renamed Vince Everett after Elvis' character in Jailhouse Rock.

Jarvis helped steer Elvis toward better material than the soundtrack albums he had been releasing for the last several years, though his hands were often tied by RCA's strict publishing policies. He left RCA in 1970 to devote his full attention to Elvis' recordings. After Elvis died, Jarvis produced sessions for Carl Perkins and coproduced the songs sung by Ronnie McDowell for the 1979 biopic Elvis. He died in 1981 at the age of 46.

Though Elvis loved all gospel, he particularly liked the four-part harmony style sung by male gospel quartets associated with the shapenote singing schools from the early part of the century. A quartet usually included first and second tenors, a baritone, and a bass.

As a teenager, Elvis' favorite gospel quartets included the Blackwood Brothers, whom he knew personally, and the Statesmen, whose lead singer was the colorful Jake Hess. The Statesmen were known for their emotional, highly stylized delivery, and Hess had a reputation as a flamboyant dresser.

Elvis was delighted when Hess and his latest quartet, the Imperials, joined him in the studio to record How Great Thou Art, along with a few secular songs that were released later. Also on board were the Jordanaires and a female backup group.

The arrangements for the gospel numbers consisted of Statesmen and Blackwood Brothers material. For most numbers, Elvis sang as the solo artist while one of the quartets backed him up. A high point of the sessions occurred when Elvis and Hess sang a duet on the Statesmen's famous "If the Lord Wasn't Walking by My Side."

How Great Thou Art proved to be a milestone in Elvis' career, winning him the first of his three Grammys, this one in the Best Sacred Performance category. He won Best Inspirational Performance for He Touched Me in 1972 and again in that category for the song "How Great Thou Art" from the album Elvis Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis in 1974.

Elvis created this album during a time of personal and professional struggle. He had been frustrated creatively by the formulaic movies and the conventional soundtrack music he recorded for them. It is altogether fitting that Elvis should record a gospel album at a time when he was at a creative and spiritual low. Gospel had inspired his interest in music, it had always calmed his nerves before a session or a performance, and now, as they say in the South, it called him back home.

After leaving soundtrack music behind, Elvis entered into a period of professional creativity and rebirth. His next album, From Elvis in Memphis, captured the spirit of a re-energized Elvis. To learn more about From Elvis in Memphis, see the next section.

How Great Thou Art

  • "How Great Thou Art"
  • "In the Garden"
  • "Somebody Bigger Than You and I"
  • "Farther Along"
  • "Stand by Me"
  • "Without Him"
  • "So High"
  • "Where Could I Go But to the Lord"
  • "By and By"
  • "If the Lord Wasn't Walking by My Side"
  • "Run On"
  • "Where No One Stands Alone"
  • "Crying In the Chapel"

For more fascinating information about Elvis Presley, see: