The Spiritual Side of Elvis
“Crying In The Chapel” will slay you, if you give it a chance.
The tremulous quality in Elvis Presley’s voice, the one that launched millions of fantasies in women around the globe, is very powerful magic. To have this gift along with his smoldering good looks seems like a very poor distribution of luck. Of course he only lived to age 42, so how lucky is that?
There have always been two versions of him in the eyes of most Elvis-ologists. The undeniably great early Elvis and the sad, laughable Elvis, a bulging Trump in a jumpsuit with his glory days slipping away. If you could impeach rock stars his trial probably would have happened. But that voice…
I’ve heard “Crying In The Chapel,” since I was pup. Last week, I realized what I always assumed was a love song wasn’t. It’s a spiritual. I’m used to running into my absent minded self — every day the fruits of inattention confound me. Most times I chuckle and move on, but how did I get this one so wrong? I must have assumed from the ardent tone of his voice he was singing to his lover. The only lyrics I really ever heard were “You heard me crying in the chapel” and “tears of joy.” I thought maybe it was about a wedding and always saw it as elevator music, at least before I stumbled upon it recently on Youtube while looking for something else. Maybe I’m the right age for it now; I’m beginning to appreciate the great drama queens of recent history. I was struck by how sensuous this song is and felt the tension between its earthiness and spirituality. This confused the former altar boy in me, the one who was raised on Gregorian Chants and repressed everything.
The unearthly quality of the whole affair was not completely unexpected from the young man who sang “Jailhouse Rock” and “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog.” He also sang “Love Me Tender” and this voice was even evident on his very first recording, “My Happiness,” cut in a make-your-own record booth. It was a present to his mother and to hear it is to understand why stardom was inevitable. (That single acetate sold for $300,000 to Jack White He has plans to release it.) Elvis, like many Southerners, grew up in the Baptist Church and was a fan of The Jordanaires spirituals before he ever met them. But this doesn’t sound like church.
You saw me crying in the chapel
The tears I shed were tears of joy
I know the meaning of contentment
I am happy with the Lord
Just a plain and simple chapel
Where humble people go to pray
I prayed the Lord that I’ll grow stronger
As I live from day to day
I searched (I searched) and I searched (I searched) but I couldn’t find
No way on earth to gain peace of mind
Now I’m happy in the chapel
Where people are of one accord (One accord)
Yes, we gather in the chapel
Just to sing and praise the Lord
You’ll search and you’ll search but you’ll never find
No way on earth to gain peace of mind
Take your troubles to the chapel
Get down on your knees and pray
Then your burdens will be lighter
And you’ll surely find the way (And you’ll surely find the way)
© Artie Glenn
Let me talk once more about the sleaze factor in the music business. It’s startling to research a song, then go to the lyric page and find it credited to different writers whose names you’re seeing for the first time. I use Wikipedia first, that’s where I came up with the Artie Glenn attribution. It was confirmed in other stories, and even on pictures of the record itself, but when I looked up the lyrics on Google Play, I saw this at the bottom: Written by Aaron Lael Zigman, Peter Blakely • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group.
In the 1950’s, song credits and publishing riches were stolen on a regular basis. Elvis’s manager, the very shady Colonel Tom Parker, was a master thief. Otis Blackwell, who wrote “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by the Colonel. Elvis’ name would appear as a writer or the songs would not be recorded. Blackwell made half of the fortune he should have, but it made him a wealthy man. I have no idea how the unfamiliar names underneath today’s song got there and I’m not a royalty detective — but everywhere else I look I see Artie Glenn.
But let’s get back to this once-in-a-generation artist. The author Peter Garulnick, split his biography of Elvis into two books. The first one, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, is a great read. I skipped the second volume, I knew the ending and wasn’t in the mood for that long and tragic decline. My uncle Bob was an Indiana hillbilly. He adored Elvis and had the pomade to prove it. He was the kind of guy who had a clear plastic suicide knob on the wheel of his two-tone Chevy that featured a photo of a lady in a naughty cheesecake pose. Uncle Bob knew his Rock and Roll and his nephews were all baptized in the church of Elvis. If not for that, I might have been writing about a Pat Boone song today. That early intervention saved me. Pat Boone may get to a higher place, but he should know before he goes that the Holy Ghost will have Elvis playing on heaven’s record player.