By Jon Waterhouse
I feel as if I’ve gone back to school, and I’m majoring in Elvis.
That’s my new metaphor for Elvis Week. After spending day two absorbing a wealth of stories, factoids and personal recollections from some of the King’s collaborators and cohorts, I realize Elvis Week 2012 is a virtual college of Elvis knowledge.
The Main Stage venue served as my classroom on Saturday, and I arrived on time. No tardy slip for me.
My first professor at the University of Elvis was Tom Brown, the senior vice president of original programming at Turner Classic Movies. His tootsies covered in blue suede shoes, Brown served as host of Conversations on Elvis: Elvis and Gospel.
Instructors must be well versed in their subject matter, and Brown is no slouch when it comes to the geography of Elvis World. Fans who have been to Elvis Week before know this. Brown jumps head first into the topic at hand like one of those cliff divers from “Fun in Acapulco.”
Instead of nodding off and drooling as I sometimes did in college classes, I remained alert, attentive and glued to the subject matter. I mean we’re talking about Elvis here. Heck, I even took notes.
The fantastic special guests gave their front-line Elvis accounts. The gospel session kicked off with Joe Moscheo and Terry Blackwood, two members of the gospel group The Imperials. The Imperials sang back-up vox for the King, and the pair recalled their tales from the road. They watched in awe as the Elvis phenomenon played out before them. Moscheo remembered when the “Elvis has left the building” tactic was created as an audience diversion so the King could duck out the backstage door. And the yarns kept coming.
Next up were two members of J.D. Sumner and The Stamps Quartet: Donnie Sumner and Bill Baize. Their behind-the-scenes anecdotes were equally interesting and at times comical. Baize garnered laughs when he told the story of how Elvis made him repeat that stratospheric yelp at the end of “Burning Love” over and over in the studio.
Yet, both were serious when describing Elvis’s deep love for gospel. Its feel-good quality soothed Elvis, Sumner said. If Elvis had continued to live, Baize said he believes the king would have pursued gospel even further and his spiritually-based music might have caused “a world-changing event.”
The topic continued down the spiritual road as Charley and Rex Humbard Jr. arrived on stage. The Humbard brothers chatted with Brown about their father, TV evangelist Rex Humbard, and his association with Elvis. The Humbards said their dad never capitalized or boasted about his relationship with Elvis, and his simple message appealed to the performer. It was the Humbard’s father who officiated Presley’s funeral, and they recalled that day 35 years ago.
The gospel session closed with a video clip of Elvis singing “How Great Thou Art” in concert, an example of “the reason why we’re here,” Brown said.
After experiencing that visual aid, I was ready for my next course. Less than two hours later, musician Andy Childs served as another professor of Elvisology. Childs played host to the Elvis Songwriters Showcase, interviewing three tune-smiths and getting the stories behind those familiar strains.
Dickey Lee, a Sun Records alumni who went on to carve out a successful career as a songwriter, chatted with Childs about his tenure in the music business. He peppered his recollections by picking up the guitar and playing songs including “The Keeper of the Stars,” which scored a hit for country superstar Tracy Byrd. The biggest audience reaction obviously came from Lee’s rendition of “She Thinks I Still Care,” a Lee composition Elvis recorded for the “Moody Blue” album.
The legendary Mike Stoller of the songwriting team Leiber and Stoller discussed several of his genre defining rock ‘n’ roll classics. If the pen is truly mightier than the sword, then Stoller’s writing utensil is a bonafide machete. He co-wrote many of the songs that helped Elvis change the face of popular music including “Hound Dog,” “Love Me” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Ever the colorful storyteller, Stoller described being locked in a hotel room with his writing partner until the pair penned all of the songs for “Jailhouse Rock.”
Mark James wrapped up the songwriters session by giving Elvis fans a look behind the curtain at the songs he wrote that the king made famous. James cranked out a raucous acoustic version of “Raised On Rock.” He followed it by stepping behind the keyboard for a moving “Always On My Mind.” Andy Childs couldn’t help but mouth the words to “Suspicious Minds” as James sang and tapped the keys.
Every institute of learning has its own school dance. Elvis Week 2012’s version featured Presley tunes played by Andy Childs and his band. A from-the-cradle Elvis fan, Childs puts his heart and soul into Elvis’s music while retaining his own distinct vocal style.
Until they start handing out diplomas at Elvis Week, I don’t have any tangible proof of my education. However, I walked away from day two overflowing with school spirit and a bit more proficient in Presley.