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Backtracking: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash on 'Sun Gospel' CD

July 31, 2009 |  3:42 pm

Sungospel1 It has long been assumed that Sun Records founder Sam Phillips didn't like gospel music because he discouraged his greatest discoveries, including Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, from recording spiritual music for his Memphis label in the 1950s. But it turns out Phillips loved gospel music -- he just didn't think he could successfully market it in the mid-1950s when his rock and country records were exploding onto the charts.

"It certainly wasn't intentional neglect," Phillips says of Sun's lack of gospel focus in the liner notes to "Sun Gospel," a CD retrospective from Germany's invaluable reissue label Bear Family Records. "But you have to compromise. There is no telling what I could and should have done with gospel music from the Memphis area. I'm ashamed to say I barely touched the surface."

"Sun Gospel" contains 31 gospel recordings from Sun's vaults, most rarities, as well as a previously unreleased inspirational recitation by Phillips.

These historic recordings make you wish Phillips, who died in 2003 at the age of 80, had recorded more gospel music because he tried to draw just as much individuality and character out of these sessions as he did in his rock, blues and country selections. Phillips' other discoveries included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich, each of whom is represented on this CD.

Various Artists

"Sun Gospel"

Bear Family Records

The music: The album begins appropriately with Presley leading Sun's "Million Dollar Quartet" in singing "Just a Little Talk With Jesus" during an informal 1956 gathering at Sun Studios. As the story goes, Carl Perkins, best known for his hit "Blue Suede Shoes," was recording with a band that featured Jerry Lee Lewis on piano. When Presley, who had already moved to RCA and become a national sensation, stopped by, he, Perkins, Lewis and Johnny Cash started going through some of their favorite gospel, country and rock songs. Phillips taped most of the session.

On "Just a Little Talk," Presley sings the opening line, "I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in / Then a little light from heaven filled my soul."  He is accompanied by what sounds like Perkins' rockabilly guitar licks and Perkins and Lewis on vocals.

Some other "Sun Gospel" highlights:

* The Prisonaires' "Softly and Tenderly" and "My God Is Real." Phillips believed so strongly in these two gospel tracks that he released them as the 1953 follow-up to the Prisonaires' national pop and R&B hit, "Just Walking in the Rain." Johnny Bragg's pure, sweet vocal on "My God Is Real" is especially compelling. Unfortunately, the record flopped and it contributed greatly to Phillips' wariness of recording more gospel music.

* Howard Seratt's "Troublesome Waters." Seratt isn't one of the famous names from  the Sun roster, but once you hear his vocal on this 1953  track you can understand why Phillips was eager to work with him. "I never heard a per- son, no matter what category of music, [who] could sing as beautifully," he said. Indeed, Seratt's delicate, haunting style might remind listeners today of Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. The problem for Phillips was that Seratt -- who had to use crutches after contracting polio as a child -- wanted to sing only gospel.

* Johnny Cash's "I Was There When It Happened." Though Phillips steered Cash away from gospel, he did let Cash record this gospel tune, which was co-written by Jimmie Davis, a former governor of Louisiana. The song appeared on Cash's first Sun album.

* Sam Phillips' "Would Anybody Care?" This recording was found deep in the Sun vaults in a tape box upon which someone had written, "Sam's poem. Don't erase." When asked about it years ago, Phillips acknowledged he had recorded an inspirational poem from a hymnal as a gift for a female friend. Though a few recitations were hits in the 1950s, there is no indication Phillips ever planned to release his recording.

For further listening: Cash's "The Outtakes" (Bear Family) is a three-CD set that takes us into the Sun studio while Phillips and, later, producer Jack Clement worked with Cash on some of his biggest hits, including "Folsom Prison Blues," "Get Rhythm" and "Guess Things Happen That Way." Of greatest interest, however, are the three country songs that Cash sang when he auditioned on his own for Phillips in late 1954. He did well enough that Phillips invited him to come back with his band (bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins) the following March for a second audition. This time Cash got his Sun contract.

--Robert Hilburn

Photo credit: Bear Family