It really took me by surprise, when recently, while reading a periodical published by the Carmelite friars in Italy, called, “Il Carmelo Oggi,” that is, “Carmel Today,” to find a two-page editorial article in the May 2018 issue about Elvis Presley! The piece was entitled, “Ogni anno piu’ di 600 mila visitatori,” which translates as, “Every Year More Than 600 Thousand Visitors.” Can you guess where that is, if it relates to Elvis Presley? Yes, Graceland, Tennessee.
Neither of Italian heritage, nor with Carmelite connections, nor a Catholic, Elvis found a place in a serious Catholic Carmelite publication! A Michigan friend of mine would likely be asking at this point, “what’s that all about?” The “secret word” (actually two words) that unlock the mystery in this case is, “the Rosary.” I can explain, but it will take more than a couple of sentences to do so.
I was born in 1952, hence really and truly a child of the 50s and 60s, for better or worse. Growing up Catholic, the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a strong and popular religious devotion of our Church life. With the recent arrival of television and being raised in the suburbs of a large American city, Portland, Oregon, Elvis Presley was a popular secular devotion as well.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and the fact that more than six hundred thousand visit Elvis Presley’s former estate, “Graceland,” outside of Memphis, Tennessee, each year. It has become a modern day secular pilgrimage site. John Lennon, one of the Beatles, is quoted as having said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” Both Lennon and Presley are legends in their own right, and both died young. Presley was forty-two when he died and Lennon was forty at the time of his death.
Elvis Presley is the only artist of the mid-twentieth century to have sung “Gospel music,” as it is usually called, on a regular basis “on the strip” in Las Vegas, Nevada, considered at the time, and presumably so today as well, “Sin City.” Presley drew huge crowds who listened to his rock and roll as well as Gospel songs. At that time Elvis once said, “They write many crazy things about me. They say I am ‘the King.’ In fact, for me, there is only one King, Jesus Christ. I am just an entertainer.” That was certainly a revelatory self-appraisal by one as famous as Elvis Presley.
Born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aaron Presley grew up in an Evangelical Christian family. From childhood he regularly attended an Assembly of God church, a branch of Pentecostalism that had and has millions of followers around the world. In addition to church services, Elvis seems to have willingly attended Sunday school. His family lived in a predominantly Afro-American region of the United States, known for a love of what is now called “Gospel music,” which the Assembly of God congregations sang as well.
In 1948, when Elvis was thirteen, he and his family moved to the larger city of Memphis, where he lived the rest of his life. There he continued to go to church and to sing Gospel music. Elvis went on to be a big star, of course, and eventually distanced himself from regular church practice, but never lost his faith in God.
As he grew in fame, Elvis’ mother, Gladys Presley, was greatly concerned about her son. She feared his way of life was taking him far from God. She said in her later years, shedding tears, that her son’s material success was of little importance, and that she would have greatly preferred he had consecrated his life to the service of God.
Elvis apparently told his mother on more than one occasion while she was still alive that one day he would return to the practice of his faith, because he loved God. He further said he would indeed serve God as Gladys desired. Until his premature death, though, Elvis clearly wavered between religious convictions and an outwardly less than virtuous existence. His consumption of drugs and alcohol seemed to be taking their toll on the artist and ultimately overtook him.
Throughout his adult life, Elvis regularly conferred with his Pentecostal uncle who was a preacher and as well as regularly recording or performing Gospel music, making explicit reference to his Christian faith. He often sang with gusto such songs as “Amazing Grace,” “Crying in the Chapel,” “I Believe,” and “He Touched Me,” to name a few of better known Gospel songs.
On February 16th, 1977, exactly six months to the day before his death, Elvis sang a song in a concert in Montgomery, Alabama, that must have taken at least some of his hearers by surprise. The song was called, “The Miracle of the Rosary.” It was perhaps the most mysterious and interesting of his songs that night. It is strange that Elvis, from an Assembly of God background, would sing and eventually record a very “Catholic” prayer and song about the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Rosary! He had in fact chosen to record it five years earlier, for one of his albums.
The origin of the song is a bit of a mystery also. It was written by a long-time friend of Presley, Lee Denson. Lee was the son of the Reverend James Denson, who ran the Poplar Street Mission, a Pentecostal church which Elvis and his family frequently attended after the family moved to Memphis in 1948, when Elvis was a teenager. In fact it was Lee Denson who gave guitar lessons to the thirteen year old Elvis.
For whatever reason, in 1960, the evangelical Lee Denson wrote an English-version song of the Catholic “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary), whose first part is from Scripture and the second a part a devotional prayer of petition to the Virgin Mary. Denson’s sung version included a reference to the Rosary as well, but his song received no interest from the music agents to whom he initially showed it. Remembering the love of Elvis for Gospel-based music, Denson presented the piece to Elvis, who apparently graciously received it, but never recorded or sang it in concert. More than ten years later, in 1972, Elvis finally recorded “The Miracle of the Rosary” for his album, “Elvis Now.”
The recording of the song, which can be heard on You Tube, is very much a “period piece,” but sung with devotion and sincerity. I only listened to it after learning about it in the Italian-language Carmelite journal mentioned at the beginning of this essay.
From what I can gather, “The Miracle of the Rosary” is the only song dedicated to the Holy Rosary that has ever been recorded by an artist of such fame as Elvis Presley. It seems to be something of a miracle itself that Elvis decided to record a very Catholic prayer and only more than ten years after first hearing it. Why two American Pentecostals decided to take the leap of faith in writing and eventually recording a song about one of the most popular Catholic sacramentals of the faithful around the world, may never be known. Why Italian Carmelite friars in 2018 would decide to tell the story of the song, I do not know, but presume it was because of the Carmelite Order’s love of the Holy Rosary.
After completing this essay from my “Roman perspective,” I have learned that other Catholics have also discovered the same interesting aspect of Elvis’ career and the Catholic-themed song that he must have liked enough to have included in an album and in concert, dedicated to the mystery and the miracle of the Rosary!