Unlike my “Wayfaring Stranger” post, which includes multiple versions of the classic spiritual, this time There Can Only Be One. Where “How Great Thou Art” is concerned, there is Elvis Presley, and then there is everyone else.
That’s not to say others don’t do it perfectly well. Elvis just owns this song. His vocal artistry is at its peak here. As he matured, his love of bass singers drove him to push his voice into a lower register, and this is the voice deployed to such spectacular effect on his post-military sessions at RCA’s Studio B in Nashville. These are the sessions that gave us what his arguably his greatest studio performance: Surrender. These songs have a very different quality than the Sun Sides and pre-military RCA recordings. Less of that raw energy is on display. In return, we get a more controlled, finely crafted performance.
This studio version of “How Great Thou Art” was recorded in 1966, also at Studio B, and is one of the masterpieces of modern gospel music.
His passion for the hymn never waned, as you can see from this live performance from 1972. Watch the ecstasy on his face as he sings and listens to the Sweet Inspirations and JD Sumner and the Stamps perform their parts. This is a man praying through song, and offering his gift up to God as an act of worship. Before and after performances–indeed, whenever he gathered with other musicians–this is what Elvis sang for God and for himself. If you don’t own a good collection of his religious music, you are seriously missing out.
Feel free to post any other versions you think are worthy, and I’ll add them as an update.