Eulogizing Elvis

In the summer of 1977, I was not long out of high school, living on my own, generally disinterested in the church but not yet an atheist. Once a month I attended the church I grew up in, and sat with my parents. They'd be happy to see me in church, and afterwards I could score a good Sunday dinner and use the washing machine.

Elvis Presley had died a few days earlier, and to my surprise the pastor mentioned it as he began his sermon. If he wanted to get my attention, it worked. Usually this old fogey minister preached about Noah or Moses or Jesus and I would promptly zone out, but on this Sunday morning, if the pastor was going to eulogize Elvis, I was listening.

Except he didn't eulogize Elvis; he ripped the dear departed icon a new one. He condemned Elvis and the Beatles and rock and roll in general, and went on and on about the evils of modern music and modern society. I remember one line from early in the sermon, verbatim: "He called himself The King. Well, he was the King of nothing. There is only one King, and that is Jesus."

After about five minutes of Elvis-bashing and equating rock and roll to blasphemy, Danny Walters stood up and said, "You're just wrong."

The whole church was hushed. Danny was a few years older than me, 22 or 24, and he had always been a "good kid" who took the church and Christianity seriously. But on this day the good kid stood in his pew and said loudly, "You're just wrong. Elvis was a good man. He was a Christian. He said so, and I have no reason to doubt him. He sang Christian music when he wasn't singing rock and roll. He never set himself up as a competitor to Christ. Everything you're saying about him is just not true."

And with that, Danny walked out of the sanctuary and out of the building, while the pastor and a few church elders called out after him.

From a different section of the sanctuary, an older woman (about 30) and her husband took their toddler and wordlessly followed Danny out, while the pastor stood and sputtered at the pulpit.

Me, I wasn't a big fan of Elvis, and besides, I was sitting with my parents and wanted my dinner and laundry privileges, so I remained seated and enjoyed the show more than any church service I'd ever seen.

After a minute, the pastor looked at his notes and resumed his sermon from the point he'd left off, and the modern Exodus continued: two young men I didn't know walked out, followed a few minutes later by the only black guy in the congregation, and after that by a couple in their 40s. There were no further outbursts from the audience, but by the time the sermon ended, eleven people had left. Several of the church's younger members who hadn't stormed out argued with the pastor afterwards.

Danny Walters never set foot in the church again, and when I ran into him a few years later he was a wholehearted atheist. I don't know whether any of the others who walked out eventually returned, but I hope not. Within a few years I was gone permanently, though not for Elvis-related reasons.

That's my happiest memory of attending church. That minister had always been a mean old man, and he gave his congregation a choice — believe in God or believe in music. Several of them made a choice he hadn't expected. It was a Sunday that really rocked the church, pun intended.

Republished: 8/16/2020  
Republished: 1/16/2024  


  1. Jesus manure, what kind of wacky preacher wants to take on Elvis? To my knowledge Elvis only called himself The King once: In a song overdubbed for a movie:

    A poor man wants to be a rich man
    A rich man wants to be a king
    But the man who can sing when he hasn't got a thing
    He's the king of the whole wide world

    Come on let's sing, sing brother sing
    'Cos the man who can sing when he hasn't got a thing
    He's the king of the whole wide world

    And obviously that song wasn't about being rich and powerful -- quite the opposite. Obviously, El didn't write it -- he wasn't a songwriter, but I can't think offhand of any other time he referred to himself as the King.

    Maybe all that preacher needed was a better sound system. . .

    Thus, conscience doth make cowards of us all.


    1. I'm a coward by nature.

      Elvis's music was pretty good, and his movies were pretty bad. Still have some Elvis on my playlist. He spent twenty years rich and famous, so I assume he was an asshole.

    2. I've read a little about Elvis and run across him in my research on 20th century American vernacular music and, of course, I was around when he hit the big time and when he faded away. My own conclusion, which I'm not 100% comfortable with yet, is that Elvis is a sort of cross between Andy Griffith as "Lonesome" Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd" and Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardner in "Being There": A naive, undereducated truck driver/singer who sounded just Black enough for Sam Phillips to take under his wing and double his singing voice so it would sound better. His father and the "Colonel" booked him inappropriately and way too often, and ripped him off every chance they got.

      One or two movies would probably have been OK but 40 killed him. His last three years of performing he couldn't even sing most of the time. He'd talk the lyrics and fuck *that* up. Nobody came to help. The Memphis Mafia kept his body safe, but his spirit died somewhere on the Vegas Strip. If he was involved in assholery, he was the victim more often than the perpetrator. Hell, he just wanted to make a record for his mother.



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