Elvis confidant Donnie Sumner salutes Voice compadre Sherrill Nielsen
Tenor singer Sherrill [Shaun] Nielsen passed away after a courageous battle with lung cancer on December 10, 2010, at the age of 68. Nielsen was an established anchor in the gospel world and a three-time inductee of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, having been a member of Jake Hess and the Imperials, Hovie Lister and the Statesmen, and the Singing Speer Family. Rock ‘n’ roll fans might remember him a bit differently though, as Nielsen sang back-up for Elvis Presley from 1973–1977.
As his health plummeted, Presley often encouraged Nielsen to command center stage and perform “Walk with Me,” “Help Me,” “Spanish Eyes,” the spine-tingling ending of “Unchained Melody” — while the “O Sole Mio” / “It’s Now Or Never” medley and “Softly, As I Leave You” were delivered in proper duet fashion. In fact, the latter recitation was nominated for a posthumous Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy. Moody Blue, Presley’s final studio album tracked inside Graceland’s garish Jungle Room, is chock full of Nielsen harmonies.
Forty years after Presley’s tragic demise, an exclusive interview is unearthed with fellow sideman Donnie Sumner waxing nostalgic about his singing compadres. The nephew of the late, great J.D. Sumner — the lowest bass singer on record — Donnie was the lead singer and arranger for J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet, who famously complimented Presley vocally onstage and in the studio from 1971–1977. He can be seen throughout Aloha From Hawaii and also conveyed a gut-wrenching, spirit-filled rendition of “The Lighthouse” in the Elvis on Tour documentary.
When Sumner resigned from the Stamps post-Aloha, he joined former Statesmen tenor Nielsen and bassist Tim Baty in a Nashville-based gospel trio. Testing the waters with Distilled Gospel, a now impossible to find 10-song long player credited to Nielsen Sumner and Baty, the harmony-laden act changed musical direction after witnessing the Oak Ridge Boys’ genius conversion to country. Renaming themselves the Tennessee Rangers, bookings supporting established artists on the Grand Ole Opry came pouring in until a fateful phone call by Memphis Mafia member Charlie Hodge urging the trio to fly complimentary to Vegas for a summit with Presley. For unclear reasons — perhaps financial — one of the “Burning Love” rocker’s closest musical friends, Tom Jones, was unhappy about his vocal ensemble — the Blossoms featuring Darlene Love.
Whether it was a clever ruse schemed up by Presley or Jones simply settled matters, the Blossoms stayed put. Unsure of their next step in a city where a fortune is won and lost on every deal, in dramatic fashion Presley took the rare step of engaging in business matters. He drew up an impromptu contract written in ballpoint pen on a sheet of bathroom tissue which read: “I, Elvis Aaron Presley, agree to pay to Donnie Sumner, Sean [Sherrill] Nielsen, and Tim Baty over the next 12 months the sum total of $100,000 dollars for their full time service to sing at my request.”
Incredulous at Presley’s sheer act of generosity — and no doubt many Memphis Mafia and other band personnel were jealous — Voice was born on the spot. The name was based on the title of a single issue spiritual journal — New Age Voice — written by Presley’s eloquent guru Larry Geller. On call to sing nonstop all night — no matter how bone weary they were after singing 18 renditions of “In the Sweet By and By” — you can hear Voice locked and loaded on essential Presley hits like “Promised Land,” the Stax-recorded “If You Talk in Your Sleep,” “My Boy,” and the rollicking, piano-driven country rocker “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.”
Sumner is a natural raconteur with an autobiography — In the Shadow of Kings — to his credit and available for autograph upon request. Hang tight as Sumner leaves no stone unturned below, gleefully recalling an absurd extracurricular recording session at Presley’s Palm Springs home where Nielsen had an annoying space between his upper middle teeth corrected as well as an extremely painful, bloody hair transplant after mentioning these perceived faults in Presley’s presence. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Donnie Sumner Interview
How did you and Sherrill Nielsen first collide?
I first met Sherrill in 1965. He was with Jake Hess and the Imperials, and I was with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. I had seen him with the Speer Family earlier, but I never met him until I joined the Stamps.
How would you encapsulate Sherrill’s personality?
Sherrill was a fun person to be with, and he loved to laugh. I always found him to be a real gentleman and very courteous to everybody. We talked a lot about life and family, so we basically fit into the big scheme of things.
How did you and Sherrill become part of Elvis’s touring group?
Sherrill had just left the Statesmen Quartet, and I had just left the Stamps. We got together to make some music and wound up with the Tennessee Rangers.
At Elvis’s request, we were flown to Vegas to sing backup on the Tom Jones show, and at the end of that engagement, Elvis signed the three voices: Sherrill, Tim Baty, and I to be his personal gospel group. He changed our name to Voice — the name comes from a religious periodical Elvis received from Larry Geller.
What did Sherrill contribute to Voice and Elvis’s overall stage show?
Sherrill could hit notes higher than the normal tenor, and Elvis loved for him to sing exceptionally high on the endings of all his stage ballads. Elvis and Sherrill made an excellent duo…they seemed to draw inspiration from each other’s ability to perform.
Can you tell us the story about Sherrill enduring a hair transplant at Elvis’s Palm Springs residence in September 1973?
I sure can. If there were any imperfections in your appearance that bothered you, and money could make it better, you would not have wanted to mention it, even casually, in the presence of Elvis, or you would be the recipient of a large-scale surprise.
Shortly after becoming part of the “Elvis family,” we found ourselves in Elvis’s living room. Different guys, including Rick Stanley, Charlie Hodge, Joe Esposito, and Sonny and Red West began to pick out the flaws of other various group members in a joking manner.
Voice was freshly adopted into the family, and by reason of our shortness of tenure, I suppose we felt a little uneasy kidding the long standing members and therefore had made no overtures at that point.
Elvis, keenly aware as he always was, realized that neither of us three had joined in, and with a big laugh he said, “I guess the only ones perfect in here are Voice and me!” Sherrill giggled and replied, “I keep all mine covered up.” Elvis asked, “Whatcha’ covering up, man? You look okay to me.”
Sherrill smiled and responded, “Well, my hair’s a little thin on the top, and I have to comb it up from the sides to cover it up.” Pointing to his upper middle teeth, Sherrill then said, “I’ve always had this tiny space here between my teeth, so I just don’t smile too big and not many people notice it.”
The subject changed as the evening continued. However, by the next morning things were about to change in a big way. Voice was staying at a nearby motel, and I was awakened by a call from Red West.
He said, “Elvis wants you and Sherrill up here as quick as you can get here!” As was my habit, when I was beckoned by Elvis, I said, “O.K.! Be right there!” Once Sherrill and I arrived, Elvis saw us and said, “Hey guys, I want you to meet my friend Dr. Shapiro. He’s gonna fix that space between your teeth!”
Personally, I would have gone to pieces because I have to take at least a couple of days to get psyched up for a dental appointment. Not so with Sherrill. He walked over to the couch, said nothing, sat down, and prepared himself as though he was about to watch a movie.
In just a few minutes, Sherrill got up from the couch and smiled. There, for all the world to see, were two beautiful caps, compliments of Elvis.
A few hours later, we had eaten lunch and were watching television when the doorbell rang. Red went to the door and invited the short oriental gentleman to enter. Elvis shook his hand and called out, “Hey Sherrill! I got a surprise for you. The doc’s here to give you a hair transplant.”
I was expecting Sherrill to lose his newly acquired caps; instead, he casually walked into the bedroom and lay face down on the bed. The doctor cut a big hole in one of Elvis’s sheets, draped it over Sherrill’s body, with his head centered inside the hole.
As we watched, the doctor proceeded to remove one hundred small plugs of hair from the back side of Sherrill’s head. He then inserted the plugs into one hundred small holes he had previously made in the top of Sherrill’s scalp.
After the ordeal, the doctor wrapped Sherrill’s entire head, from his eyebrows to the top of his neck, in a huge, thick blanket of gauze. As Sherrill got off the bed and saw himself in the mirror, looking like “The Invisible Man,” I strongly suspected he wished that he could reverse his comments from the night before.
The next day Elvis set-up a hastily arranged recording session at his Palm Springs residence. A high point was “Are You Sincere.” If you examine the song’s finale, you can hear Sherrill singing off-key. How did that hilarious moment happen?
Colonel Parker, “the Man,” had called Elvis and informed him that due to contractual agreements with RCA Records, Elvis had a given numbers of days to finish the Raised on Rock / For Ol’ Times Sake album.
Elvis’s personal hand-held mike had been stolen at his earlier July 1973 session at Stax Studios in Memphis, and Elvis had left that session in utter disgust. Colonel further relayed to him that he had to return to Los Angeles and begin recording immediately.
Although not privy to both ends of the conversation, I did hear Elvis’s response. In less than religious language, Elvis said, “Tell those *&^$# so and so’s, if they want my voice, they’re gonna have to come down here and get it!”
With God, nothing is impossible. With the Colonel, very few things were impossible. Late that afternoon, a huge tractor-trailer truck pulled up in front of Elvis’s front door. To the amazement of Elvis, three men jumped out of the truck and began to unload equipment.
Within a short time, they had transformed Elvis’s living room into a state of the art recording studio. Having had no prior knowledge of the session, Elvis had not chosen a single song nor contracted a solitary musician.
With such short notice, Charlie Hodge only managed to obtain Elvis’s guitarist James Burton, with Voice having to supply bass [Thomas Hensley], me on piano, and Charlie himself on acoustic guitar.
After we had assembled in the living room, Elvis took a microphone, and standing on top of the coffee table, he said in a radio announcer’s voice, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the presence of these witnesses to make a record, and I have one simple question to ask, ‘What in the *&^$# are we gonna record!” Then, with a more serious tone, Elvis asked, “Really, what are we gonna sing?”
Ultimately, I remember we worked on “I Miss You,” a quiet little ballad I wrote, “Sweet Angeline,” and “Promised Land.” After those songs were cut, Elvis remarked, “Well, if all minds and hearts are clear, let’s stand and be dismissed, ’cause I’m outta songs.”
We had been making music since early in the afternoon and now it was very late in the post-midnight hours. Everyone was tired and to say the least, silly. We still needed one more song to complete the album, and after some debate between Elvis, Red, and Sonny, they eventually came up with the song, “Are You Sincere.”
We began the intro, and Elvis ran through it a couple of times. Elvis then came up with the idea that he wanted Sherrill to do a short obbligato repeat line of the words “Are You Sincere” at the end of the song.
Being in a tremendous amount of pain and discomfort, Sherrill had tried to maintain his composure by indulging in a quantity of painkillers. Though still able to function, Sherrill was in no way capable of maximum performance.
Anyway, Sherrill stepped up to the mike and began his beautiful one line solo ending. “Are you sin” came out with exquisite clarity of both tone and pitch, but when the “cere” was pronounced, it came out of Sherrill’s mouth at least a quarter of a tone flat. Elvis immediately began to laugh hysterically at the note Sherrill had so miserably failed to correctly pitch.
After the rush of laughter from all of us had subsided, Sherrill, with his gauze-covered head and his pain killer-numbed body, approached Elvis and said, “I gotta overdub that ending, boss. I really missed it!”
Elvis laughed and said, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you miss a pitch, and I want the world to hear it just to prove to ’em you’re no better singer than I am.”
Back in L.A., the engineers erased Elvis’s laughing seizure at the end, but Sherrill’s note remains flat to this day, thanks to Elvis.
What do you recall about Voice staying up all night singing gospel music for Elvis?
Not any particular story, other than the fact that one night Elvis asked us to sing “In the Sweet By and By” 18 times, back to back, including all four verses. I don’t think Sherrill would have liked to have been asked to sing it for a few days.
What was it like to be on the road with Elvis and Voice?
My fondest memories are just being friends with all the guys and knowing that the friendship I felt for all of them was returned in like manner.
Which song is Sherrill’s crowning achievement?
Here’s two — ”Walk with Me” with Jake Hess and the Imperials and “Softly as I Leave You” with Elvis.
[Author’s Note: “Walk with Me” was originally distributed on The Happy Sounds of Jake Hess and the Imperials, an out-of-print 1965 record. A March 30, 1977 bootleg quality rendition from Presley’s second of two shows in Alexandria, Virginia, is available. A December 13, 1975 Las Vegas recording of “Softly as I Leave You” was unleashed as the B-side of “Unchained Melody” six months following Presley’s demise, garnering the rocker a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance].
Did you reunite onstage with Sherrill in the decades following Elvis’s death?
Yes, we did a number of Elvis memorial concerts together.
What role did Christianity play in Sherrill’s life?
Sherrill was committed to his own theology which was basically conservative…somewhere between the Baptist and the Pentecostal theology. Neither Sherrill nor I were the type to wear our religion on our shirt, but both of us have very deeply rooted values and have never been persuaded to change.
When was the last time you spoke with Sherrill?
Shortly before he passed away, I called him on the phone to check on him and to let him know that I was praying for him. Surprisingly enough, he was in good spirits and gave me a good report. Sherrill also let me know that he was planning a couple of overseas trips at that time.
What is Sherrill’s legacy?
A wonderful husband, a loyal friend to all, and a great singer. I look forward to singing with him for about a million years at some point.
******************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!********************
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