Elvis Collectors Brasil is proud to once again present you another exclusive interview. This time with Elvis friend and backing vocalist Donnie Sumner. Nephew of the late JD Sumner and member of the Stamps quartet and Voice, Donnie contributed to Elvis music in many records and also in his live appearances. With a long and fulfilled career and now a minister, Donnie talked to us about his times with Elvis Presley and also about his personal life.
ECB: Donnie, to start the interview please tell us about yourself and your music background. DS: My daddy was a pentecostal preacher . I have been in music most of my life. I went to college, got a music degree and joined my first group in 1960. I´ve been singing gospel music ever since and I´m celebrating my forty and a half year.
ECB: When did you met Elvis for the first time? DS: It was in 1959. JD, my uncle , lived in Memphis at the time, he was with the Blackwood Brothers. He heard that Elvis was going to record and I just had written a bunch of songs and he got in touch with Charlie Hodge to let me come and sing some of my songs for Elvis. So JD and I went out to Graceland, Charlie met us at the gates, we went in and I met Elvis for the first time. I could hardly sing. I was so impressed, it was almost more than I could handle. He told me not to be scared and try to sing. I was seventeen years old. You take a seventeen years old Tennessee redneck to sing to Elvis Presley songs he wrote...that would make you nervous!(laughs)
ECB: What was your first impression about him? DS: First of all, how much of a man he was. How masculine he was, how nice he looked. The thing that impressed me most was that he was very down to earth, very courteous,very kind. He wasn't snobbish, he was just one of the boys and that probably impressed me more than the way he looked.
ECB: In 1972 you went on to Vegas to make your first appearance with Elvis. Some time latter you would tour with Elvis through the USA. How was the life on the road with such a big star? DS: We lived from minute to minute. We would wake up about twelve or one o´clock at daytime and we all just hang around until Elvis was ready to come out for the evening. Then we would gather around in the living room to watch television, laugh and talk and sing until three of four in the morning then we would all go to bed. When he was on tour, it was like up all night, up all day, up all night, up all day.
first studio session with him was in March the same year. How was to work with
him on the
DS: The first record we did was during
Elvis On Tour, during our first tour. I have been through a lot of sessions, but
I have never been to a sessions like that. Usually they would put everybody in
an isolation booth and they would be very careful about noise and moving around.
So the thing that surprised me was that Elvis had a hand mike and would walk
around the studio and while the band was in the middle of the studio he would
walk around and would do just like he did on stage and the backup singers would
be on one side. I don't know how they separated the tracks, but somehow they
When we recorded the song Separate Ways, which
was the first night we recorded, I think the first song we recorded, if I'm not
mistaking, was Always On My Mind,... and Separate Ways was the second or
third song we did. And JD and Elvis sat in the middle of the studio and listened
to the song over, and over again for about two and a half hours. And it was the
last song we did that night.
ECB: You´re featured on the Golden Globe winner documentary Elvis On Tour, in a very touching moment, singing The Lighthouse in the gospel segment. Please, tell us a bit about this intimate and inspirational moment. DS: When we went to recording sessions, things could get a little tiring and a little nerve wrecking and when Charlie saw that Elvis was getting upset about something, no matter what we were doing he would walk to the piano in the middle of the session and start to play something like "Wasted Years", "Sweet By And By" or something like that. As soon as Elvis heard that he was like a dog when a bus comes by. He would put his ears up and chase the bus (Laughs). When those slow gospel songs were playing he would always go to the piano, no matter what else was going on. And that was what happened that night. Charlie went over there and started sing "Wasted Years, Wasted years, Oh how foolish..." Elvis came over and started singing and before long he wanted us to do some Stamps songs but Charlie didn't know how to play, so I sat on the piano and we sang two or three old slow Stamps songs...When Its My Time, I Can Feel The Touch Of His Hand, and then Elvis wanted to hear The Lighthouse. So I sang The Lighthouse.
I was very surprised when the documentary came and that particularly song was on it. It made me feel very humble to be part of the documentary.
Donnie Sumner and The Stamps singing The Lighthouse, to the delight of Elvis on Elvis On Tour
ECB: On this very segment, Elvis mentions the late night gospel sessions that often took place at his penthouse suit in the hotels. What are your recollections of those nights? DS: When I was with The Stamps Quartet, we would drive to his house from Nashville and we stayed in his house all night and sang gospel songs to him. This went on for three years. Then I left the Stamps and organized a group called the Tennessee Rangers, that Elvis latter changed the name to Voice. We played the Grand Ole Opry, we were country singers, but we went back again to work for Elvis as his "in house" singers, to sing gospel music for him at night. Without exception, every night, for three years. And I do mean almost every night because the last year I was with him, I only went home for twelve days that year. The rest of the time we were with Elvis and every night he called us to sing gospel music to him. He didn't like fast songs too much, most of the time we would sing really slow, pretty, southern kind gospel music. People often wonder what was his favorite song and I can tell you, because I sang to him every night for three years( laughs) and it was "In The Sweet By and By" with Sherril Nielsen singing the high lyric tenor melody. One night we sang eighteen times, all verses, back to back.
Other songs he really liked was Why Me Lord, Help Me, An Evening Prayer. He loved Wasted Years. There was a lot of old Stamps and Blackwood Brothers songs he liked.
ECB: Elvis was a deep religious person, often searching for the meaning of life and studying different beliefs. Did you and Elvis ever shared intimate conversations about faith and life?
DS: At that time I was not a professed Christian and I made no attempt to try to get into any theology with him. From time to time he would call me to his bedroom, and I guess the reason was because my daddy was a preacher and he thought that I should know (Laughs), and he asked me a question. As a matter of fact, I'm writing my book called In The Shadow With Kings, where I tell my story and were I relate to my adopted daddy, JD my Uncle, Elvis my boss, and Christ as my master. Those were the Kings in my life. In the chapter "What Is a Christian?" I tell about when Elvis called me this night in his bedroom and said: "Donnie, I want to ask you a question." I said " What is it boss?" and I think he heard Rex Humbard cause he listened to him... he said :" I heard someone asking are you a Christian? I'm really not sure what that is. What Is That?" I began to explain to him that according to the fundamental bible believe in faith, that Jesus died for our sins and if you accept what he did, and make him the Lord of your life, and receive the forgiveness that he had already provided, than you are part of his body and because you´re part of his body, they refer to you as a Christian, by his name. It doesn't make you perfect, its makes you what they refer as born again. And the fundamental bible believers believe that being born again is the holy key to the entrance in to the heaven, at some point. We believe that only by being born again, you can have eternal life and that was the tone of our conversation. Other than that, I don't think that we went too heavy into Christian theology, but I do know that he was probably the most God conscious person that I ever knew. He was heavy into easter religions, and he studied those constantly. He had a book called The Prophet, that he gave all of us one of those and he read that over, and over, and over again. He was in the transcendental meditation and he was sort of our guru. From time to time we would meditate. We would get on pillows, wearing robes and we would meditate.
None of those makes you prepared to go to heaven, it just a matter of being God conscious. He was a searcher, he was probably the most diligent searcher that I ever knew.
ECB: He often went to gospel conventions during the seventies, sometimes to see performances of the Stamps, do you recall some of those times? DS: I recall every time he was there. The first times he went to the Ellis auditorium and he only came two or three times here in Nashville. In both venues, JD had built a sixteen by twenty four booth, with windows down one whole side and a monitor system, with air conditioner. My grand mother, JD, my aunt and all my family would all get into that and it was kind of our spot. When Elvis would go, he would go down there and get into the booth with JD. You could always tell when me and JD was in the booth and when Elvis was in the booth, because when me and JD was in there, nobody was around. When Elvis was there, there was always a crowd wanting to see him. (laughs) The first time he went, it was in Memphis. It was in October 1965 and I was singing the song "I Can not fail the Lord". I started to sing the song and Elvis came in and got in the wings, over on JD side. I didn't see him came in but later on the song I always hit a very high note and held it for a long time. That particularly night, at that point of the song I looked to JD and over his shoulder, I saw Elvis stand in the wings and I just lost the note (laughs)
Elvis in a gospel convention, sometime in 1972
ECB: You went again to the studio environment in July 1973, at the Stax studios in Memphis. What is your recollections of those sessions? DS: I was surprised that he went to Stax Studios. It wasn't anything spectacular, it was just a nice studio but wasn't really fancy. But the thing that I remember most about those sessions is that we did a song called Three Corn Patches and we never, ever, could got a take on that because just as soon as Elvis started to sing the fist lines "Three Corn Patches..." he would, in his mind, think of these things that old people put on their feet.(laughs). Let me explain, here in the USA we have a thing we call "corn", as calluses, and you buy medical patches to put on it and they are called corn patches. He would get tickled and we could never get a take of that crazy song. It wasn't a good song to begin with it, but we recorded that thing for at least three and a half hours. We couldn't finish it because of laughing.
ECB: Later that same year, he would record two of your compositions;Mr. Songman and I Miss You. Tell us about those songs, what was in your mind when you wrote those songs and how did Elvis decided to record it ? DS: I wrote those both the same night. My wife had left me a few weeks earlier and I had come home to try to talk to her but she wasn't in town, she went to Florida with my children to see her mother. So when I got to town, there was nobody around but me and I went down on Broadway here in Nashville, in this little greasy spoon restaurant called Line Bughs. It was were all the..I guess you can call it "the night life street people, can hardly make it folks" would go. And I was there at three or four in the morning, in a booth. Each booth had a private jukebox on the wall, and Im playing all those "She is gone and left me, My Heart Is Broke, I feel like a dog" songs (Laughs) and I got the idea of Mr. Songman and that song was written to a jukebox down at Line Bughs. Later on that night, I came back to my motel room and wrote I Miss You and I wish you were here. The reason it was recorded was that we were in Palm Springs and the Colonel called Elvis and said "You´re going to have to make a record or we will be in a breach of contract". Elvis said "I aint no making no recording" and the Colonel said " Yes You are". Elvis said: " Well, tell RCA that they will have to come down here if they want, cause I´m not coming to Los Angeles". The next week there was two semi trucks in front at Elvis´s house and they brought microphones and all kinds of stuff and got all set up. Elvis said "what we are going to record? We don't have any songs!"(Laughs). Charlie said:" Well, Donnie has written songs. Tim Baty has written songs." Elvis said: "Well, lets do it". So, the first thing we did was two of my songs, Mr. Songman an I Miss You. Then he got crazy and started doing rockabilly tunes that other people had done, just because he knew´em . He didn't care who had recorded it, he was just trying to get a record for RCA! The night before, Sherril Nielsen has had a hair transplant and he had two hundred plugs from the back of his head put on the top of his head. The next morning his was on pain pills and when we got in the "Are You Sincere" song, there was no musicians. It was just me playing the electric piano and Tim Baty playing classic acoustic guitar. Then they would take everything back to Los Angeles, keep Elvis´s voice and overdub everything else. When we did Are You Sincere, we wanted Katy to do the high (singing) "are you sincere" ending. Sherril Nielsen just put on as scratch vocal and when Elvis sang the last note, Sherril sung the final part and it was a quarter of a step flat. Sherril said " Boy, I'm glad they will not going to use this and that they will put someone else to that ending! Elvis answered: This is the first time I ever heard you flat and the world aint goin to hear it! Well, RCA put the record out with Sherrill singing that on the end just as flat as it can be.( laughs)
Elvis with The Stamps Quartet.
ECB: He seemed to shift more and more towards country music at that time. Do you think his contribution to this genre does not always get the credit that it deserves? DS: The thing that makes country music, is the singer. Ray Charles sung country music, but it wasn't country music (laughs). Elvis sung country music, and it wasn't country music. Elvis could sing gospel music and it wasn't gospel music. He could sing pop music and it wasn't pop." Any kind of music takes from the personality of the person who sings it. There are some pretty good country songs, with pretty lyrics and if you take somebody like Elvis, who got a different flavor in his voice and a different rhythm pattern when singing, he takes those songs and he can do just like Ray Charles, and makes a whole different song out of it.
ECB: Was also around this time that the group Voice, with You, Tim Baty and Sherril Nielsen was formed. Whats the story behind it, how it all started? DS: Sherill and Tim Baty were with a group called The Statesman, a gospel group. I was singing lead with The Stamps. We began to not like the direction that our quartets were going at that time and because of the gospel industry was going through a change at that time, The Oak Ridge Boys had just dropped out of gospel music and went into country. The Statesman quartet left the gospel and also started to sing country music. I just said to Sherill: "Why don't we start our country group? And sing the way we sang. Lets take country songs and do the way we do". So we left our groups and started a group called The Tennessee Rangers and we ended up in the Grand Ole Opry. We went to Vegas and Elvis was closing and did his closing party. Because I was Elvis guest, I got to got to the party. Tom Jones was there, Bob Gentry, Jack Lord, Martin Allen, Red Fox. That night we sang In The Sweet By and Bye for Elvis, because he wanted to hear gospel songs. At the end of that evening we had signed a contract with Elvis and part of the contract read: " To sing on command In the Sweety By And By." That was how we got there. We were still the Tennessee Rangers when one night in Los Angeles, we were at the Monovale Drive home, and Larry Galler has just read the book called "The Voice" and it had a beautiful cover on it. It was on Elvis´s coffee table. He was seated there and Elvis picked the book and looked at that picture and he called me: "Donnie, come here". I saw him in the living room and he said" You´re not the Tennessee Rangers anymore. From now on you´re Voice." I said "Ok...You call me anything you want, as long as you call me often" (laughs). And thats how we got the name Voice.
ECB: By the middle of 1974, Elvis abuse of prescription drugs started to alarmingly increase. This led to some uncommon circumstances at the stage. Two of then became legends in the Elvis world, the night when he burst out on stage in Vegas, mad at the rumors of him using street drugs and the awful night at Maryland when he was in terrible shape. Do you recall those nights? DS: I don't recall those particular nights, but I do know that he got really irate anytime, on stage or at home , when he noticed that he had been accused to do drugs. He always got agitated. He would play with words. To Elvis, drugs mean going out to the street and buy drugs. If you got then by prescription, they are not drugs, they are medicine. He did not considered himself doing drugs because everything he did, he got through a prescription. In his mind he couldn't be accused to be on drugs, he was on medicine. That necessary doesn't make or break any truth, does not validate or invalidate anything .
ECB: Did you ever talked with him about his prescription drug problem? DS: I can honestly tell you, it was the remotest thing from my consciousness, because I was so heavy into drugs. I couldn´t even see straight twenty four hours a day. I don't really know how many Elvis did, but I did that or more. So I can not honestly say that I did anything to help him not doing. Because I was doing all I could get. I'm not proud of it, its just part of my history.
ECB: What do you think it should have be done to take him out of his addiction? DS: I think that the only thing that could had helped him, was if the rest of us, Red, Sonny, Dave, Me, Joe, Dr. Nick, Charlie, have had the nerve to say to him "Elvis, this aint right. We all got to change" But we re-enforced each other, rather then trying to help each other. Elvis was no more to blame than the rest of us, because none of us did anything to change our life style. Any blame that anyone wants to put on Elvis, they have also to take that same blame and put on all the other eighteen of us that lived with him. Because if eighteen of us had tried, we could have changed him. But we were so involved in our own efforts, pursuits and pleasures, that we did not take the time to help him. I regret that.
ECB: What was the last time you talked to him? DS: A week later after labor day 1976. I told him I wanted to resign, went back to Nashville, get into a drug rehab and get my life together. And if he let me, I would like to break my contract and go back to Nashville. He said "Im proud of you Donnie. I wish I could do that. I would like to go and start all over myself. But there´s no way I can do it, I got to keep on being Elvis. But if you need a friend you know were Im at. I Love You". I said "I love you too boss". A few seconds later I turned around and that was the last time I saw him.
ECB: How You think we should remember him? DS: I think the way I remember him...Is the way that I wish for everybody to remember him. Firstly as the most talented variety artist that I ever knew in my life or that I ever been exposed to. Secondly, I remember him as a very courteous, young teenager from Mississippi. He never got the chance to get old. He was always nineteen. And I remember him as a fun loving guy, who would take a joke and give a joke and as one of the most loyal, protective and kind friends I have ever had in my life.
ECB: Lets talk about you now. How´s your life as a minister? DS: My life as a minister is a180º turnabout from my life as an entertainer. I used to be very self-centered, career motivated, doing anything to get to the top. I was a manipulator of people and a user of circumstances. Im not bragging on myself now, but when I made Christ the lord of my life, he not only changed my career and my social standing he also changed my heart. At this point of my life, I can´t get enough of helping people. I live by the philosophy that you can get anything in life that you want, if you help other people have what they want. I´m a minister now and my message is that in Christ there´s a new life, a blessed life and in him alone there´s the hope of eternal life.
ECB: What about the CONCERT OF PRAISE and the SPIRIT MINISTRIES? DS: Spirit ministries I started in 1980 when I went on the road singing in churches. My concert of praise is basically Christian music format, southern gospel songs that I adapted to my style. A lot of them I wrote myself. My motivations to do these concerts is to get the attention of the folks in attendance and tell them what has happened in my life and how my life has changed because of Christ. To give them some hope that they lives can change too, regardless of what circumstances are. That sickness can be changed, that financial uncertainty can be changed and problems can be worked out. Families can come back together, children can be respectable and that you can accomplish your dreams better with Christ. Thats what I do.
Donnie Sumner singing The Anchor Holds
ECB: To finish this Interview, could you please talk about your future book? DS: I´ve been working on him for four years now, is really hard. People ask why my book ins´t finished yet, and I´m used to tell folks that I didn't know how boring was my life until I started to write it down (laughs) I hope to have it finished very shortly. I guess I have 75% finished and the reason its not already available is that the publisher wanted me to write a lot more about Elvis. So I have been re-writing a lot of my memories to enlarge the Elvis portion for the Elvis market. I also been in the recording studio and I got six recordings that I´m trying to finish up. In fact I was mixing one of them when you called me. One of the albums is called Donnie Sumner The Artist, The Writer, with seventeen of my compositions. An then there´s one that will probably come out in February called Donnie Sumner Sings Old Songs With Old Friends. I take a bunch of my old friends that I recorded with in the past, and I used portions of their solos and put my voice singing solo with theirs and re-done the instrumental tracks. I got JD, James Blackwood, Bill Baise, Ed Hill, for example. I also took a bunch of old hymns and spruce it up and turned it into a bluegrass project. It will come probably in March or April and it will be called The Other Side Of Me.
ECB: We are looking foward to it Donnie. Thank you for your time and for sharing your stories with us. I also want to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas. DS: Im glad you enjoyed, the same to you.
We like to thank Mr. Sumner for the time he spent with us, answering our questions and also to wish him the best in his future.
Please, visit Donnie´s website at http://www.donniesumner.com
Interview taped and trascribed by: Sergio Biston
Questions by Luiz Henrique C. Gonçalves (#12 &16) And Sergio Biston (1-11, 13-15, 17-20)
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