No single artist has inspired as many tribute singles – literally hundreds, possibly thousands - both during his career and after his untimely demise as the late Elvis Presley. Certainly Elvis must be the second man after Jesus Christ (I’m not counting God here as he’s not, nor never has been, a human being) to have so many tonnes of vinyl wasted on rotten recordings of rotten songs by rotten singers and rotten songwriters: there’s been enough plastic dedicated to Elvis tributes to double the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
So it’s about time we dedicated a few posts to this phenomenon, don’t you agree?
John Daniel ‘J D’ Sumner (or His Friend J D Sumner as he credits himself on both sleeve and label of the tawdry little record) was an American gospel singer, songwriter, and music promoter. Born in 1924, he was a member of a number of vocal groups including the Sunny South Quartet, the Dixie Lily Harmoneers, the Sunshine Boys and the Stamps Quartet, who later became known as J D Sumner and The Stamps. The story goes that Elvis idolised Sumner's singing after seeing him perform with the Sunshine Boys, and Sumner sang at the funeral of Elvis’ mum Gladys. Presley hired Sumner and The Stamps as his back-up singers in late 1971, and the group toured and recorded with him until Presley's death in 1977 (interestingly, on back sleeve to the 45 states that The Stamps only toured with Elvis for four years). Having already done the same favour for Mama Presley, Sumner also sang at Elvis’ funeral.
Which in no way explains how he released a record as shockingly awful as Elvis Has Left the Building, his tribute to his friend and former employer. Sumner, who also provided the bass voice on Way Down, one of Elvis’ last hits, narrates the story of the King’s life and death in the most boring fashion imaginable. Written by Sumner himself (the B-Side Sweet, Sweet Spirit, was written by Doris Ackers) it’s absolutely horrible: a full five minutes of funereal music and sonorous vocals. Sumner reads his lines like a gravel-voiced hypnotherapist going through the motions for a particularly boring patient. Absolute rubbish. And this from a man who, for 18 years, For eighteen years, held the Guinness World Record for recording the lowest bass note. You’d expect something a little more engaging: mind you, in the same year as this was released Sumner and the Stamps also issued the bad-taste album Elvis' Favorite Gospel Songs (Sung at His Funeral).
Sumner, who co-founded the Gospel Music Association in 1964 and is credited with being the first artist to customise a coach for groups to travel and sleep in, continued to work right up until his death in 1998. It’s not recorded if he ever performed Elvis Has left the Building live.