Obituary: J. D. Sumner

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The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH ELVIS Presley was the King of Rock'n'Roll, he was also a leading gospel singer and he won Grammys for his sacred recordings. He was friendly with many gospel musicians and he worked for several years with J.D. Sumner, the deep voice who can be heard prominently on Elvis's posthumous chart-topper, "Way Down". Elvis said on several occasions that Sumner was his favourite gospel singer and when they were together, it was Elvis who was in awe of him.

John Daniel Sumner, nicknamed Jim Dandy or J.D., was born in Lakeland, Florida in 1924. Like so many Southern singers of his generation, he sang in church from an early age, and when his voice broke he became the bass singer with the Sunshine Boys. They often worked in Memphis where Sumner befriended the young Elvis Presley, sneaking him into the concerts when Elvis could not afford the 50 cents admission.

The white gospel music of the day was akin to country music crossed with barbershop quartets. Most of the acts were male quartets featuring four- part harmonies. In 1954 a leading gospel group based in Memphis, the Blackwood Brothers Quartet, lost two members in a plane crash and Sumner joined the group as their bass singer. Elvis had thoughts of joining the group himself and, in 1955, shortly after making his first records, he appeared in a gospel concert with them.

In 1956 the Blackwood Brothers Quartet found national acclaim when they won Arthur Godfrey's television talent show. They were the favourite group of Gladys Presley, Elvis's mother, and they sang at her funeral in 1958. Said Sumner: "I have never seen a man suffer as much or grieve as much as he did at the loss of his mother."

In 1963 James Blackwood purchased a gospel music publishing company from Frank Stamps. The deal included the brand name, the Stamps Quartet, and Sumner developed this, transforming a little-known group into one of America's leading white gospel groups. He also formed the National Quartet Convention, which became the biggest event on the Southern gospel calendar.

Elvis Presley had used a former gospel group, the Jordanaires, on many of his hit recordings. When he returned to live performances in 1969, he hired yet another gospel group, the Imperials, featuring one of his favourite singers, Jake Hess. They left in 1971 following a dispute over pay with Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

By 1971, Sumner had had enough success to write his autobiography, Gospel Music Is My Life. In it he wrote, "Gospel music was designed by Christian people as a means of reaching the lost. I wouldn't be on the road as much as I am, staying away from my family, if it were not so. If we can inspire people to live better lives, we've performed a ministry."

Because of his various commitments, Sumner was managing, rather than singing with, the Stamps. He was also a notable gospel songwriter and among his compositions are "The Old Country Church", "Crossing Chilly Jordan", "He Means All The World To Me", "Inside The Gate" and "Lord, Teach Me How To Pray". He had a sense of fun and amused audiences with his impression of "the Gooney Bird". Because he was tall (six foot five) and dignified, it was doubly funny to see him running around on stage, and he even released an album of his comedy routines.

Elvis heard a record by the Stamps, liked it very much, and invited the group to join him on stage - if Sumner was singing with them. "I want your '56 endings," he told him. By this, he meant the way that Sumner would run down the scale and bottom out on the lowest note he could hit.

Sumner agreed and the Stamps Quartet joined Elvis in November 1971. Their regular bass singer, Richard Sterban, soon left to join the Oak Ridge Boys. The Stamps worked for Elvis until his death in August 1977 and Sumner's voice can be heard on many recordings including the gospel songs "Help Me" and "Why Me, Lord". On stage, Elvis would liken Sumner's voice to a B-52 bomber - and that was a compliment. He looked distinctive with his grey hair and hand cupped over his ear as though he were receiving personal messages from the Saviour. Time and again, Elvis would ask him to repeat low notes.

Elvis relaxed by singing gospel favourites and, fortunately, an impromptu jam session with the Stamps was recorded in 1972. At the end of "Nearer My God To Thee", Elvis says, "I was singing bass, but J.D. covered me up. He wiped me out."

After Elvis's death, Sumner often gave interviews and spoke at Presley conventions. He always stressed the positive side of Presley's personality and never admitted that Elvis took anything other than prescription drugs. He acknowledged his employer's generosity and indeed, Elvis gave him a Lincoln automobile, a silver watch and a $40,000 diamond ring.

Shortly after Elvis's death, Sumner and the Stamps released a tribute album, Elvis Has Left The Building (1977), and there were two further albums, Elvis's Favourite Gospel Songs (1977) and Memories Of Our Friend Elvis (1978). They were nominated for Grammy awards with the albums Victory Road (1990) and Peace In The Valley (1991) and they were featured on Tammy Wynette's final album, Inspirational Favourites (1998).

The group's only UK appearance came when they opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in 1980. They were booked for Elvis In Concert at Wembley Arena in January 1999 in which Elvis's backing musicians and singers will accompany a video of Elvis singing. Elvis, naturally, is irreplaceable but so is Sumner; few singers can hit the lowest G on the piano. He is included in The Guinness Book of Records as the world's lowest bass singer.

Sumner was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame as an individual in 1983 and with the Stamps earlier this year. He died while he was touring. As he said in his autobiography, "Gospel music is more than standing on a stage or a way to make a living. Gospel music is my life."

John Daniel Sumner, singer: born Lakeland, Florida 19 November 1924; married (two daughters); died Myrtle Beach, South Carolina 15 November 1998.

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