You cannot separate Elvis and gospel music!” It’s hard not to be swept up in Gavin Chatelier’s enthusiasm; he’s a ball of energy with a high-beam smile and enough charisma to keep thousands of festivalgoers cheering and singing along.
But despite Chatelier’s obvious passion, Colin “The Colonel” Greene, founder and organiser of the Blue Mountains Elvis Festival, held annually in Katoomba, NSW, was unsure whether a gospel-themed set in the iconic Palais Royale Hotel’s Grand Ballroom would attract much interest. But, in 2018, he agreed to give it a chance and offered a two-hour timeslot (and to be frank, it’s hard to say no to Gavin Chatelier when he’s on a roll).
But if Greene was willing to take a risk, Chatelier took it to the next level by inviting local Seventh-day Adventist pastor Duane Haora to share the stage with him to share some biblical themes and the spiritual aspects of Elvis Presley’s life story in between songs.
Despite the overt religion, the session was a roaring success, with the Palais Royale overflowing to standing room. “In all five years of running the Festival I’ve never seen this before,” said Greene, amazed. “This was one of the best shows we had this year.”
Last year Chatelier’s Elvis Gospel Show was back on, billed as “the hit of the 2018 Blue Mountains Elvis Festival”. And this August, 20–23rd, it’s again a mainstay of the festival program (assuming the COVID-19 ban on public gatherings is lifted by then).
Chatelier, a full-time gospel singer and entertainer with 25 years’ experience, is also a fixture at the Parkes (NSW) Elvis Festival in January, which boasts a 50,000 strong attendance and 27-year history. At Parkes, Chatelier took out People’s Choice and Judges’ Choice Awards in 2016, 2017 and 2019 and, again, was the first to bring a full Elvis Gospel Show to the festival.
To a casual observer, or even for someone who can happily croon along to dozens of Elvis hits, it might seem strange to associate the King with gospel music and religion. After all, didn’t the panicked parents, priests and pundits of the 1950s and 60s declare rock’n’roll the devil’s music and Elvis’s agitating pelvis obscene? And wasn’t he given to excess when it came to sexual partners, junk food binges and the pills that eventually killed him?
“Yes, Elvis made mistakes,” concedes Chatelier. “He was a sinner who sinned, but to conclude that he or anyone has lost out on heaven is not our place.” The Elvis Gospel Show recalls Elvis’s humble beginnings growing up in a one-bedroom home in Tupelo, Mississippi, his father teaching him the value of hard work and his mother raising him with strong Christian beliefs and principles. As a boy he attended local gospel concerts to see his favourite groups, The Jordanaires and The Stamps Quartet, who were later his fulltime back-up singers. Elvis often gathered his band together with whoever was living in his Graceland home in Memphis when his favourite preacher Rex Humbard would appear on TV.
After his shows Elvis would gather backstage around the piano to sing gospel songs with his back-up singers till early hours of the morning. This was his only way of going to church, since his overwhelming success made it impossible to attend normal services. Myrna Smith, a former member of another of Elvis’s back-up groups, the Sweet Inspirations, said Elvis’s biggest strength was that he had a big heart, and that his biggest weakness was that his heart was too big. “Elvis was a generous man who always looked out for [the band’s] physical and spiritual needs. He prayed with us, especially before the shows, and made sure all our medical expenses were covered.”
Chatelier themes his Elvis concerts “Amazing Grace”, a nod to the classic Christian hymn as well as to Graceland. “It’s the central theme of the gospel,” Chatelier says, recalling the lyrics from “If that isn’t love”, included on Elvis’s 1974 album, Good Times: “He left the splendour of heaven / Knowing His destiny / Was the lonely hill of Golgotha / There to lay down His life for me . . .” It’s a song about Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice.
Chatelier reels off a series of Elvis gospel song titles and lyrics: Welcome to my world—“Knock and the door shall open / Seek and you shall find . . .” (quoting Matthew 7:7), Stand by me, Who Am I?—“That the King would bleed and die for . . .” “Most people don’t realise,” says Chatelier, “that while he was given the title ‘the King’, Elvis said, ‘I could never accept this kingship; there is only one King, Jesus Christ.’
“In my Elvis gospel shows one of my goals is show that God is love and He never casts up our sins—He is always faithful and just to forgive our sins if we are willing to admit our faults and confess them. It is in fact the goodness of God that leads us to repentance, not fearing a mighty, stern judge.
“I love this song Elvis sang around the piano after his shows, Without Him, which I teach and ask the audience to learn with me—it sounds like a beautiful prayer and it’s so touching to hear everyone in the audience so willingly singing:
“‘Without Him I could do nothing / without Him I’d surely fail . . . Oh Jesus, oh Jesus / Do you know Him today? . . . Without Him life would be worthless / But with Jesus, thank God I’m saved . . .’”
Find out more about Gavin Chatelier and his music at <gavinchatelier.com>.