Posted May, 2012
After Elvis Presley died thirty years ago this August, like many fans, I devoured every book and article that I could find and afford to learn more about the man. I have more books on the subject of Elvis than I do any other singular subject – and that’s after having lost one or two of them.
One of the books I bought (but no longer have) was one written by the late televangelist, Rex Humbard. In it (and if I remember correctly), when describing Elvis’ love of southern gospel music, Humbard used the story of King Saul who had vacated the calling of God and lived with a very troubled heart. During his many sleepless, anxious nights, he would summon a young David to play music – music that became what we know to be the Psalms of the Bible - to soothe his soul. It was Humbard’s contention that southern gospel music had the same effect on Elvis.
Whether or not that was actually the case may be open for debate. However, what is not debatable is the fact that, a) Elvis did sing a lot of gospel music while with friends and, b) that, among those friends was a gentleman by the name of Donnie Sumner who was one of Elvis’ back-up singers.
Recently, I became aware of a new book written by Donnie. I, of course, have been aware of Donnie and his work – both during and after his years with Presley. His story is interesting, entertaining and compelling.
Imagine this: You’ve got what would appear to be one of the sweetest gigs in the world: singing back-up for Elvis Presley! Not only that, but Elvis really considers you a close friend. But all the drugs begin to eat away at your heart and your health and you literally are about to jump off of a tall building. Instead, you walk away from the King of Rock and Roll.
That is exactly what Donnie Sumner did. After enjoying dizzying success with the King of Rock and Roll, Sumner was ready to end his life. It was then that he decided to walk away from it all. That story and many, many others are shared in In the Shadow of Kings (see the Boomerocity review of it here).
Mr. Sumner was gracious enough to grant a phone interview with me to discuss the book and his post-Elvis life. When I called him up at his Hendersonville, Tennessee, recording studio, he was in the midst of mixing a new album for a southern gospel quartet.
I was aware that, among the things that keep the sixty-nine year young singer very busy was his recording studio and production work. He said of that work, “Aw, I stay in the studio from six-thirty or seven o’clock in the mornin’ to about eight or nine at night, five days a week.”
Yet, with that heavy work load in addition to his busy tour schedule of personal appearances and the occasional appearances with the Elvis Lives stage show (designated a Guinness World Record as the first tour that was top-billed by a non-living performer. Leave it to Elvis.), Donnie found time to write a book. I asked him how the book writing process was for him and if there was going to be a follow-up to the book.
“Well, I piddled at it for eight or nine years and then I took about three months off and concentrated on it, finished it up and got it out. Now, I’m doing somethin’ else. I’ll do other writings but not anything autobiographical.”
When Sumner set out to write the book, he said that he had, “. . . three goals, startin’ at the bottom: To put down on a piece of paper as much of my story as I could to tell my grandkids. Second, was to tell the human side of Elvis and tell all this funny stuff and show him as a human being with no negative stuff. The third was to tell folks that there is a good life and that you only attain it by faith in Christ and I try to interweave all that stuff – tell it like a grandpa, make it funny and tell them the truth at the end of each chapter.”
As can easily be imagined, the targeted niche for Sumner’s book is the very wide, diverse and, sometimes, strange demographic of Elvis fans as well as those who love southern Gospel music. I was curious who, from his perspective, Donnie saw as the typical purchaser of In the Shadow of Kings.
“A lot of Elvis fans, a goodly number of my old friends and a tremendous number of people who have kids in similar situations who want to give it to their kids and grandkids. That’s the best part of the whole piece is if I can help somebody.”
People are very often touched by the stories of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of others – whether high profile or not. Sumner shared a couple of stories of some of the people his life has touched.
“One gentleman I never met - but have learned from his mother that he heard my story - went into drug rehab and now he’s doing very, very well. And, then, I was in a little town called Lenoir City, Tennessee, where I did a concert. I came back years later and was the associate pastor of that church. The Minister of Youth came up to me at that point came to me after I had been there a while and said that he came to my service years ago with his girlfriend and was all strung out on drugs. He heard my story and that night he decided to start a new life. He did and was now my youth minister at the church I was an associate at! I don’t hear many stories of that sort of thing because they’re not close friends and only a close friend would tell you a story like that.”
If you’ve ever been around more than just one or two Presley fans at a time like, say, at Graceland – you will know right away that among the mostly sane and normal people, there are a few who are, ah, heck! How do I say this? “Special”? Yeah, special. Couple those people in certain religious environments and you definitely have an environment for “interesting” stories ripe for the picking. Sumner shared a story or two.
“The only personal responses have been how much they appreciate portraying the human, funny side of Elvis rather than all the negative stuff and they appreciate how I handle the subject of drugs and Christianity in the book.” Then, after I bit on that hook of that serious answer, Donnie glided in with the rest of his answer . . . with deadpan seriousness that contained the urge to burst out laughing.
“I’ve got a couple of people who talk to Elvis all the time. Then I’ve got one girl that has ‘married’ Elvis after he died. They write me all the time and I don’t even respond. And, then, I’ve got one that’s his ‘daughter’ and Joe Moscheo and Red and Sonny West abused her all of her life. And I’ve got one that Elvis talks to her all the time. He’s come back as ‘Jessie’ and he’s got a new record out. There’s nuts out there everywhere.”
These stories begged the question about Sumner’s opinion as to the claim that Elvis staged his death in August of 1977.
“Well, I’ll start by telling you when J.D. (Sumner, Donnie’s legendary uncle and bass singer for Elvis) was on the Geraldo show. Geraldo asked him if he was certain that Elvis was dead. He said, ‘I am absolutely certain”. Geraldo said, “Why are you so sure?” He said, ‘If he wasn’t dead, he woulda done killed Michael Jackson.”
After both of us laughing very hard at that comment, Donnie added, “Yeah, I am absolutely positive that he is dead. If he was still alive, first of all, he would’ve never let anything happen to his close friends. They would’ve never had any financial problems. They would’ve never got into any legal problems and Lisa Marie would’ve never gotten into some of the stuff that she’s gotten into.
“At some point, he would’ve come back because he loved life and he loved music. If he were alive, he would still be doing it in some fashion because it would’ve killed him not to do it. That’s what killed him to start with was that he thought he was losing it.
“He is definitely dead. I won’t go into the personal reasons why I know but J.D. dressed him and I asked J.D. a couple of questions that only those who knew him best would know. J.D. confirmed those visible answers to the point that, if it was not Elvis in that casket, it was the greatest make-up job – and greatest wax dummy – ever known ever in human existence.”
Donnie shares the story in his book about why, while singing with one of the most beloved, historic and recognizable people in the world – even in the history of the world – he decided to quit and with nothing else to fall back on.
“A simple quote is in my book: ‘If you eat a bowl of cherries, the only thing you’ve got left is the pits and too much candy will make you sick.’ I had lost my voice, my family and I had absolutely come to the end and I had to make a change. It was either die or start over and I chose to start over.”
I commented that it took a lot of courage to quit a gig like that. Sumner responded quickly and unequivocally.
“I tell you what, Randy, it don’t take any courage. When you hit bottom, you ain’t got no place to fall. It don’t matter where you’re at when you hit the bottom, the bottom’s the bottom no matter where it’s at. You can hit the bottom in the presidency or you can hit the bottom on skid row. The bottom’s the same. You can’t go no lower than the bottom.”
I asked Donnie if he had something to fall back on when he left Elvis, to which he replied, “Not at all. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of the drugs and see if I could live. I would’ve dug a ditch just to get straight and live. I had no idea. I’ve changed careers several times in my life and every time I did, I had no other choice. I had no idea what I was going to do when I quit the one I was in.”
Elvis was known for expecting almost unconditional loyalty from those who worked for him. I had to ask Sumner if his friendship with Elvis was harmed by his departure or, for that matter, what his Uncle J.D.’s reaction was.
“I never talked to J.D. about what he thought when I left but he was certainly proud of me. When I told Elvis that I would like to resign, he said, ‘I’d like to do that, too. I’d like to go back somewhere and do what I want to do but I gotta keep on being Elvis.’ I turned around and walked out of the hospital. That was the last time I ever talked to him face-to-face.
“He called me two or three times, wanting me to come work on sessions with him. Charlie (Hodge) would call from time to time to see how I was doing. He said Elvis said to call and see how I was doing. But I never talked to Elvis again face-to-face. I talked to him twice about sessions. Charlie would always call on those session calls and said, ‘Elvis wants you to come over and do this, that or the other’ and I would say the reason why I couldn’t. Elvis would then get on the phone and say, ‘I understand. I love you. Bye.’
Like those of you reading this article, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Elvis had died. I was at a church youth camp in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona. A kid had a local newspaper and I could see the headline that said something to the effect of, Elvis Heart Attack Victim. I asked the kid, “Is he dead?” because the headline didn’t make it clear if he “just” had a heart attack or if he died from one. The kid gave me one of those, “Yes, you idiot” looks. I spent the rest of that day totally stunned by the news.
I asked Sumner what his reactions and thoughts were on that fateful day.
“I was in Florida at the time. I was in a revival. J.D. called me and said that Elvis died. He said, “I want you to come up and sing at the funeral.” I said, “Aw, Uncle Jake, he ain’t dead. He’s been going to do this for years and he finally did it. He’ll be back next week.’
“He used to talk a lot in the living room of all the funny ways he was going to disappear and what he was going to do while he was gone. Then he was going to come back and freak everybody out. I honestly thought when J.D. called – he called about one o’clock in the afternoon on the day Elvis died – I really didn’t think that Elvis was dead. I made up this crazy excuse that I just couldn’t afford to come up there.
“They kept talking about it on the news. The next morning, I called J.D. I said, ‘Uncle Jake, are you sure that Elvis is dead?’ He went through all these things. ‘Yep, I dressed him. I had the hairdresser come in and we fixed his hair and I had so-and-so cosmetologist come in and put on his make-up.’ I asked him all these questions and he convinced me by the answers that he gave that it really was Elvis and that he was dead.
“I hung up the phone and I started trying to find a flight to Memphis. There was no – between Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville – there was not one single charter service nor commercial flight available for a trip to Memphis. I tried to make car arrangements. J.D. said that he would rent a limousine to bring me up there. In Polk County, where I lived, and in Hillsborough County in Tampa and in Orlando – in those three big cities, there was not one single limousine that was available for long distance service. Because of logistics and the time element that I had wasted, I wasn’t able to attend the funeral.”
Donnie’s uncle, the late J.D. Sumner, is legendary in the southern gospel quarter genre and is known for holding the Guinness World Record for eighteen years for recording the lowest vocal bass note – a “G0”. If you sit at a piano and hit the further key on the left, it’s two notes below that.
No, I’m not kidding.
I had the privilege of meeting J.D. Sumner at the ’78 Dove Awards. He was wearing his “TCB” ring and pendant which Elvis had given him. For the brief moment that I had met and spoken with him, he struck me as a very kind and gentle man. He passed away in November of 1998; just three days shy of his 74th birthday. I asked Donnie for his thoughts on his legendary uncle.
“He was a giant of a man, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and domestically. People never talked about J.D.’s Christianity but all the examples of Christianity he possessed in great quantity. He never brought it on stage with him. He didn’t wear his salvation on his arm sleeve. He was the most human Christian gentleman that I had ever known – other than my father. I have nothing to say about him or his Christian example or his moral ethics. He’s like everybody else in the world of entertainment – every once in a while he’d slip but just because you slip doesn’t mean you’re down. There was only one sinless life and he died so that I could get over mine.”
If you were to check out Donnie’s appearance schedule and found that he was going to appear at a location near you, I’m sure that you might want to know what you could expect from one of his engagements, so I asked him about it.
“I hope that, while they’re there, they think, ‘Boy! That guy’s got a lot of stage skills. He’s got a good voice. He’s got a great presentation and I really enjoyed it. It was funny. It was exciting and I think I’m going to tell my friends what a great program he does.’
“Then, when they walk out the door and get in the car, I want them to say, ‘Hmm, I didn’t think about that while he was there. I think I’m going to try that’ and then cause their life tomorrow to be better than it was the day before because they had a good time at my program the night before.
“My only desire is to cause somebody’s life to be better because I passed through it. If I can do it with a song, I’ll do it. If I can do it with a Scripture, I’ll do it. If I can do it by just walking around and being friendly, I’ll do it. There’s a lot of ways to be a help to somebody and I’ll proudly use all of them.”
Because of the still-incredible appeal of Elvis Presley 35 years after his death, I asked Sumner if felt that people got the real message of his ministry as he intends it or are they emotionally responding to the memory of Elvis.
“I call my work a ‘blind side’ ministry. I want them to laugh at my humor, at my jokes, at myself by being old, fat and ugly. And I want them to understand that I did, in fact, work with Elvis. I’ve been there and done that and these are the stories that I’ve got to prove it. That’s about eighty-five to ninety percent of what I do in an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half.
“In the last 10 – 15 minutes of my programs, I can concentrate an entire Sunday. It’s at that point that I lay aside all my stage skills, all my humor and just tell them the cold, hard facts. I was a scoundrel. I’m not a scoundrel any more, thanks to Jesus. I’ve got a brand new life. I am now victorious in all things and they can be, too, just by deciding that they want to believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ.
“You don’t have to put on a football helmet and run at the gates of Heaven. You don’t have to squall and bawl, have a fit and fall back in it. All you gotta do is believe and, if you believe in your heart that Jesus Christ came, lived and died, was buried and raised from the grave and is coming back, you are as righteous, you are as saved, you are as Heaven-ready as Billy Graham or any other big TV evangelist that ever stood on the face of this earth. It ain’t gonna be perfect tomorrow but, with Jesus living in ya, it can get better and better and better. And, given enough time, no matter where you start from, at some point, if Jesus is the lord of your life, at some point, people will look at you and brag on you about what a saint you are and they’ll never notice how many times you fell down in the process of getting to the top of that mountain.
“People look at me now and say, ‘Oh, Brother Sumner, you’re a true warrior of the cross!’ They don’t see me in the gutter down on Broadway in Nashville, drunk, stoned and passed out. They don’t see me in all the places of ill repute that I found myself in during that time period. I got saved - came back home. My life was still messed up. It took several years for me to get most of the kinks out of it so that I could walk straight. Over a period of years, people started calling me ‘sir’.
“I tell you what: I’ve been drug free for 35 years or more and I have been an ordained minister since 1979 and I still break out in a rash when I police car behind me on the road. That’s the gospel truth! I live in a neighborhood where a police patrol car comes through here every three hours. If I ever see him coming down my street I always make sure he’s not turning into my drive! God said that He wasn’t going to remember my sins. He didn’t say that I wasn’t!”
As we were close to wrapping up our call, an unplanned question popped into my aging cranium about Sumner’s involvement in the “Elvis Lives” shows that occasionally tour the country and the world.
“Only the big ones. I don’t do the little ones and I don’t go overseas. As a matter of fact, I’m debating right now as to whether I want to go to Hawaii in January for that big deal (the 40th anniversary of what is known as the “Aloha from Hawaii Concert”). When I left Elvis and got sober, the first time I ever went to an airport, I saw a big red sign that said, ‘Terminal’ and I don’t fly unless it’s an absolute necessity. Jesus said, ‘Lo, I am with you’ and that’s where I’m gonna stay!”
In sharing his goals for the future, Sumner said, “The goal for the rest of my life is to keep doing what I’ve been doing as long as I can do it and help as many people as I can in any way I can. And if I can’t do that no more, I’ll be in Heaven.”
Since he brought up the end of his life, I asked Donnie what, when he’s joined Elvis in leaving this building called “earth”, he hopes his legacy is and how does he want to be remembered.
“Well, I’ll start by telling you my brother-in-law was terminal. He was in hospice and he got all inspiration one day and he’s talking about all the things he wanted people to say about him at his funeral when they pass by and look at him in the coffin. He said, ‘Donnie, what do you want them to say about you when they pass by and look at you?’ I said, ‘Ed, I truly hope that somebody looks down at me and says, ‘Golly! He’s alive!”
Then, in a more serious tone, he added, “Nah, I’ll be truly delighted – I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they close it with – when they leave the head of my coffin – ‘I’ll see you in the mornin’’ If they say that, I’m happy with everything else they say.”