Elvis' love for gospel music was his one real link with the past, providing constant support during a demanding career. His passion for this music formed the foundation for his long, close friendship with J. D. Sumner.
As a teenager, Elvis considered Sumner a hero. That respect never changed but developed into a remarkable relationship not unlike brothers.
J. D. Sumner has shared many stories about that friendship.
Elvis Presley was only 16 when he first heard the powerful voice of J.D. Sumner. So captivated by the deep melodias tones produced by this great man, he would sneak in the back door of the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. The two men soon formed a bond that would last throughout their lives.
In the early 1950s, Southern gospel quartets had such established popularity that the performances on the circuit would frequently sell out auditoriums seating 5,000 people or more. One of the biggest shows, however, was the National Quartet Convention. When the convention was in town each year, Elvis, who had scratched and saved to purchase a ticket, would attend and listen to the gospel music he loved. He became familiar to the members of the leading quartets, including J. D. Sumner, who performed with the Blackwoods at that time and was known as the 'lowest bass singer in the world'.
Elvis especially loved the deep, sonorous tones of the bass singers and the characteristic way they would boom out the short lead phrases that gave Southern gospel choruses their punch.
Elvis Presley with J.D. Sumner and The Stamps Quartet.
Ellis Auditorium was also the location for shows by leading quartets such as the Statesmen from Atlanta, and especially the Blackwood Brothers, who were from Memphis and often promoted singing events featuring themselves and other groups. On one occasion, J. D. Sumner noticed that the young boy who had been attending the sings so faithfully was absent. Then, the next time, he was back. When he had the opportunity to speak to Elvis, J.D. asked him where he was at the last concert and why he hadn't attended. Elvis replied that he didn't have enough money for a ticket. J.D. told him he wouldn't need any money from that point on. 'You just come to the stage door and I'll let you in for nothing'. And that's the way it remained. Later, J.D. said, 'About the next thing I knew he was letting me in his stage door'. It was the beginning of one of the most enduring friendships of Elvis Presley's life. (Excerpt: The Gospel Side of Elvis by Joe Moscheo)
In November of 1971, J. D. Sumner and the Stamps were invited to tour with Elvis Presley. The group became a regular fixture with Presley until his last concert on June 26th, 1977. The Stamps were also featured on most of Presley's studio recordings between 1972 and 1977. In the midst of their popularity while performing with Presley, the Stamps released what is probably their most critically acclaimed recording, a double LP titled Live At Murray State. The singers joining J. D. Sumner on that recording were Ed Hill, Ed Enoch, and Bill Baize.
Elvis Presley and J.D. Sumner 1976 - From the book Elvis The Concert Years.
J. D. Sumner
Born John Daniel Sumner in 1925, J.D. grew up in the sunny state of Florida.
He began his Southern Gospel singing career in 1943, when he joined a group called the 'Sunshine Boys'. He began singing with the Blackwood Brothers in 1954 and continued until 1965.
In the mid-'60's J.D. bought the 'Stamps Music Company', changing their name. The World lost J.D. on November 16, 1998 of a heart attack following a concert in Myrtle Beach.
Thanks to Mary King for the use of her video 'Elvis Has Left The Building'.