Interview with Per-Erik “Pete” Hallin about Elvis and gospel (part 2)
As Voice's piano player, Swedish musician Per-Erik Hallin got to sing and play with Elvis in 1973 and 1974, both off and on stage. Here follows the second part of an interview I did with him about six years ago, for a radio show called Rock MeLord dedicated to Elvis gospel recordings.
Elvis also sang religious material on stage when you were with him, including “How Great Thou Art” which originally is a Swedish hymn, called “O Store Gud.” I know you tried to convince Elvis of this, but that he didn't believe it. Would you like to share some thoughts on that?
Yes (laughs). My recollection of it was that I had heard that it was a Swedish song from the beginning. But I myself wasn't 100-percent sure. But I said to him, “I think this is a Swedish song.” But he just thought I joked with him. He probably thought that just because he liked it so much, I had to say that it was Swedish, he didn't take it seriously. And I got a little unsure and didn't hold my ground, so nothing more was said. Unfortunately, like many Americans, Elvis thought that it was American. But afterwards I have learned more about “O Store Gud,” and know very well that it's Swedish. Although no one really knows where the music comes from, the original lyrics are written by Carl Boberg in the late 1800's.
You were on stage when Elvis performed “How Great Thou Art.” What did you think of his performance?
I liked it a lot. But the strongest memory I have of it, was one time when I wasn't on stage, and could listen to him perform it, I remember I was very moved by it. He did the song with an incredible feeling. I was just on stage during a particular period, and that was because I was standing in for a guy in the background chorus. That was during a tour in March 1974. And here's something that is worth telling, because I think it's funny to us Swedes. Elvis won three Grammy awards during his career, and not one for a rock song. The first Grammy was for a gospel album called just How Great Thou Art, that he made in the 60s. And then he got a Grammy for He Touched Me, and that song exists in Swedish as well. “Han Fann Mig,” it's called, and it's a Christan song also. Then he received a Grammy a third time, and that was precisely for how he sang “How Great Thou Art” at that concert in 1974. And I didn't understand that until many years afterwards. The same day that someone told me, I had hung a picture of “O Store Gud,” a painting on that theme, in my living room, and someone called and told me that Elvis had been awarded a Grammy precisely at that occasion. And I was actually so moved that I cried, it felt very nice, just because I knew what huge feelings he had for these particular songs.
What role did gospel music play during the tours?
There were two kinds of gigs when we were with him, sometimes we stayed put in one place, it would be Lake Tahoe or Las Vegas, and then he sang on the same stage night after night, and sometimes it was a tour. But whatever it was, there was always a piano, I think, in the suite where he stayed, if he had seen to it or however it happened. So this thing, that we gathered and sang gospel music, it applied throughout. It was as much on tour as when we stayed put in one place.
You yourself got to perform a song, “I Couldn't Live Without You,” a few times. Can you tell something about it?
Yes, I actually played several songs that I'd written for Elvis, and I'll be honest and say that he didn't decide on any of them except one. But it was very nice that he liked that particular song. And I told him that this song, it's no ordinary love-song, but the one this song give its love to, it's Jesus. It's about Jesus, and he was aware of that. And so it's a special feeling that he asked me to sing it at various times. And it's a fond memory for me.
You have never recorded it?
I still haven't recorded it, and it's been 30 years. But I will record it soon, actually. It feels good. I had not thought it would take so long, but that's how it is.
What impact do you think that Elvis' religious recordings have had on gospel music and for the public?
I have heard many people say that they notice that he sings these songs with a very special feeling. I also believe that Elvis probably has reached many people with these songs that might not normally have listened to them that much.
How religious was Elvis, in your opinion?
It's a very difficult question. And I tend to generally hesitate to say how religious a person is, that I know or have known, whoever it might be. But I can say with certainty that he had faith in God, no doubt, and that these songs corresponded to a very deep longing that he had. But I also believe that he longed for making it even more consumate in some way, and more fully than it was. In some way, he was imprisoned in his own success. It was not easy being Elvis, so to speak.
What is your strongest memory when it comes to Elvis and gospel?
That isn't easy to answer ... I would like to say that it's all the occasions when we were singing privately, in total. It's the finest and the best memory I have from that time, absolutely.
How was it then that you stopped playing for Elvis?
I honestly thought that I had an opportunity to make an album of my own back home in Sweden, but it didn't turn out that way. But it was the biggest reason I moved back then.
How was it to say goodbye to Elvis?
I didn't think then that it was going to be a final goodbye, I didn't know that it was the last time I saw him, I thought we might meet again. So ... But because of various circumstances we never bumped into each other again before he died in 1977. And that felt very, very sad.
Have you stayed in touch with some of the musicians from that era?
A little, I actually have contact with a guy named Tony Brown, among others, who took over my role as a pianist in the warm-up band. Because that was what I was, I was not in Elvis band, that is. But Tony Brown went on to become Elvis' pianist as well, during the last years. And I know that he also has told some very good memories, I've seen a documentary that is based precisely on this that we're talking about, and in it Tony has told some very nice things about these moments, which went on after I left, when he continued to sing gospel music. I think it's something he did during his entire career, from the beginning there was this love of gospel music, as I understand it.
How often do you think about your time with Elvis?
Quite often, actually, because there are many very nice memories. But there are also things that ... I also saw the downsides that come with such incredible fame. And I remember the one time when he was going to show all his gold records. If you can imagine that you would have, in your own home, a large room with a bunch of gold records that look like a whole museum, what an odd feeling. And it was for him as well, actually. I remember that he said, “When I enter this room I can't believe it's me who has done all this.” So he expressed some kind of disorientation in front of the phenomenon that was Elvis Presley. But there stood the man Elvis, who was an ordinary person and couldn't quite grasp what had happened. And there is nobody who can live up to being put on a pedestal, as is often the case with this kind of fame. It gets pretty lonely up there. And it's not so easy to have a normal friendship, to know who would have been your friend, even if you had not been rich and famous. So life isn't so simple. But I thought that those of us that still came pretty close to him, that for us it became like a real friendship, and when we sang together and he was one of the gang who was singing, and all that. Those are very, very fond memories.