Saturday, May 12, 2012

“Some Things, You Know, Pete, Are Meant To Be”

Interview with Per-Erik “Pete” Hallin about Elvis and gospel (part 1)

Six years ago I interviewed Swedish musician Per-Erik Hallin, who sang and played piano with Elvis in 1973 and 1974 (when he was Voice's piano player). “Pete,” as he was called by Elvis, has mostly worked in the genre of gospel music, and the interview was done for a one hour radio program titled Rock Me Lord dedicated to Elvis religious songs and broadcast on Easter, 2006.

As only parts of it were used in the program, I've been thinking for some time to include a transcript of the whole interview here on my blog. As Per-Erik really has a lot of interesting things to say about Elvis, and especially his love for gospel music, I hope you'll enjoy what you read in this post and the next.

You played with Elvis - when was that?

I did it in 1973 at a recording session, and then I was a member of a warm-up band [Voice] who toured with Elvis for a year until the end of 1974.

How did you end up playing with Elvis?
A gospel quartet called the Oak Ridge Boys had visited Sweden and recommended me for this warm-up band.

How did it happen when you met Elvis?
The first time I met Elvis, I was over to audition for the warm-up band, and didn't know from the beginning that I would meet with Elvis then. But in the midst of the few days I spent in Nashville, they suddenly said that Elvis was now doing a recording session, so we're going down there. The three singers in the group would sing on his album but the rest of us would just go along. Then we were in Elvis' house, in Graceland, and played a few songs that I had rehearsed with them. But I didn't really understand at once that the songs were proposals that he might bring with him to the recording session, but it was. I then heard how the producer and Elvis said, that if we choose this song, then maybe this guy [Per-Erik Hallin] can join in and play a little too. And I thought I had probably heard wrong, this is something I wont take out in advance. But it actually turned out so that I could join in and play a few songs. And there was another pianist in the studio too [David Briggs], so we were two, and sometimes we played double-keyboard as well.

Which songs did you play on?
It was on a few songs that ended up on two different albums, one was called Promised Land and the other called Good Times. When it came to the repertoire, it was very mixed, both musically and content wise, but there were several songs that had a really strong gospel touch as well. 

Among them, the first one? 

Yes, the very first song I got to play on, it wasn't much of a gospel music wise, but it was definitely such a text, and it was called “I Got A Feelin' In My Body.”

And how did it go?
Well, it went well, I probably would have been more nervous today, I think, than I was then, I was so young (laughs). But it was really fun, because he recorded most of it right away, something most artists don't, not even then, when you record the rhythm track first and then the singer does the vocal overdub some time later. But this was more like a live performance, even the background chorus was recorded directly.

How was the mood in the studio?
Very relaxed, very relaxed. There were no rehearsals, but they were playing a demo again and again and again. And then, all the musicians wrote down what they heard, chords and such. And then they used numbers, it was the first time I've seen it. Instead of the name of the chords you wrote 1, 2, 3 and 4. They called it “the Nashville number system.” Then suddenly it was time to make a recording and that was more like a “jam,” it was very relaxed and inspiring. 

What do you think about the first song, “I Got A Feelin' In My Body?”
I really like it, and it has actually been an inspiration to me as well, to a song that I wrote later. It's in a style of music that I like. 

You said you recorded gospel material as well, are there any other songs you remember from the recordings?
Yes, one of the songs does have very nice lyrics, and it's called “If That Is not Love.” But I didn't play piano on that particular song, David Briggs did. But it's an incredibly strong and beautiful gospel text, I think. 

What did you think of Elvis when he sang these gospel songs?
I felt that Elvis gave everything on every song. But his very special relationship to gospel music I didn't notice fully on that occasion, as it was the first time. That was something I noticed more and more as we spent time with him during that year, because we spent a lot of time together with Elvis privately, after the concerts. 

What happened then?
Well, then we were often around a piano, and then he sang just because it was fun. And then it was really evident the tremendous love he felt for the gospel songs. 

In what way?
Because he wanted to sing them, and it wasn't necessarily he who sang, many times he just listened or sang a part, and he especially liked to sing bass. And I think he felt that a lot of what was in the show that he did was quite superficial, but now it was serious in a way, it was obvious that he did this with all his heart. I've been thinking a lot about it afterwards, Elvis was exposed, I would almost say, to an idolatry that had no limits at all, it went way out of hand, and still does many times. And in the midst of it all, he was just an ordinary, simple person. And it felt just like this [the gospel singing] became a refuge for him. I also think it's pretty touching to think that a person being exposed to so much idolatry likes to just be one of the gang and sing songs like “There's Somebody Bigger Than You And I” and the like. It's as though everything gets a different perspective in gospel music. In ordinary music you look up to the singer who stands there on stage. But I tend to think that in gospel music, you get to raise your eyes and focus on the one that has given the singer the gift to sing, and then everything gets a more healthy perspective, and I think he felt something of this very strongly. 

What relationship did Elvis have to gospel music?
I think I can say without hesitation that gospel was simply the type of music he liked the most. And I think that if anyone of those who knew him well, and perhaps better than I did, would sit next to me, they would nod and agree and say, “yes that's the way it was.” And it has been said many times and I myself have experienced it. 

In what way did you notice that this was the music that mattered most for Elvis?
It was noticeable in his whole attitude towards it, and with the heart that he suddenly sang with, and the reverence he showed for the music as well.

To be concluded in my next post tomorrow ...

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