Elvis leftovers: It’s all about that bass

ELVIS Week officially is now over. So many Elvis stories could not be told in a single week. Impossible. But here are just a couple more.

Elvis fans surely will always remember J.D. Sumner, leader of the Stamps Quartet, one of the vocal backup groups that toured with Elvis. Sumner is best known for his booming low voice. Plunging into a double low C, Sumner was noted in the Guinness Book of Records as the World’s Lowest Bass singer.

Sumner met Elvis when the future King of Rock and Roll was just a young boy.
Elvis, as a teenager with sideburns and loud clothes, frequently attended the monthly gospel sings at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. He became a regular fixture backstage, meeting and talking with the singers he admired so much. One of those singers was J.D. Sumner, then part of the Blackwood Brothers who had a great influence on Elvis.

Sumner and the others came to expect to see Elvis whenever they were in town. They were very surprised when one night, the kid wasn’t there. So when they played Memphis again, Sumner asked Elvis why he didn’t show up at the last gospel sing. Elvis confided that he simply didn’t have the money for a ticket. Sumner would have none of that. From then on, Sumner got Elvis in free through the stage door. Elvis never forgot Sumner’s kindness. Said Sumner, “The next thing I knew, Elvis was letting me in free through his stage door!”

On Elvis’ last single, that was moving up the charts the day he died, J.D. Sumner ends the recording of “Way Down,” with a ridiculously low note. Sumner told the story that in the studio, Sumner made several attempts to hit the note but his efforts were unsuccessful.

Producer Felton Jarvis looked over at Elvis and kept telling him, “Elvis, he can’t do it, he just can’t do it.”

Elvis would immediately respond, “Yes he can. I’ve heard him do it, many times.” Sumner revealed that Elvis had not. But Elvis’ display of solid confidence helped Sumner hit the unforgettable note. “I think I only did it because it was” for Elvis, Sumner would say.

Sumner’s big bass voice would wreak havoc closer to home. When I worked at WUWM-FM, a gentleman by the name of John Groff was our chief engineer. Groff was a huge fan of “A Prairie Home Companion,” that was and still is broadcast on WUWM. Groff would listen to and tape every single show.

In the mid-80’s J.D. Sumner and a gospel group were guests on the program one Saturday night. I remember the show because I taped it and probably still have it on some old cassette somewhere.

Sumner and his group sang gospel classics  “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” (great video) and “I’ll Fly Away.” Throughout each tune, there was Sumner, pounding, pounding, pounding with his sledgehammer-like bass.

The following Monday at the station, I saw John Groff, and knowing he heard the show, I asked him if he caught J.D. Sumner.

While Sumner was performing, Groff was in the family station wagon, listening to the radio. Using his engineering ingenuity, Groff outfitted that beat up old station wagon with the finest audio equipment.

Garrison Keillor introduces J.D. Sumner. Sumner and his group start singing away, with Sumner hitting notes lower than a gopher’s basement.

Groff is listening and smiling, until…


There goes one speaker.

Then another.

And another.

That blasted J.D. Sumner and his booming bass, thousands of miles away but magically transported into John Groff’s car via satellite had literally blown out each and every one of Groff’s speakers.

J.D. Sumner died in 1998. He suffered a heart attack after a concert. I’m sure he’s singing back up bass for Elvis,  the young boy he befriended in a kindly gesture that changed his entire life.



And one more.

The King tossed a lot of scarves out into the adoring audience.

Dick Grob, who headed up Elvis’ tour security, told an interesting story on Sirius Satellite Radio about those scarves the King tossed out to adoring audiences at concerts.

I don’t recall the location or year, but at a concert one night, directly behind the stage, every seat was filled by very young fans. At one point during the show, Elvis made his way behind the band, back-up singers and orchestra and threw a scarf out to one of the screaming fans in that section.

The scarf fell harmlessly to the floor. No one made a move for it.

This had never happened ever before at an Elvis concert. Elvis kept singing but had a noticeable look of puzzlement on his face.

Elvis walked over to an opposite end of the area just behind the band and launched another scarf. The fans kept smiling, kept shouting and clapping to the music, but no one appeared to want the scarf. It, too, wound up on the arena floor.

Elvis’ countenance looked even more surprised.

Word immediately got onstage to Elvis who then smiled in a look that seemed to say, “OK, now I understand. Whew. Thank goodness.”

Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, realizing the arena had all those unwanted seats directly behind the stage, gave them all away to the blind. No one informed Elvis.


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