Gary James' Interview With A Member Of Elvis Presley's Backing Group
J.D. Sumner And The Stamps
Donnie Sunmer is the nephew of the late J.D. Sumner. As part of J.D. Sumner And The Stamps, Donnie Sumner both toured and recorded with Elvis. For an inside view of Elvis, both on and off the road, we turned to Donnie Sumner for some answers.
Q - Donnie, let's start with what's going on in your life today. Are you a full-time minister?
A - I have been licensed with my denomination since 1982.
Q - You're also recording Gospel music?
A - I have a recording studio and I'm in the studio twelve to sixteen hours a day, every day of my life that I'm home.
Q - That's a lot of time in the studio. You must be writing and recording all the time.
A - Most of the time I'm producing aspiring artists.
Q - Does that mean you have your own record label?
A - I have two labels. I don't push my labels. They're usually independent productions, but every once in awhile I'll find somebody who is really, really, really good and I'll put 'em on one of my labels. I have one label called Image and one label called Ovation.
Q - With the record business being what it is or isn't today, you've really got to work hard to get your music heard, don't you?
A - Oh, yeah. It's completely changed in the last six or seven years.
Q - Are there radio stations exclusively devoted to Gospel music?
A - Oh, yes. I think the last time I checked there were about nine hundred full-time Gospel radio stations, Southern Gospel radio stations.
Q - And so because your last name is Sumner and the history behind that name, maybe Gospel station program directors would pay particular attention to anything that comes through with that name on it, or is it just as hard as ever?
A - Well, actually Gary the name has absolutely nothing to do with it. I don't want to get in to all the ins and outs of radio promotion, but it's not necessarily related to the quality of the artist.
Q - Now we go back into the past. Do you remember the first time you met Elvis?
A - I do.
Q - Were you a fan of his? Did it mean anything to you? And what did you think of Elvis? I know that's a lot of questions.
A - I've been a fan of Elvis ever since 1957, in junior high school. All the girls liked him and my daddy was preaching against Elvis. So, I didn't have any Elvis records. But I got to listen to my girlfriend's records and I fell in love with his music in 1957.
Q - What year did you meet him?
A - 1971, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was where we started out first tour.
Q - What did you think of him after listening to his records all those years, seeing his films, watching him on TV?
A - Well, once I got my composure back after meeting him I said to myself, "I'm going to grow up and be just like him. I'm gonna drink lots of milk." Apparently I didn't drink enough milk because I didn't become like him. (laughs)
Q - That was only one of many things you needed to do in order to become like Elvis I guess.
A - (laughs)
Q - You traveled with Elvis as part of The Stamps Quartet. You recorded with him. He recorded two of your songs. What did that mean to you? You must have been thrilled!
A - Well, let's go back a little bit. I started with him with The Stamps Quartet, the Madison Square Garden tour. That was my first tour. We did back-up for him onstage. Often times he would get us to come to his house to sing. And we'd sing to him on the road. Right after Aloha From Hawaii I left The Stamps and started my own group at that time called The Tennessee Rangers that was part of The Grand Ole Opry. To make a long story short, not long after I started the group, Elvis called up and invited us to Vegas to sing to him and we wound up signing a contract and lived with him until 1976 when I got off the road. We lived with him, traveled with him, sang back-up for him, opened up his shows. I did his vocal arrangements and during those night sessions I sang some of my songs. In Palm Springs one night he was fixing to make a record in his home down there and he didn't have any songs. So, he told me to get the words out of some of my songs. So, I give him words to two songs of mine and one of Tim Baty, my baritone singer, and some more of my friend's music. He wound up recording everyone of 'em. If I had known he was going to record 'em I would've wrote down my words. (laughs)
Q - You'd go over to Graceland, Elvis' house?
A - We didn't go over there. We lived with him.
Q - You lived at Graceland?
A - Nobody lived at Graceland except Elvis and one bodyguard. Everybody, when we were in Memphis, stayed at Howard Johnson's. He had a wing that he leased 365 days a year. There was eighteen of us and we stayed down there. He always wanted a bodyguard and piano player at the house. So, Sonny West and Charlie Hodge was a team, and myself and Red West was a team. When Sonny and Charlie wasn't staying at Graceland, me and Red stayed at Graceland. If Elvis woke up in the middle of the night and wanted some music, he had a piano player.
Q - Would you say that Elvis was a religious man or was he a spiritual man?
A - Those are two totally different entities, Gary. Spiritual man means he is concerned about his welfare. A religious man means he's conscientious to his faith. Elvis was a spiritual man. He was really concerned about the hereafter, but he had no particular denomination of affiliation. He used to wear three different religious symbols around his neck all the time. Sammy Davis asked him one time how come he wore all those necklaces. Elvis said, "I don't want to miss Heaven on a technicality."
Q - After his marriage to Priscilla ended, did he appear to be troubled to you?
A - Troubled is a pretty hard word. I wouldn't say troubled. He was emotionally incomplete. He truly loved her. There was another part of that loss. The other part was that he never had anything that he couldn't get, except Priscilla. That was bothering him 'cause he couldn't get her back. The loss of his love for her was combined with that and it made a two-edged sword because it haunted him. I wouldn't say he was troubled. He was emotionally distraught. Is that a better word, Gary?
Q - That would be more descriptive. I was going to say it seemed as though Elvis fell apart after his marriage failed.
A - There's a point, and Elvis reached it, where you have attained and achieved everything in life that is possible for a human to experience. You have to have a thread of reality to hold you down to the present world system or you go out in space, in left field so to speak. Priscilla was the last string to tie him to earth. He was free floating from then on.
Q - Had Elvis mother lived, would his marriage to Priscilla have survived?
A - I'm not sure his mother living would have affected his marriage, but it certainly would have affected Elvis.
Q - Would you have known if Elvis had any type of problems with his colon? Is that why he took prescription drugs?
A - He had all kinds of problems. He had eye problems. He had leg problems. He had colon problems. He had liver problems. I'm not sure what the pain level was, but he was in pain a good portion of the time, but through the use of martial arts he had been able to what they call transcend the pain in part. I'd seen him push his knuckles up past where they're supposed to be, doing karate. It would've put me in the hospital. He would just hit 'em with his hand and put 'em back in there. He had a high tolerance for pain in order to get rid of any pain other than that he could do mentally. It took more than it would have taken for me. He was in excess in everything in his life. When he laughed, he laughed harder than anybody in the room. When he cried, he cried harder than anybody in the room. When he hurt, he hurt worse than anybody in the room. What the doctors would prescribe for me to kill a toothache, it would take two to three times of that to kill it for Elvis. He did not have a problem with prescription drugs. He did prescription drugs. If he had not reason to do 'em, he would not have taken 'em. Now, he did have a problem with sleeping pills. He was not addicted to pain killers, but he was addicted to sleeping pills.
Q - That's understandable isn't it? The schedule he maintained was putting him in different time zones across the U.S.
A - Well, when I left I was standing 6'4", and I weighed 138 pounds. That's what it did to me.
Q - You couldn't eat right. You couldn't sleep right. Your bodily functions aren't on any type of schedule.
A - Exactly. Anybody who throws a stone at Elvis has got to hit me first, and I'm going to take as many for him as I can. He had his problems, but I have absolutely nothing negative to say about him.
Q - Would anyone in Elvis' life had been able to get his prescription drug use under control?
A - No. If you want it, you'll find it. If you want it, you can get it. If you got the money, nobody can stop you from getting anything. It's kind of like my psychiatrist said to me one time, "What would you like to do in life?" I said, "I'd like to prove to somebody that I'm a decent guy." He said, "You can't prove nothing to nobody. They just got to believe it or not believe it." With Elvis, you got to stop doing this, you got to stop doing that. Okay. Then you say, "I'm going to see you don't get any more." Well, he'll go around you and get whatever it is he wants.
Q - His fate was sealed. Change would've had to have come from within.
A - Exactly. Right. You can't talk somebody into doing something they don't want to.
Q - Where did this story start that Elvis is alive? Did it start with Gail Brewer Giorgio's book?
A - Elvis is dead. J.D. dressed his hair and put his suit on him and closed him up in the coffin. You ask when did it get started? It got started just as soon as Hitler got killed. That same spinning of survival after death has been around for years. John Lennon, he's still alive. Hitler, he's probably too old now, but he was alive for a long time. Everybody's still alive out there somewhere. People are writing books about it, going on talk shows. Brother, when you're dead, you're dead. You don't come back to life.