Interview by Arjan Deelen
It's not a secret that Elvis loved the voice of tenor Shaun "Sherrill" Nielsen. During a 1970 Las Vegas show, Presley introduced him as: "The greatest tenor in Gospel music". In Elvis' final years, Shaun became an integral part of Elvis' music, both on stage and in the studio. You can hear Shaun sing harmony with him on 'Spanish Eyes' and 'Help Me', and it's Shaun who sings the high falsetto ending on 'Unchained Melody'. But he's probably best known for singing 'O Solo Mio' as an intro to 'It's Now Or Never' during concerts in 1976 and 1977, and for the unusual 'Softly, As I Leave You', where Shaun sings and Elvis recites the words.
Gospel music plays an important role in Shaun's career, and he has sung tenor for influential vocal groups like The Speer Family, The Statesmen and The Imperials. He was recently inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in that field. Shaun moved to Denmark seven years ago, and still performs regularly. He recently invited us to his home in Viborg, where the following interview was conducted.
You were born in Montgomery, Al. on September 10th, 1942. Can you tell us a little about your background?
I started singing in church when I was four or five years old. In school I was somewhat famous, because I could outrun all the boys, and I could sing higher than all the girls! (laughs). I was also the smallest in the class, but even then I found out that I could get accepted by singing, and that's part of what motivated me to sing. I had a very unhappy homelife, but I found acceptance in my singing. I left home, and went to live with my grandparents when I was 14 years old. They were extremely religious, so even though I had to basically sneak around to listen to Roy Orbison and Elvis and Sam Cooke, I ended up having to sing gospel. It was an opportunity to sing, and that's what I wanted to do. Tenors were hard to find, and I happened to be a tenor, so all these groups were interested in me singing with them. I remember my grandfather once said: "Son, you gotta get yourself a regular job, you can't make a living singing!" (laughs). He may be right yet, but so far... But that's how I got into singing.
How did you get into singing with the professional quartets?
That came about when I was in college back in Nashville, Tenn. I had cut a little album at a little studio up there, a gospel album I'd sell, because I was singing at revivals and churches. I went down to the all night gospel singings in Nashville with the Statesmen and the Blackwood Brothers. This was basically around the same time that Elvis was attending their concerts in Memphis. The guy in charge asked if I could sing. Later he said that the reason he asked me was because I was dressed in a tuxedo with a fancy shirt! I was dressed up so nice, he thought: "Well, who knows?". So he put me on, and I sang, and they wouldn't let me leave the stage. The Statesmen heard me, and Jake Hess heard me. Hovie Lister of the Blackwood Brothers took me up to the bus, he gave me a record, and he invited me to sing on their radioprogram. Jake got my number, told the group on the Westcoast about me, and later on I went to join a group called the Songfellows in California. Then he told the Speer family. I grew up with the Speer family in Montgomery, we were members of the same church. I remember my grandmother took me to sing for Ben Speer one time, and he considered me. Ben had a heart attack, and they needed someone to fill in for him, so the Speer family hired me.
Did you listen much to Elvis' music in the fifties?
I remember as a teenager just sitting in the car with the top down (a friend of mine had a convertible), with 'Hound Dog' turned up. You know, I loved it, it was fun. The funny thing about it is, you know I liked his music, but I wasn't as big a fan as I later became after I came to know him. I didn't get a chance to listen to him, because I was so busy with gospel on the road. With the Imperials we had over 200 dates a year.
In 1966 the Imperials worked with Elvis for the first time.
Yeah, I remember the first time I met him, that was at Studio B in Nashville. He walked in the door, and he was dressed in a black Superfly outfit. He purchased it in Beale Street, where all the R&B artists were. He walked over to me, stuck out his hand and said: "Hi, I'm Elvis Presley. I've got all your records. You're one of my favorite singers". That was my intro to him. I didn't realize that he was aware of me, but he watched our early morning TV show. It came on at six every morning, and he'd stay up and watch that before he went to bed. So that's how he knew about me and the group. Then he asked the producer to have us sing on the session.
What were your impressions of him back then?
He was basically a very nice guy. He asked me to sit down at the piano, and show him this song that he wanted to record that I had recorded. I sat down and played 'Where No One Stands Alone'. It was kind of a thing of mutual admiration, really. He was not ashamed to tell me how much he appreciated what I did and how I did it. After working with him, I realized what a perfectionist he was, and how competent he really was as a singer and a musician. He knew exactly what he wanted.
Were his recording methods different to what you were used to?
Not for me, because he wanted it right. He'd do it till he got it right. It was different in the fact that he didn't have to worry about studio-time, how much it cost. He usually didn't get going until around midnight. He might get there at about 10 or 11, but he'd walk around, joke, talk to everybody, just relax until he got ready to record. Which was unique, because usually when you go in to record you gotta jump right in, because you're on the clock so to speak, it's costing money. That didn't bother him (laughs).
In June 1967 Elvis recorded again with the Imperials, but you weren't there.
No, that 1966 session was the only one I did with the Imperials and Elvis. I didn't record with him again until 1973.
In 1972 Elvis recorded 'The Impossible Dream', which apparently was based on your version.
It's exactly the same. I didn't know he'd cut it until I heard it, and then I realized it. He got that arrangement right off my record. He did the transposition that moved up in the same key. I know he took pride in singing the same key, and he sang it in the same key that I did. That was great. It was funny to hear it.
In September 1973 you had a group called the Rangers.
Yeah, that's the first name we took. We were still singing at the Grand Ole Opry at the time.
I have read that Elvis wanted your group to audition for Tom Jones in Las Vegas.
Yeah, he flew us up to Vegas in a jet. We were picked up in a chauffeur-driven limousine, with an English chauffeur named Gerald. Had white gloves and the whole bit. He took us up to the Hilton, and there was Tom Jones and Elvis and Bobby Joe Gentry. We sang quite a bit. The next day or so Elvis called us, and he said that he had some good news and bad news. The bad news was that Tom Jones couldn't use us because of his contract, but he'd drawn up a little contract, and would we be interested in that. He'd written it on a sheet of toilet tissue! (laughs). I'm not sure of the meaning of that, but... And it said for the sum of $ 100,000 we'd travel with him, write songs for his music company, and work with him. He wanted to know if we were interested in it, and we were definitely interested in it! A short time after that he decided that we would open the show for him. Actually, I think he was trying to find something for us to do I guess! (laughs).
I heard that the Colonel almost choked on his cigar when he heard about the $ 100,000.
I would imagine he did. It didn't cost him anything, but the Colonel was a control freak. He didn't like us, because he couldn't control us. He wanted to control everything around Elvis, everything that was done, and he didn't have a thing to do with that.
Why did Elvis change the name of your group to "Voice"?
Elvis had a religious periodical, and it was called "Voice". He liked the name. I'm glad it was "Voice". He could have called us "Crap", and we'd say: "That's wonderful!" (laughs).
Did you discuss religion with him?
Yeah, there were times where we would sit up in his bedroom with him. He would "teach" so to speak (laughs). I'd listen, but I was somewhat amused, because I didn't understand what he was talking about.
In late September 1973 there was a session at Elvis' house in Palm Springs.
Yeah, I had just been through a hair transplant, and I had bandages around my head. In fact, during one of the songs, blood started running down my eye! But I enjoyed recording that way, because it was very relaxed. We recorded 'Are You Sincere', and that's the only song I can remember, because that was when the blood was running down my eye, and I sang flat on the ending. Luckily, I think they finally redid that and took the voices off. Everytime I heard that I had to shut my ears, because those notes are as flat as a flutter! (laughs)
I understand that you suggested that song.
Yeah, I did. That was a song I sang in a talent contest. That's when I realized the old story: never follow a dog- or a child-act! There was a little child beating me, and I came in second. But I felt alright, because Elvis lost that talent show in Tupelo too! So I felt in good company!
The reason for that Palm Springs session was to overdub a few songs, and he did put his voice to 'Sweet Angeline'. It's been said that he also worked on a song called 'Color My Rainbow'.
Do you remember that one?
I don't remember that song. I might have left to repair my head or something, but I don't remember him doing it.
There's also a private recording from that period, where he sings 'Let Me Be The One' and 'Spanish Eyes'.
Yeah, that was in Palm Springs. That was from Linda's tape-recorder. We were singing duet on 'Spanish Eyes'. That was from Linda's tape-recorder, because she gave David Briggs a copy, and David gave me a copy. I have it on that record. Whoever put it on record bootlegged it from my record. We were around the piano in Palm Springs. He was just having a good time.
Do you have any memories of the Stax sessions in Memphis?
I remember him singing his own harmony on 'Promised Land', which I think he did a great job on. I also remember that he sent out for 40 cheeseburgers! (laughs). We all had cheeseburgers. Other than that, it was a fine session. I thought he did a fine job. I enjoyed singing there with him.
It's been said that he worked on a song called 'We Had It All'.
(sings)... "You and me, we had it all...". Yeah, I think so. They never did release that. I remember that he considered it. I think that song was written by Troy Seals. That was a good song. I think that I recorded it somewhere.
Elvis recorded a couple of songs at that session from his publishing deal with Voice, for instance 'Mr. Songman'.
Yeah, I remember when we were playing that song, Lamar Fike came in and said: "Who wrote that piece of crap?". And I said: "Well, basically the same one that wrote all that other crap that you don't have the publishing on!" (laughs). Anything that he didn't have the publishing on, he didn't like.
The February 1974 Las Vegas engagement was the first time that you were on stage with him, and he had two duets with you in the show, 'Help Me' and 'Spanish Eyes'.
Yeah, we had done 'Help Me' on record - That was the first time I ever heard myself sing on record with him. But 'Spanish Eyes' was a total surprise. He'd ask me to come out center stage with him. It scared me to death at the moment, because I wasn't planning on that! (laughs). Once we did it once, he wanted to do it quite often. In Vegas, we often had late night jam sessions. For most of the guys, it was a great opportunity to find a girlfriend. The girls were always impressed if they got to meet Elvis. The problem with those jam sessions was that they would last forever and ever. Once he got started, we'd be going to daylight. Sometimes they were straineous sessions, all night long! (laughs)
I understand that 'Softly As I Leave You' came from one of those sessions.
We were in the dressing room, downstairs at the Hilton. Elvis was talking about the fact that... I think it was John Leary who told him the story, the story which is told in the song. Well, I knew this song, so I sat down at the piano and started playing it and singing it, showing him how the song went, in case he wanted to sing the song himself. He started saying the words very quietly, while I was singing. Elvis' father said: "Elvis, that is beautiful. Why don't you do it?". That's all he needed. He sent somebody to find Glen D., and that next show we did it for the first time. The first night they didn't have a spotlight on me, I was in the darkness singing. The next night he put a spotlight on me also, and it became a duet.
In March '74 you went on the road with him. What was that like?
It was fun. People were never ready for the excitement that was generated at the Elvis concerts. Several security guards had their ribs literally broken by women rushing the stage. There was one situation I remember, there was a woman who lay there on the floor with her legs trembling. As we were leaving, I asked a security guard what happened, and he said that she'd become so excited that she'd jumped off the balcony, and broken both legs. I had mixed emotions. I felt sorry for her, but then again I felt envy, because I never found anything so exciting to jump out off the balcony! I remember one place where Elvis threw a scarf to a woman, and she put it around her neck, and she made the mistake of crossing it. There was a woman on one side that had a hold of it, and there was a woman on the other side, and they were choking that woman to death. Elvis had to throw them each one scarf, and I think he saved that woman's life. It was always just... There were times where I don't think anybody ever heard him sing, because they were screaming so loud. You couldn't hear - we couldn't hear what we were doing. I remember one incident, where one girl got past the security. And I was singing. I reached out, literally with one hand, lifted her up off the ground, and went on singing! Her feet were trying to go the other way, trying to get to Elvis. I had her in one arm, holding her and singing, until one of the security guards came and got her. That was an amusing incident. It was always a very exciting time.
On a more serious note, I have heard that there was a lot of jealousy towards Voice, because you guys were in such a priviledged position.
Yeah, there was a lot of that, yes. Especially the guys like Lamar knew that we had a perfect opportunity to pitch songs to him. If he cut a song, for a songwriter it was a million-dollar deal in royalties. Plus the fact that there were two people that were payed directly by Elvis, me and James Burton. And that p*ssed the Colonel off. And there was some other jealousy... That was natural I guess, but it wasn't that obvious. The only one that was obvious was Charlie! (laughs).
In March 1975 you had a session with him at RCA Hollywood, where he recorded a.o. 'T.R.O.U.B.L.E.'
Yeah, I remember that. He liked that song, and once we recorded it, he listened to it all night long. In fact, I went behind one of the speakers, and fell asleep on the floor! He went on to play it a hundred times. But it took us quite a while to get it right, like he wanted it.
That's kind of interesting, because it's been said that he hated rock 'n' roll in his final years.
He really liked this song. At that point of his career, if he didn't like a song, he wouldn't bother. He didn't give a big rat's tail about what RCA wanted. They couldn't get him to do anything. In fact, they had to send sound trucks to where he was to even get him to record to start with. He really liked that song.
One of the songs from that session, 'Bringing It Back', came from Voice.
Yeah, that was one I used to sing at the piano for him. That was written by Greg Gordon, who was a member of Voice for a short time. The strange thing is that Ernst writes in his book that Greg is a piano-player. I don't know where in the world he got that, because Greg played guitar, but he wouldn't know a piano if it kicked him in the fanny! (laughs). He was a member of Voice for a short time, but he had a very religious girlfriend at the time, and she didn't want him to sing with us. Everytime I was trying to find work for the group, I'd come to a rehearsal, and he would decide to quit. And then he'd come back. So I told him: "Here's the deal: If you're gonna be a part of Voice that's fine, but you're gonna either have to stay or go, because the next time you quit, if you join, you're gonna have to whip my ass! We're gonna end this situation". So he decided to quit, he left and he didn't try to come back! It's amusing now, but that's how he ended up not being a member of the group. But I understand the problem that he had with that woman.
According to my notes, Voice split up between August and December 1975.
Yeah, Elvis quit touring there for a while. I'd left him once before in the middle of a tour, because I was so disgusted with it all. I was disgusted with some of the problems within the group. I also felt that the Colonel was treating us like cattle, and I just didn't appreciate that at all. I got tired of it. So I wrote Elvis a note, and gave it to Ricky. Elvis told them that if they wouldn't get me to come back, he wouldn't do the gig. So I said: "Well, I'll come back, but I'll come back just for the money". It was Red that called me. I asked: "Does he want to put the group back together?", and he said: "No, he just wants you". So I decided how much I wanted to go back to work. It was basically $ 2500 a week plus expenses. I said: "I'll come back for that".
In February 1976, Elvis did a recording session at Graceland, but you weren't there. Why?
I was singing at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The Colonel always took pride in never letting us know when a session was on. That was a contractual situation I was in, and they could sue me. I really wanted to be there at the session, but it was just impossible. I really believe to this day... Elvis had talked to me about wanting to record 'Danny Boy', and I think he wanted to do 'Danny Boy' like we did 'Softly As I Leave You', with him on recital and me singing. But he recorded it by himself.
But you were present at the October 1976 session, which I believe should have lasted longer than it actually did.
That's just the way he was. If he wasn't in the mood, he didn't record. We had one session where we all came, but he just never showed up. We had one where we were gonna record at the racquetball court, he had everything set up, but he didn't show up.
What about 'Fire Down Below'?
That's the one I put my voice on, so the band would have a vocal track. He just never got around to doing it.
What's the story behind the 'O Sole Mio'/'It's Now Or Never' medley?
Well, we were sitting around at Graceland one night, and joking what his best selling record was. We were guessing what it might be, and he said: "It was a song my mother used to play for me on a wind-up Victrola, an Italian tune by Enrico Caruso". And I said: "Do you mean...", and I went into 'O Sole Mio'. He said: "Do you know that one?", and I said: "Yeah, my grandmother used to play it for me too, but not on a wind-up Victrola!" (laughs). He said: "Well, would you sing it for me?". So I basically sang it, and he said: "That's great!". He didn't tell me, but the first time we were on the stage on tour, he comes over and pulls that out of his hat! He just decided he wanted me to do it. It scared me to death, because I had no idea he was gonna do that. I asked James: "Give me the key here" (laughs), and he strummed the key, and I went and did the thing like I knew what I was doing. He obviously liked it so well we did it quite often! (laughs). So that's how that happened.
Another song that he started doing around that time is 'Unchained Melody', but it's your voice doing the high falsetto ending on the album.
Yeah, he asked me to go in and overdub in the studio. In fact, when he was doing it, I was holding up the note, but they just didn't have my microphone up. As far as I know, that's the only recorded song in his career that somebody else overdubbed the ending for. That's for trivia-buffs, but...
I have read that often during concerts in that final year, when he was too tired, he would have one of the back-up singers hit the high notes for him.
Well, he didn't do that that often. Many of the notes he'd hit himself. But I'd hit them too, the high ones. And Ed Enoch would hit them too. But most of the time he sang the notes. He just wanted someone there when he wanted to let go. But he used to sing 'Hurt', and he was just amazing. Even right up to the end... in Cincinatti, where he looked terrible and probably felt terrible, his voice was just magnificent.
That last concert in Indianapolis was also the last time that you saw him alive?
Yeah, I was very worried about him, but even in my worry I didn't think that he would die. I felt that he should take better care of himself, go to the hospital or something, and get into a better shape. But I also felt admiration for the fact that he went on in the greatest "the show must go on" tradition.
Did you go to the funeral?
I didn't actually go to the funeral. The musicians were invited a day before the funeral at Graceland. I stood at the casket, and Lisa was standing there too. She looked up at me, and I didn't know what to say. I told Priscilla that I was very sorry about it, and she said: "We used to listen to your records for many hours. You brought a lot of happiness to us". That made me feel a little better. That was very kind of her.
As a professional singer, how would you evaluate the voice of Elvis Presley?
I thought that he had an amazing voice. He got even more maturity in his voice as he got older. His voice got better, I thought. I was often amazed at his range, just as one singer listening to another singer. The man had one of the most versatile voices of any singer I've ever known. He could sing anything. I've never seen such a versality, and in fact I don't see it today. Usually a voice can sing one way, but he had that ability about him. And he helped me to learn the importance of communication with an audience. That was his forte. He had such great soul. He had the ability to make everyone in the audience think that he was singing directly to them. He just had a way with communication that was totally unique.