Elvis Presley would literally give you the shirt off his back, says Larry Strickland, who as a member of J.D. Sumner & The Stamps sang backup for Elvis in his last years.
Strickland recalls during the making of one album, they were all hanging out at Graceland, when Elvis announced he was getting rid of his old wardrobe. He called each member of the group upstairs to give them some of his discarded clothes.
"I would look at him and say, 'Yeah Elvis, I can have that hemmed up; I can make that work,' " Strickland says with a chuckle. "I walked away with three or four of his shirts and one of his kind of outfits. It wasn't a stage outfit, but it looked like it could have been."
Strickland still has his Elvis garments, more as mementos rather than as actual articles of clothing. But this weekend the Nashville resident, who went on to great success as a singer and manager outside of The Stamps, will slip back into his Elvis shirt figuratively for one of his semi-regular reunions with surviving members of The Stamps. As part of this week's Elvis birthday celebration, Strickland and the Stamps will perform Saturday morning at the Graceland Ticket Pavilion. In the afternoon, the Stamps and others will participate in "Conversations on Elvis" at the Memphis Marriott East.
"I figured out the other day that I'm probably the youngest guy left of everybody that toured with Elvis on stage," says Strickland, who at 65 is three years younger than his predecessor in the Stamps, the Oak Ridge Boys' Richard Sterban. "I'm going to be the last man standing if I keep my health."
Strickland was born a pastor's son in North Carolina. From an early age, his father would take him to "gospel singings," where he first got hooked on the music. Growing up, some of his favorite performers were Sumner and the Palmetto State Quartet from neighboring South Carolina.
As a teen, Strickland began performing in a series of gospel groups, breaking only briefly for military service. He was back at it in 1974 when he got the call to audition for The Stamps, who had started with Elvis three years earlier.
"... I literally went from being a weekend, part-time kind of singer to full time on stage with Elvis overnight," he says of his heady change in circumstance.
Strickland stayed with The Stamps through Elvis' death in 1977 until the group's breakup in 1980.
"We still traveled," he says of the last years. "Of course after (Elvis) died our shows turned into tribute shows. A lot of our programs were about him. A lot of Elvis fans instead of gospel fans were coming to see us, so we were having to do all these tributes singing his music. We would do the gospel songs that we did with him, and J.D. would sit around reminiscing about Elvis."
Frustrated, Strickland and some other members of the group left to form a country band. Strickland found greater success, however, working behind the scenes as a producer and manager. Most notably, he helmed the career of his wife of 22 years, country star Naomi Judd of The Judds, after their 1989 marriage.
"It was very interesting but much harder," says Strickland of the transition to the role he still fills for Judd. "There was a lot of detail stuff and having to go from an artist and being in a position where I was the one being catered to being the one who had to do all the catering."
Except for his periodic Stamps reunion, Strickland stayed away from singing until 2008, when he was recruited by his old favorites The Palmetto State Quartet to sing bass. A year later, he bought the group name from retiring senior member Kerry Beatty. Since then the group, recently expanded to a quintet, has adopted a busy tour schedule, traveling last year with the reunited Judds among others. Last spring they released a new CD of country-style gospel, Grace.
"One thing led to another and next thing you know I'm back in it full time," says Strickland, who will return to Memphis in August, the 35th anniversary of Presley's death, for an "Elvis in Concert" event featuring surviving band members performing to old concert footage of the King. "The music just draws you in. I love gospel music. And I just love Southern gospel quartet style of music."
Gospel Concert Celebration
Featuring former members of J.D. Sumner & The Stamps; 8 a.m.-9:15 a.m. Saturday at Graceland Ticket Pavilion. Tickets: $25, available at guest services inside the pavilion.