A Nephew's Quest: Who Was Brother Claude Ely?

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:17 pm

In 2001, Macel Ely — the great-nephew of the late gospel singer Brother Claude Ely — went on a vacation to London. He went to a record shop and recognized the music being played over the intercom as his Uncle Claude's music.

Ely asked the store manager, "Are you playing Claude Ely's music?" The manager took Macel down the aisle to a display of Brother Claude Ely: a blown-up picture, and a selection of old 45s and LP albums.

Ely stood in the store for an hour, watching people coming in the store and buying his uncle's music.

"It really freaked me out, to be perfectly honest," he says.

Ely says he had grown up hearing his uncle singing and preaching and praying, and to him, it was just the same screaming and shouting that he had grown up hearing in church.

"I had no idea that outside of those Appalachian Mountains, people had heard about Brother Claude Ely," he says.

So 50 years after these recordings, Ely decided to find out who his great-uncle really was.

A Song On Claude's Deathbed

Ely began to drive through small eastern Kentucky towns, stopping in Pentecostal churches, knocking on the door and asking if there was anyone there he could speak to, and if he could record them.

And he would ask people, did you ever hear of a man named Claude Ely?

In all, Ely visited hundreds of churches over thousands of miles. Over nine years, he interviewed nearly 1,400 people.

Linda Morgan said she remembered meeting Brother Claude Ely at a tent revival in Cumberland, Ky. Others remember his singing.

Claude Ely was born in 1922 in Puckett's Creek, Va. When he was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told that he was going to die as a child. His uncle Leander gave him an old guitar, which he would practice on his sickbed.

"Even as a child, he really had a very strong personal relationship with God," says Roberta Pratt, who was a member of the Cumberland Pentecostal church and knew the family.

When he was sick, Pratt says, Claude's family gathered in his room where he was in bed and prayed for him. And then, according to Pratt, Claude said, "I'm not going to die." And he started singing a song.

Ely says he learned that the family felt that God had supernaturally healed Claude. And they believed that God had given him a song: "There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down."

The song became an anthem among Pentecostal people in the Appalachian Mountains.

And it was one of the last recordings Johnny Cash made before his death.

The song was "just a plain, simple song that we'll never have to face eternity without God," says Terry Mont, who also knew Claude Ely. "It's a hope song."

Healing Powers

As an adult, Claude Ely went on the road. He traveled from city to city, wearing a cowboy hat and a white suit. He was a heavyset person, with a gold front tooth. His nickname was "The Gospel Ranger."

He would drive a car, steering it with one hand, and with the other he would announce with a bullhorn, "Later tonight at 7:00, I'll have a tent set up in the middle of town, please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost."

Mont remembers that the way Claude Ely carried himself, with an old guitar slung on his back, and a big smile. Claude Ely didn't disappoint anyone when he came to town.

Morgan recalls having trouble with her back as a child. She got in a prayer line at a Brother Claude Ely revival, and she says she was healed.

Dennis Hensley traveled with Brother Claude Ely, playing lead guitar for him in his revivals.

"When Brother Claude Ely would get up to sing, I mean he would just get a key on the guitar and when he started singing, it was like the heavens would open up," he says.

People would show up to revivals because they had heard about this country singer who sang like a black man. Brother Claude Ely would thrash his guitar, shake and gyrate from one part of the stage to the other. Young men would run up to wipe the sweat off his forehead.

Gladys Presley, Elvis' mother, was a fan of Brother Claude Ely's ministry, and some people remember Gladys and Elvis getting blessed at Brother Claude Ely tent revivals while Brother Claude Ely laid hands on them and prayed for them.

Kevin Fontenot, an expert on country music history at Tulane University, says that in 1953, King Records heard about Brother Claude Ely. The company decided to record him live at a Pentecostal service in the courthouse in Letcher County, Ky., when he was holding a revival. King Records set up equipment in the courthouse and made the initial recordings that made Brother Claude Ely popular. And Fontenot says that those recordings were a very valuable historical document because they were the first time people really got to hear a recording of a live Pentecostal service.

Pratt remembers that the courthouse was packed with people saying amen and clapping their hands.

"Pentecostals clap off the beat," she says. "We prefer our style of handclapping."

Fontenot says that it might be hard to tease out where different musical traditions come from. But he believes that Pentecostal music had an impact on rock 'n' roll. He says you can hear that impact in Brother Claude Ely's music.

Many of the early rockers — Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash — all grew up in the Pentecostal church, according to Hensley.

'Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down'

Brother Claude Ely died nearly 33 years ago on May 7, 1978. He was playing the organ at his church in Newport, Ky. A tape recorder that someone brought to record parts of the service captured his death.

Brother Claude Ely started singing the song "Where Could I Go But To The Lord." Halfway through, he fell backward.

On the amateur recording, you can hear screaming and the moaning as people prayed for Brother Claude Ely. He died of a heart attack in front of his entire congregation.

Hensley notes that since Brother Claude Ely's death, there have been many artists who've recorded "Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down."

"It just makes you feel good to know that a little country preacher from down in Virginia wrote that song," he says, "and it's pretty much went all over the world."

A few years ago, Macel went to the cemetery in Dryden, Va., where Brother Claude Ely was buried.

When he arrived, there was a handwritten note taped on the cemetery plot. It said, "Dear Brother Ely, You sung it and preached it to us. I know one day you'll come up out of this here ground. Thank you for being so good to us. It made a big difference and we won't forget it."

Produced for All Things Considered by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries. Edited by Deborah George with help from Ben Shapiro.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

One of the last recordings Johnny Cash made before his death was song called "Ain't No Grave."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) There ain't no grave can hold my body down.

BLOCK: Producers Joe Richmond and Samara Freemark of "Radio Diaries" have this story about the man known as the Gospel Ranger.

MACEL ELY: My name is Macel Ely. I am the great nephew of Brother Claude Ely. Two thousand one, I was going on a vacation to London, England. I went to a record shop and they began to play music over the intercom system.

ELY: (Singing) Heaven, heaven, I want to go to heaven...

ELY: And I recognized it as my Uncle Claude's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO GO TO HEAVEN")

ELY: (Singing) I want to go to heaven...

ELY: I stood there for an hour and people were coming in the store and they were buying my uncle's music right in front of me.

ELY: (Singing) I want to go to heaven. I want to go to heaven.

ELY: And so, 50 years after these recordings, I wanted to know who this man really was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ELY: Okay, I've got it recording, just tell me your name.

LINDA MORGAN: Okay, my name is Linda Morgan. L-I-N-D-A...

ELY: And I would begin to ask people: Did you ever hear of a man named Claude Ely?

MORGAN: And I could still remember, just seems like yesterday, he had a tent revival in Cumberland, Kentucky, where I was raised...

BLOCK: The first time I ever met him, he just opened his mouth and let her slide.

CHRISTINE CORNELIUS: My name is Christine Cornelius(ph) and I'm from Bell County.

ROBERT CHARLES LONG: My name is Robert Charles Long(ph) of Rose Hill, Virginia.

JEANETTE BARRETT: Jeanette Barrett(ph)...

DANNY HUDSON: Danny Hudson(ph)...

MARY LYNNE FRANK: Mary Lynne Frank(ph) from Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

ELY: I've been to hundreds of churches, thousands of miles. Over nine years, I've interviewed over 13, 1400 people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO GO TO HEAVEN")

ELY: (Singing) Going to run up the road. Going to run up the road.

ROBERTA PRATT: My name is Roberta Pratt. I was a member of the Cumberland Pentecostal Church, where Brother Claude Ely was pastor. Even as a child, he really had a very strong personal relationship with God.

ELY: Brother Claude Ely was born in 1922 in Puckett's Creek, Virginia. And when he was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told that he was going to die as a child. So his uncle, Leander, gave him an old beat-up guitar. And he would practice it on his bed.

PRATT: He was dying and they had called the family in. And they gathered in the room where he was in bed and prayed for him. And then he said, I'm not going to die and he started singing the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

ELY: (Singing) There ain't no grave...

ELY: They felt that God had supernaturally healed him. And they believed that God had given him a song. And the name of that song was "There Ain't No Grave Going to Hold My Body Down."

ELY: (Singing) Well, I'm going to the river up north, bury my knees down in the sand. Going to a holler high, hosanna till I reach that promised land. Oh, there ain't no grave going to hold my body down...

ELY: And that song became an anthem among Pentecostal Holiness people in the Appalachian Mountains.

TERRY MONT: It's just a plain, simple song that we'll never have to face eternity without God. It's a hope song. It's just - it's a hope song.

ELY: (Singing) ...going to hold my body down.

ELY: He didn't have a formal education. He never went to high school. He had the reading ability of maybe a first grader. But as he was entering adulthood, he felt that it was important for him to be on the road. And so he would travel from city-to-city. And he would wear cowboy hats and a white suit.

PRATT: He was a very heavy-set person and he had a gold tooth in the front. And he had been nicknamed The Gospel Ranger.

ELY: He would be driving a car. And with one hand, he would drive with the steering wheel. In the other, he would have a bullhorn outside the window and he would announce: Later tonight at 7:00, I'll have a tent set up in the middle of town. Please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost.

ELY: Thank the Lord, Hallelujah. I'm glad today that we can stand on holy ground. Thank the Lord.

MONT: And the way he would carry himself, and that little guitar slung on his back and that big old smile. Claude Ely, he didn't disappoint anybody at all.

ELY: I've got the joys of God down in my soul and I'm not ashamed. Hallelujah.

MORGAN: And I was having trouble with my back as a child, and so I got into the line to be prayed for. And the power of God came down and I was healed right there in the line.

ELY: Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

DENNIS HENSLEY: My name is Dennis Hensley and I traveled with Brother Ely playing lead guitar for him in his revival.

ELY: And I feel good in my soul and I feel like singing today. Don't feel much like preaching but I feel like singing...

HENSLEY: When Brother Claude would get up to sing, I mean, he would just get a key on the guitar and when he started singing, it was just like the heavens would open up.

ELY: Thank the Lord.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRYIN' HOLY UNTO THE LORD")

ELY: (Singing) Well, I'm crying the holy unto the Lord and I'm crying the holy...

ELY: People heard about this country preacher that sang like a black man.

HENSLEY: He played like a washboard style guitar, like an up-and-down, up- and-down type rhythm like you're painting a house.

ELY: He would shake and gyrate from one part of the stage to the other. And they would have young men running up to wipe his forehead 'cause he was sweating.

PRATT: People would cry. People would clap their hands. Everybody was just kind of caught away in the spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRYIN' HOLY UNTO THE LORD")

ELY: Gladys Presley, Elvis' mother, was a huge fan of Brother Claude Ely's ministry. People have talked about Gladys and Elvis getting blessed at Brother Claude Ely's tent revival; and jump and sing and praise, while Brother Claude Ely laid hands on them and prayed for them.

HENSLEY: And that's what Claude was all about. He wanted you to feel the same spirit of the Lord that he felt.

ELY: Thank the Lord, hallelujah. Thank the Lord.

KEVIN FONTENOT: In 1953, King Records heard about Brother Claude and wanted to record him live and in action at a Pentecostal service.

PRATT: Brother Ely came to the courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky, for a few nights' revival.

FONTENOT: King Records set up their equipment in the courthouse. Those were the initial recordings that made Brother Claude Ely pretty popular.

ELY: Thank the Lord. Get up here right close to the microphone. Don't be afraid to sing for the glory of God...

PRATT: The courthouse was packed. It was full of people.

ELY: (Singing) Well, holy, holy, holy. That's all right. Well, holy, holy, holy. Well, holy, holy, holy.

FONTENOT: This was the first time we really get to hear a Pentecostal service live on record. For that reason, it's a very valuable historical document.

PRATT: It was like a church service, really. You would hear people saying amen, clapping hands...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

PRATT: ...and such. Pentecostals clapped off the beat. Other people who clap will clap with the beat and it drives Pentecostals crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PRATT: We prefer our style of handclapping.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

HENSLEY: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, they all grew up in the Pentecostal church, grew up on that same style that Brother Ely grew up on.

ELY: (Singing) Well, holy, holy, holy.

FONTENOT: It might be hard to, oh, say, well, this comes from here and that comes from there. But if I was going to make a case that Pentecostal music had an impact on the rock and roll, I wouldn't tell them anything. I would play them Brother Claude Ely and I would say, listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND DOWN THAT LADDER OF RAIN BROTHER")

ELY: (Singing) Well, Send down that rain, boy. Send down that rain.

FONTENOT: Until you hear Brother Claude's music, you know, "Send Down that Ladder of Rain," and you hear that rhythm come in there. And then you hear them sisters behind him getting down too, you just don't know.

ELY: Thank the Lord. Let me just catch my breath, sister. Thank the Lord, Hallelujah.

ELY: May 7, 1978, is when Brother Claude Ely passed away. He was in his church in Newport, Kentucky, where there happened to be a tape recorder that someone brought to record the parts of the service.

FONTENOT: And when he got through preaching, he went over and sat down at the organ and started singing a song, "Where Could I Go But To The Lord."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FONTENOT: And he got middle ways through the song, and he just fell backwards.

ELY: And you can hear the screaming and the moaning, people praying for him. He died of a heart attack in front of his entire congregation. He died singing and preaching and praying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

ELY: (Singing) Ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

FONTENOT: Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

FONTENOT: Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Ain't no grave can hold my body down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

FONTENOT: The list just goes on and on, and it just makes you feel good to know that a little country preacher from down in Virginia wrote that song, and it pretty much went all over the world.

ELY: A few years ago, I went to the cemetery where Brother Claude Ely was buried, in Dryden, Virginia. And when I arrived, there was a handwritten note taped on his cemetery plot.

BLOCK: Dear Brother Ely, you sung it and preached it to us. I know one day you'll come up out of this here ground. Thank you for being so good to us. It made a big difference, and we won't forget it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO GRAVE")

ELY: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

BLOCK: Macel Ely has written a book about his great-uncle's life called "Ain't No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely." Our story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of "Radio Diaries" and edited by Deborah George. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.