Presley to Preacher: Part 1

Jan 29, 2004 |Steve Watters

How a visit with Elvis changed my dad’s view of talent.

Why are we given certain talents — the ability to do some things really well?

Does it matter how we use those talents?

I’ve been thinking about these questions since my dad died this past December at the young age of 56. At his funeral, I shared that his life would have been dramatically different had he stayed on the course his talents took him during his 20s.

Something dad’s mom did complicated questions he had about his talents. Before he was born she made a promise to God: “If you’ll give me a son, I’ll give him back to you to be a preacher.” Not long after that dad was born and she did her best to keep her promise — telling him about God and the calling on his life.

My dad’s parents watched with pride as his gifts began to emerge — he rose quickly through the ranks in Boy Scouts, he articulated deep thoughts in his journal, and he showed leadership with his three younger brothers. Dad told people later that he discovered another gift in church one morning. He’d say, “We were all singing and I heard a good voice; then I realized it was my own.”

If God was planning to use my dad in ministry, it appeared He had gifted him for that work. At 17, dad became a Christian and started thinking about going to bible school. Around this time, however, a big detour presented itself. It was the 1960s, a time when the frenzied excitement over rock music got budding vocalists and musicians thinking they could be the next to break out.

Between his growing love for music and a desire for independence that came with maturity, dad had a new focus — he wanted to be a rock star. His mom didn’t take the news well and insisted that dad was called to ministry. At one point, they argued about his calling and dad said, “You didn’t have any right to tell God what I was going to do with my life.”

For his first big gig, dad called Barney Conway, a guy he met at a music store, and said, “Want to get together and play a job?” They rounded together some other guys including a drummer who was still in high school and had to be called out of class. They headed to the Moose Lodge in New Bern, N.C., where they played a concert filled with covers of popular songs. They all agreed they were pretty bad, but the crowd didn’t think so — they loved it. The Lodge asked the band to play again. The band named themselves The Shadows, with dad as their lead singer.

Unlike some of the wilder bands they knew, The Shadows emerged as a class act, wearing plain Nehru jackets and cropped hair. Many promoters at the time would pay bands, not in money, but with “all the beer they could drink.” The Shadows turned down those offers, not only because they didn’t drink, but also because they wanted to be a professional band.

Dad and Barney treated the band like a business and worked hard to keep it booked as much as 18 months in advance. As often as possible, they were out on the road with a regular schedule that included military night clubs, street concerts, bar mitzvahs and proms. As the gigs grew steady and the payouts got bigger, dad saw the financial potential of his talents and came up with a big goal — to make a million dollars by the time he turned 25.

Although Grandma was disappointed in these new goals, dad didn’t really feel that convicted about being in a rock band because of how clean his act was. He even paid tithes on the money he made playing rock n’ roll (he was the biggest tither in his church at the time). He and Barney enforced a rule that no one in the band could take the Lord’s name in vain because they still wanted His protection on the miles they had to cover.

The Shadows eventually ran their course, but dad kept finding success with other bands — The Brotherhood, The Entertainers and The Vogues. Dad was even given his own local television show — the Jim Watters show.

Dad had a lot of female fans out on the road, but his interest in them disappeared when he met and married my mom in a whirlwind romance early on in his music career. For their honeymoon, they drove to Nashville where they met Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, Waylon Jennings and other celebrities.

The person dad wanted to meet the most, however, was still a little west of Nashville in Memphis. Elvis was the King of Rock n’ Roll, and had everything my dad wanted: the talent, the respect, the money, and an almost supernatural ability to move a crowd.

When he was 24, dad and his band the Brotherhood drove to Memphis to record at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studio, the place where Elvis scored his first hit. They laid down tracks until 3 a.m. and then headed back to the Ramada Inn on Elvis Presley Boulevard. In the hotel restaurant, they bumped into Mac Davis, a popular singer who had written for Elvis. After a brief conversation, Davis said, “Well, I need to go see an old friend.”

“Who’s that?” my dad asked.

“Elvis,” Davis answered.

Dad’s eyes widened and he said, “I’d give anything to meet him.”

“I tell you what,” Davis said, “Go up to the gate at the front entrance and introduce yourselves to Elvis’ Uncle Vester.”

So at 3:30 a.m., they drove down to Graceland. When they found the guardhouse, they introduced themselves to Uncle Vester who treated them to some stories about Elvis. While they were there, they gave Uncle Vester a picture of their band hoping he’d pass it on to Elvis. Elvis got the picture and the band got an autographed picture in return. Dad was excited, but things were about to get more interesting.

While they chatted with Uncle Vester, limos started moving their way. It was Mac Davis, Elvis and his entourage. Uncle Vester looked at my dad, and asked, “Do you wanna go where he’s going?”

“Of course!” dad replied.

Where he was going was the Memphian Theater — a place Elvis often rented out after midnight to screen films. Dad and his band hardly noticed the movie because of their excitement about being able to hang out with Elvis. The highlight was when Elvis came back to them and asked, “Are you guys alright? Can I get you anything?”

That was my favorite family story growing up. In fact, that’s the chapter of dad’s life I often told to new friends because the chapters that followed didn’t seem as exciting at the time. When my dad died, however, I got a new perspective. Looking back on the story of his life, I see how some of the background details of the Elvis chapter were the beginning of a more valuable story. Those are the details dad focused on later in life whenever he talked about his time in Memphis.

He would tell about the comments from his conversation with Uncle Vester that helped him realize the life of a king wasn’t as fulfilling as he had imagined (more on that in Part 3). Then he would add how thinking about that conversation changed the emotions he felt as he sat in the theater later that night. As exciting as it was to be on the top of his game as an entertainer, dad felt a stronger emotion coming from somewhere else — a desire to talk to Elvis about God, about things that really mattered.

Thinking that way only made him feel inadequate in the role he was actually playing. How could he be a witness for God when he knew he wasn’t where God wanted him to be? It’s a thought that had been boiling up in him for a while.

All along, dad didn’t think it was so bad to be in rock n’ roll because of his clean cut approach. In addition to staying away from the typical vices, he was reading his Bible out on the road and having long talks about God on the way back from shows. But even though he was living above board, he began to see the role he played as an entertainer for those who weren’t.

Early on, dad’s suspicion that God had bigger plans for him made him a little nervous about the world he was living in. At the visitation for the funeral, Barney Conway shared a comment dad made after a show one night that illustrated this. He said, “We were in this sleazy old night club that just had a bare light bulb hanging down over the stage. We sat down to have a Coke while an old janitor pushed a broom. Out of the blue Jim looked up and said, ‘When the rapture comes, I hope I don’t get caught in a place like this.’”

Later, in the Brotherhood, dad went to pick up David Ellis, his keyboarder. After only a short conversation with my dad, David’s mom Ann could tell dad wasn’t a typical rocker. She thought, “He’s so deep. What’s he doing out on the road with my son and those characters?” As they left for their tour, Ann said to my dad, “You’re going to be a preacher some day.” “I don’t want to hear it!” dad shouted back, and slammed the door. But David told me later that dad couldn’t stop talking about God with the band and the people he met out on the road. “It seemed to be gnawing at him every day.”

Ultimately dad knew that the money and recognition weren’t a sufficient reward for his talents. He knew he had the power to move a crowd, but to what end? He wasn’t making their lives much better. He was just helping them escape from their problems.

Within a year or so of meeting Elvis, dad decided to give it all up — the spotlight, the money, everything he had been living for. He left the road and looked for something else to do with his life. For a while, he wandered around doing a variety of jobs to support our family, but he wasn’t sure exactly what to do with the talents that had served him so well on the road.

Throughout his time in different bands, grandma and my mom never stopped praying for dad. They always suspected God had bigger plans for his gifts. But it soon became clear that those bigger plans weren’t going to mean bigger stages or bigger paychecks. Instead, dad’s transition into ministry was the beginning of a long season of tighter budgets, smaller crowds, greater challenges and eventually declining health.

But dad would have been the first to tell you it was a time his heart was at peace because he knew he was offering his gifts up for things that mattered. During the last half of his life, the people dad touched couldn’t imagine that his talents had ever been used for anything other than singing and preaching the good news of God’s love for lost sinners. As far as they knew, that’s what he was created to do.

PART 2: Presley to Preacher »

Copyright 2004 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.  

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