You may know Brother Claude Ely as the author of “There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down”—the song Johnny Cash covered as a sort of last will and testament. But Ely, a singer, songwriter, and Pentecostal Holiness preacher from southwestern Virginia, was also a formative influence on Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and other iconic artists. American music would have sounded very different without him, and Macel Ely II’s handsome new book is the first to tell his story (and not a few others) in full.
Macel isn’t a music critic or a professional historian: He’s a private eye in Maryville, Tennessee (he’s also an ordained minister, and Claude’s great-nephew), and he has certainly done his legwork. Ain’t No Grave is based on thousands of interviews—with Claude Ely’s relatives, colleagues, and parishioners as well as a great many musicians—and doubles as an unofficial history of the Appalachian region and peoples. Beautifully produced (by Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital record label, which seems to outdo itself with every new release), the biography includes 290 duotone photographs and comes with a CD. (You’ll hear, among other things, a full, 40-minute sermon that Claude conducted in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1977.) Johnny Cash would have loved it, Elvis Presley would have treasured it, and Ray Charles would have read it in Braille. As for Brother Claude Ely—who seems to have been a profoundly modest man—we’d like to imagine him beaming with pride.
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