Elizabeth King has been singing gospel music for her entire life, with less of a focus on the traditional paths to success and more of a focus on what success means in the eyes of the lord. For this 78-year old Memphis artist, that has meant dedicating her life and her talent to spreading messages of spirituality and positivity through music. Since recording her first single in 1970, sacred soul has been King’s mission. Along the way she has been a part of plenty of recordings, most notably on a couple of singles as part of the now legendary Designer label. While that label and its rock and pop-inflected gospel recordings have since become sought after by collectors and revered by gospel lovers, King somehow never recorded an actual album under her name until now.
Released in April via Fat Possum records general manager Bruce Watson’s Bible and Tire imprint, Living In The Last Days is Elizabeth King’s first true solo album and also one of the finest works of sacred soul music she has ever recorded. Her powerful voice is backed by a group of top notch musicians, who layer in contemporary influences like reggae and soul to give her own gospel singing a feeling of being fresher than ever before. Whether you’re a gospel purist or just a lover of soul music, Living In The Last Days is an essential listen that comes at a time when we could all use a little hope and spirituality regardless of our feelings toward religion. King may sing about the lord, but there is a sense of universal humanism in her voice that can resonate with even the most cynical of us.
With Living In The Last Days receiving praise from numerous outlets, King recently took the time to chat about the path to making the album, her own journey as a singer, the importance of gospel and much more.
You’ve been singing and making music for a long time. What does it feel like to be releasing your first true album at this point in life?
I don’t have words really to express how I feel, it’s just amazing, you know? If you just have a little patience and wait, what God can do for you. It’s just amazing.
I’m curious about the album title. What are you referencing there?
For me, it is truly last days because the Lord has given us is [three skulls and ten] and I’m way past that. So every day that I live is a blessing. I always [prayed] that my last days will be my best days and this is really happening for me now. My best days.
Do you think you would have looked back in the 70s and said to yourself that in 2021 you’ll be putting out an album?
No, I always wanted to. I always had hope that before I leave this world I would be able to get one out. I had that hope, and never did give up. I always was still singing and everything, but I had a family and I wanted to make sure my children went to school and everything. Recording back in the 60s and 70s, you had to be under contract, and I didn’t want to do that because of my family.
When did you actually record the songs on this album? And what was it like being in the studio?
Oh, it was fun to me. I was in there most of the time by myself. The musicians, when they had heard me singing on another CD, a record from back in the day back in the 70s, and somebody pulled from there [to] kind of rearrange them. So they had the music and then I just sang it.
Your voice sounds so powerful on this album. How have you kept it in such good shape after all these years?
Well, like I said, I’ve never stopped singing, because my husband was the pastor of the church. And I sang in the church choir, and then I was soloist, and then I sung with another female group. So I would continue to sing, I just wasn’t recording. And then I organized my family group in 1987, organized my children as a family group, and I carried them to places singing. Then they got grown so I went back solo by myself.
Do any of them still sing to this day? Are they involved in gospel at all?
Yeah, they still sing, the girls. Most of them is musicians and they play for different churches. My sons, they play guitar and bass lead guitar, so they play for different groups. One of my sons played with Isaac Hayes for like six years and then he got his own band. I think he kept that band for like 13 or 14 years. And the other boy is preaching.
I was surprised some of the songs on the album have almost a rock and roll sound or even like a reggae soul music sound? How much of a role did you play in the musical direction of the album?
None [laughs]. I’m not good in music, the music part and playing the music parts and sounds. I just like how, being around my children they would play different types music and dance, and that would fit my song. But most of the guys are musicians that we had at the recording studio.
Were there any songs or sounds that surprised you when you heard it back?
Yes, “Call On Jesus,” when I heard that it was kind of unusual, but I liked it.
You cover the song “You’ve Got to Move” on the album, which has been played by everyone over time. What made you want to cover that song? And was there a reason why you chose to close the album with it?
Oh, yeah. Because when I was growing up, my mom and dad used to sing it. When I was a little girl growing up, I always just loved that song. Because there are more verses to that song than we used on the recording, but I just kind of grew up on it song. It really is touching because we know that we’re going to die, there’s no way around that. So if you think about it, ready or not, we’re going to have to move, so I kind of like that. “You Got to Move” and “Long Journey,” those are songs that my mom used to sing to me when I was a little girl and I just always loved both of those songs. It’s just kind of touching because [my mom] used to tell this story about “You’ve Got to Move.”
What was the what was the story that she would tell?
She always would say, you should live right because you never know when you’re going to die, always obey your parents, obey people that are in authority over you. Because you never know how you might be moved from one position, even from one job to another position, but if you be honest in what you’re doing, when you move to another place, you’ll be ok. She just had a lot of words that I would go to sleep on a lot of times, and I still remember the song.
During these like crazy times that we now live in, do you feel like gospel plays an even more important role in society?
I believe that it’s gonna go back to a greater role than it is right now. I think you’re going to go back greater because of so much of the stuff that’s going on. I believe that people are going to see that they have really turned their life around. Because if we don’t, it’s gonna be real hard. I mean, I never seen so much hate before, and some kind of power needs to go out to make people think better than what they’re thinking now because everybody’s thinking that they want to just destroy. Then it’s coming back to what the scripture says about mothers against daughters, fathers against their sons, and all of it. And we’re seeing those things now, and I think the issue needs to be pressed harder now so we could see that it is getting to be the last days. One lady said to me, so you’re telling me the end is gonna come? I said no, I’m not saying that this is the end of time. Because there’s a whole lot more things going to happen before the end of time. But I’m 70-some years old, and I realized that hey, my time ain’t long. So really it’s the end for me.
Well, hopefully gospel can save us a little bit.
I hope so too. I know that the word of God, I believe that if you turn to him, you know, there will be some changes. And all of these things are happening now, a lot of people’s mind gonna change, I believe that.
I’m glad you’re hopeful. It’s always nice to hear some optimism these days.
I tell anybody, if you don’t have hope, you won’t live long. You know, there’s something seriously wrong if this man can kill 8 people in a beauty salon (referring to Atlanta the recent shootings). It’s a spiritual war going on because people think they doing God a favor when they kill people. That’s a spiritual war there.
When I listen to a lot of the Designer Records stuff, I’m always surprised by how much the music incorporated rock and roll and pop sounds into it. Were you into that kind of popular music back when you were making those original recordings? Were you listening to all that stuff?
No [laughs]. I used to listen to like a little BB King, or some guy called Muddy Waters. But going to the kind of places where that music was played, I didn’t go.
Yeah, I would imagine Memphis back then was pretty crazy.
It was. Back in the country they had places they called honky tonks. Way back in the cotton field, like a regular house or something back there. As a girl growing up, I wasn’t allowed to go to places like that. And I didn’t want to go because I was always scared of people that drink.
Yeah, it got pretty wild out there I would imagine.
Now it’s worse because back then they would just fight and be through with it, but now they don’t fight, they just start shooting.