Las Vegas Sun

July 23, 2014

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Elvis inspiration Sumner dies at 73

When J.D. Sumner sang backup to Elvis Presley during his string of 1970s sold-out performances at the Las Vegas Hilton, you'd think that a mild earthquake was happening.

"J.D. had this incredible bass voice," said longtime Sun entertainment columnist Joe Delaney. "When he'd go for the real low note, you could actually feel the booths vibrate."

Sumner, whose deep, rich voice appeared on the albums of Elvis Presley and other major artists in a career that spanned 55 years died Monday of a heart attack in Nashville. He was 73.

Sumner's funeral is set for Thursday, on what would have been his 74th birthday, in Nashville.

Sumner, who backed up Presley on concert tours from 1971 to '77, sang on Presley's recordings of "Burning Love" and "American Trilogy," among others.

Able to hit the double low C, Sumner was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's lowest bass singer.

Sumner, who sang at Presley's funeral in 1977, was a member of the Stamps Quartet, a gospel music group that originated in 1924.

"J.D. went out the way he wanted to -- working to the end," said Las Vegan Joe Guercio, longtime musical director at the Hilton and the musical director for Presley on his concert tours from 1970 to '77.

Guercio was working in Nashville Tuesday when he learned of Sumner's death.

"The newspaper here called him a gospel visionary," Guercio said. "When Elvis was a boy, J.D. already was a star."

In his audio memoir, "J.D. Sumner: A Friendship Revisited," Sumner talks about the times he and Presley spent working in Las Vegas.

"One time, (Presley bodyguard) Joe Esposito told me that Elvis' whiskey bill was $15,000 when he left the Hilton," Sumner says in the two-hour interview.

"If you wanted to say something about Elvis -- no wonder he died, his whiskey bill was $15,000. But I said, it couldn't have been, because I drank $14,000 myself."

Sumner helped establish the Gospel Music Association and founded the National Quartet Convention.

Born John Daniel Sumner on Nov. 19, 1924, he started singing at age 8 in a church quartet in his native Florida.

When Elvis was 14, he regularly went to hear Sumner sing with the Blackwood Brothers at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, where Sumner befriended him.

"One month Elvis didn't attend, because he didn't have enough money for a ticket," Sumner said in his audio memoir. "I told him, you come to the stage door and I'll let you in. You don't ever have to pay again. After a few years, he was letting me in the back door."

Guercio loved Sumner's sense of humor.

"One time we were going over some music and came across this pop gospel song that was popular at the time, and J.D. said 'I'm not going to do no bubble gum gospel,'" Guercio said.

Sumner began his professional career in 1943 when he joined the Sunshine Boys, a cowboy quartet that made western movies. He also sang for the Sonny South Quartet in the '40s.

Sumner sang with the Blackwood Brothers from 1954 to '65, the year he joined the Stamps Quartet, which also performed non-religious music and country tunes on concert tours.

At the time of his death, Sumner was planning on performing in an Elvis tribute show that Guercio is preparing for a tour of England next year.

Sumner is survived by a daughter, Shirley Enoch of Nashville. He was preceded in death by his longtime wife, Mary Sumner.

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.

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