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Softly, As I Leave You (Singer Sherrill Nielsen, 1942-2010)

By: Elvis Australia
Source: www.elvis.com.au
December 12, 2010
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Sherrill (Shaun) Nielsen has passed away. He died at about 11:00 A.M. Friday after he was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. Sherrill was born on September 10th, 1942.

It's not a secret that Elvis loved the voice of tenor Shaun 'Sherrill' Nielsen. During a 1970 Las Vegas show, Presley introduced him as: 'The greatest tenor in Gospel music'. In Elvis' final years, Shaun became an integral part of Elvis' music, both on stage and in the studio. You can hear Shaun sing harmony with him on 'Spanish Eyes' and 'Help Me', and it's Shaun who sings the high falsetto ending on 'Unchained Melody'. But he's probably best known for singing 'O Solo Mio' as an intro to 'It's Now Or Never' during concerts in 1976 and 1977, and for the unusual 'Softly, As I Leave You', where Shaun sings and Elvis recites the words.

Gospel music plays an important role in Shaun's career, and he has sung tenor for influential vocal groups like The Speer Family, The Statesmen and The Imperials. He was recently inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame for his accomplishments in that field. Shaun moved to Denmark seven years ago, and still performs regularly. He recently invited us to his home in Viborg, where the following interview was conducted.

'Listen to his voice, ladies and gentlemen'

Softly As I Leave You
Softly As I Leave You
Sad news this morning. Singer Sherrill Nielsen passed away on December 10. Nielsen first performed with Elvis as a member of the Imperials gospel group on the 1966 album How Great Thou Art. He left the Imperials shortly thereafter, but returned to the Elvis world in 1973 as a member of a new group, Voice. Voice provided backup singing in concert and in the studio, including work on 1975's Elvis Today album. Nielsen features prominently on two live recordings released shortly after Elvis' death. On the 1977 album Elvis In Concert, which compiled songs from two stops on his final tour, Elvis introduces Nielsen and asks him to sing 'O Sole Mio' – the original Italian version of 'It's Now Or Never'. As Nielsen sings solo during the June 21, 1977, performance in Rapid City, South Dakota, Elvis playfully gibes him as a 'smart aleck' while hitting the high notes. Elvis soon takes over to do a solid version of 'It's Now Or Never'. In February 1978, six months after Elvis' death, RCA released a single from that same concert – a haunting version of 'Unchained Melody', with piano accompaniment by Elvis himself.

The flip side of that 45 RPM record was 'Softly, As I Leave You'. which includes almost no singing by Elvis. Instead, in this December 13, 1975, recording from a Las Vegas concert, Elvis tells a fictional story about a dying man composing the song as a final letter to his wife. As Elvis delivers the dramatic tale and speaks the lyrics of the song, Nielsen provides the nearly operatic vocals. They close in harmony together on the final line, 'I will leave you there'. My condolences go out to Nielsen's family and friends. Tygrrius (Troy Y.)

Sherrill (Shaun) Nielsen and Elvis Presley
Sherrill (Shaun) Nielsen and Elvis Presley

From Sherrill's website:

In 1961, because of Dad Speer's health problems, the Singing Speer Family asked Sherrill to join their group. Sherrill, at that time, was singing with the Songfellows Quartet from Los Angeles, CA. Sherrill was excited at the prospect of singing with the legendary Singing Speer Family, a group that were members of the Nazarene Church in Montgomery, AL, where Sherrill and his grandparents attended when he was just a small boy. Little did Sherrill know that this was the stepping stone to his legendary career (some 50 plus years). While he was with the Singing Speer Family, Jake Hess approached Sherrill about singing tenor for a group that he was planning to organize. In 1963, Sherrill became a member of the legendary Jake Hess and the Imperials Quartet. He traveled with the Imperials until the spring of 1966 where he returned to California and the Songfellows. In 1967, he joined the Plainsmen Quartet in Baton Rouge, LA. In 1970, Sherrill moved to Atlanta, GA to join the Hovie Lister and the sensational Statesmen Quartet.In 1973, Sherrill took a new direction by moving to Nashville, TN to organize a gospel group that opened the show for Elvis Presley. Elvis' love for Sherrill's tenor voice and gospel music led him to claim the group as his own and Elvis named the group VOICE (after a name he saw on the cover of a religious periodical). According to Felton Jarvis, Elvis' producer, Sherrill was Elvis' favorite singer. In 1977, Elvis and Sherrill's duet, 'Softly As I Leave You' was nominated for a Grammy as duet of the year. Sherrill stayed with Elvis until Elvis' death in 1977. In 1983, the Masters V was looking for a 'master tenor voice' to replace Rozie Rozell,. who had suffered astoke. They immediately contacted Sherrill and he performed with this legendary group which consisted at that time of Jake Hess, James Blackwood, J. D. Sumner and Hovie Lister. He left the Masters V for a short time and returned for a second stint with jack Toney, Ed Hill, J. D. Sumner and Hovie Lister. For the past 12 years, Sherrill has been performing gospel music in churches and schools in the beautiful Country of Denmark and other parts of Europe. Denmark is the homeland of his grandfather, C. R. Nielsen, who raised him. Papa Nielsen was Sherrill's hero.

One of the most exciting experiences of Sherrill's life was the opportunity to sing in the church where his grandfather was baptized on the night that would have been his 100th birthday. Living in Denmark, with bicycle paths and a much slower pace afforded him the serenity and inspiration to pen the words andmusic to approximately 40 songs. In 1966, Shaun's first meeting with Elvis as a backup singer on his gospel album 'How Great Thou Art', led to their friendship and an eventual contract drawn up by Elvis himself. This contract stated that Shaun and the group VOICE would open his shows, sing back up on his records and write songs for his publishing company. Shaun is recognized by millions as the singer on Elvis' recording of 'Softly As I Leave You' on which Elvis does a recitation behind Shaun's vocal. First released in 1978, this single rose to number 6 in the nation and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Shaun's vocal of 'O Sole Mio' as the introduction to 'It's Now or Never' is featured on Elvis' last album titled 'In Concert'. As a young developing singer, Shaun learned by singing along with the recordings of the Irish tenor John McCormick, Roy Orbison, Mario Lanza, Hank Williams and Elvis. When these diverse influences delivered with his soul as a gospel singer touch you, they privilege a moving and unforgettable excursion through the gamut of your emotions. Upon reviewing an album recorded by Shaun, Elvis' record producer Felton Jarvis wrote: 'Shaun was Elvis' favorite singer'. Elvis brought such happiness to so many of us with his music, Shaun brought such happiness to Elvis with his music. Shaun, an undisputed legend in gospel music, is the only person to be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame as a member of 3 different groups: The Speer Family, The Imperials and the Statesmen. Shaun's first international recognition as a solo artist came with a song titled 'Lights of L.A.', which charted in Billboards' country chart. Sherrill, then and now: In 1963, Sherrill met the lovely and talented Brenda Hall. His first love and the love of his life while singing in Harrisburg, PA. They married and moved to Atlanta, GA. Then onto Nashville, TN and Ontario, CA. In 1967, they went their separate ways because of the many hardships brought on by the music business. In 1965, they had a beautiful baby girl, SherRee' Elicia who was killed by a drunk driver in 1985. In April 2004, Brenda's Secretary, JoAnn Garza found Sherrill on the Internet. Sherrill flew from Denmark, Europe to Houston, TX and the two love birds were reunited and were married on June 28, 2004 (some 40 years later). In July 2005, Brenda retired from her Architectural/Engineering position in Houston, TX and the two recently moved to Cullman, AL.

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