Who Was Brother Claude Ely? Over the past decade, Macel Ely decided to find out who his great-uncle — the late gospel singer Brother Claude Ely — really was. In interviews with nearly 1,400 people, Macel discovered that Claude had a healing effect on those who came to his revivals — and his music influenced some of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll.

Who Was Brother Claude Ely?

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One of the last recordings Johnny Cash made before his death was song called "Ain't No Grave."


JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) There ain't no grave can hold my body down.

BLOCK: Producers Joe Richmond and Samara Freemark of "Radio Diaries" have this story about the man known as the Gospel Ranger.

MACEL ELY: My name is Macel Ely. I am the great nephew of Brother Claude Ely. Two thousand one, I was going on a vacation to London, England. I went to a record shop and they began to play music over the intercom system.

ELY: (Singing) Heaven, heaven, I want to go to heaven...

ELY: And I recognized it as my Uncle Claude's music.


ELY: (Singing) I want to go to heaven...

ELY: I stood there for an hour and people were coming in the store and they were buying my uncle's music right in front of me.

ELY: (Singing) I want to go to heaven. I want to go to heaven.

ELY: And so, 50 years after these recordings, I wanted to know who this man really was.


ELY: Okay, I've got it recording, just tell me your name.

LINDA MORGAN: Okay, my name is Linda Morgan. L-I-N-D-A...

ELY: And I would begin to ask people: Did you ever hear of a man named Claude Ely?

MORGAN: And I could still remember, just seems like yesterday, he had a tent revival in Cumberland, Kentucky, where I was raised...

BLOCK: The first time I ever met him, he just opened his mouth and let her slide.

CHRISTINE CORNELIUS: My name is Christine Cornelius(ph) and I'm from Bell County.

ROBERT CHARLES LONG: My name is Robert Charles Long(ph) of Rose Hill, Virginia.

JEANETTE BARRETT: Jeanette Barrett(ph)...

DANNY HUDSON: Danny Hudson(ph)...

MARY LYNNE FRANK: Mary Lynne Frank(ph) from Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

ELY: I've been to hundreds of churches, thousands of miles. Over nine years, I've interviewed over 13, 1400 people.


ELY: (Singing) Going to run up the road. Going to run up the road.

ROBERTA PRATT: My name is Roberta Pratt. I was a member of the Cumberland Pentecostal Church, where Brother Claude Ely was pastor. Even as a child, he really had a very strong personal relationship with God.

ELY: Brother Claude Ely was born in 1922 in Puckett's Creek, Virginia. And when he was 12 years old, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and told that he was going to die as a child. So his uncle, Leander, gave him an old beat-up guitar. And he would practice it on his bed.

PRATT: He was dying and they had called the family in. And they gathered in the room where he was in bed and prayed for him. And then he said, I'm not going to die and he started singing the song.


ELY: (Singing) There ain't no grave...

ELY: They felt that God had supernaturally healed him. And they believed that God had given him a song. And the name of that song was "There Ain't No Grave Going to Hold My Body Down."

ELY: (Singing) Well, I'm going to the river up north, bury my knees down in the sand. Going to a holler high, hosanna till I reach that promised land. Oh, there ain't no grave going to hold my body down...

ELY: And that song became an anthem among Pentecostal Holiness people in the Appalachian Mountains.

TERRY MONT: It's just a plain, simple song that we'll never have to face eternity without God. It's a hope song. It's just - it's a hope song.

ELY: (Singing) ...going to hold my body down.

ELY: He didn't have a formal education. He never went to high school. He had the reading ability of maybe a first grader. But as he was entering adulthood, he felt that it was important for him to be on the road. And so he would travel from city-to-city. And he would wear cowboy hats and a white suit.

PRATT: He was a very heavy-set person and he had a gold tooth in the front. And he had been nicknamed The Gospel Ranger.

ELY: He would be driving a car. And with one hand, he would drive with the steering wheel. In the other, he would have a bullhorn outside the window and he would announce: Later tonight at 7:00, I'll have a tent set up in the middle of town. Please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost.

ELY: Thank the Lord, Hallelujah. I'm glad today that we can stand on holy ground. Thank the Lord.

MONT: And the way he would carry himself, and that little guitar slung on his back and that big old smile. Claude Ely, he didn't disappoint anybody at all.

ELY: I've got the joys of God down in my soul and I'm not ashamed. Hallelujah.

MORGAN: And I was having trouble with my back as a child, and so I got into the line to be prayed for. And the power of God came down and I was healed right there in the line.

ELY: Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

DENNIS HENSLEY: My name is Dennis Hensley and I traveled with Brother Ely playing lead guitar for him in his revival.

ELY: And I feel good in my soul and I feel like singing today. Don't feel much like preaching but I feel like singing...

HENSLEY: When Brother Claude would get up to sing, I mean, he would just get a key on the guitar and when he started singing, it was just like the heavens would open up.

ELY: Thank the Lord.


ELY: (Singing) Well, I'm crying the holy unto the Lord and I'm crying the holy...

ELY: People heard about this country preacher that sang like a black man.

HENSLEY: He played like a washboard style guitar, like an up-and-down, up- and-down type rhythm like you're painting a house.

ELY: He would shake and gyrate from one part of the stage to the other. And they would have young men running up to wipe his forehead 'cause he was sweating.

PRATT: People would cry. People would clap their hands. Everybody was just kind of caught away in the spirit.


ELY: Gladys Presley, Elvis' mother, was a huge fan of Brother Claude Ely's ministry. People have talked about Gladys and Elvis getting blessed at Brother Claude Ely's tent revival; and jump and sing and praise, while Brother Claude Ely laid hands on them and prayed for them.

HENSLEY: And that's what Claude was all about. He wanted you to feel the same spirit of the Lord that he felt.

ELY: Thank the Lord, hallelujah. Thank the Lord.

KEVIN FONTENOT: In 1953, King Records heard about Brother Claude and wanted to record him live and in action at a Pentecostal service.

PRATT: Brother Ely came to the courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky, for a few nights' revival.

FONTENOT: King Records set up their equipment in the courthouse. Those were the initial recordings that made Brother Claude Ely pretty popular.

ELY: Thank the Lord. Get up here right close to the microphone. Don't be afraid to sing for the glory of God...

PRATT: The courthouse was packed. It was full of people.

ELY: (Singing) Well, holy, holy, holy. That's all right. Well, holy, holy, holy. Well, holy, holy, holy.

FONTENOT: This was the first time we really get to hear a Pentecostal service live on record. For that reason, it's a very valuable historical document.

PRATT: It was like a church service, really. You would hear people saying amen, clapping hands...


PRATT: ...and such. Pentecostals clapped off the beat. Other people who clap will clap with the beat and it drives Pentecostals crazy.


PRATT: We prefer our style of handclapping.


HENSLEY: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, they all grew up in the Pentecostal church, grew up on that same style that Brother Ely grew up on.

ELY: (Singing) Well, holy, holy, holy.

FONTENOT: It might be hard to, oh, say, well, this comes from here and that comes from there. But if I was going to make a case that Pentecostal music had an impact on the rock and roll, I wouldn't tell them anything. I would play them Brother Claude Ely and I would say, listen.


ELY: (Singing) Well, Send down that rain, boy. Send down that rain.

FONTENOT: Until you hear Brother Claude's music, you know, "Send Down that Ladder of Rain," and you hear that rhythm come in there. And then you hear them sisters behind him getting down too, you just don't know.

ELY: Thank the Lord. Let me just catch my breath, sister. Thank the Lord, Hallelujah.

ELY: May 7, 1978, is when Brother Claude Ely passed away. He was in his church in Newport, Kentucky, where there happened to be a tape recorder that someone brought to record the parts of the service.

FONTENOT: And when he got through preaching, he went over and sat down at the organ and started singing a song, "Where Could I Go But To The Lord."


FONTENOT: And he got middle ways through the song, and he just fell backwards.

ELY: And you can hear the screaming and the moaning, people praying for him. He died of a heart attack in front of his entire congregation. He died singing and preaching and praying.


ELY: (Singing) Ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

FONTENOT: Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.


FONTENOT: Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Ain't no grave can hold my body down.





FONTENOT: The list just goes on and on, and it just makes you feel good to know that a little country preacher from down in Virginia wrote that song, and it pretty much went all over the world.

ELY: A few years ago, I went to the cemetery where Brother Claude Ely was buried, in Dryden, Virginia. And when I arrived, there was a handwritten note taped on his cemetery plot.

BLOCK: Dear Brother Ely, you sung it and preached it to us. I know one day you'll come up out of this here ground. Thank you for being so good to us. It made a big difference, and we won't forget it.


ELY: (Singing) Well, there ain't no grave gonna hold my body down.

BLOCK: Macel Ely has written a book about his great-uncle's life called "Ain't No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely." Our story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of "Radio Diaries" and edited by Deborah George.

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