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Gospel Singer Elizabeth King Hits A Musical Milestone At 77

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Back in the 1970s, Memphis gospel artist Elizabeth King was one of the few women leading an all-male group, Elizabeth King & the Gospel Souls. They had a hit on the D-Vine label with "I Heard The Voice."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD THE VOICE")

ELIZABETH KING AND THE GOSPEL SOULS: (Singing) I heard the voice of Jesus say, come unto me and rest. Lie down, thou wearied one. Lie down thy head upon my breast.

ELLIOTT: King eventually put her career on hold to raise 15 children. Now, at 77 years old, she's back in the studio and in front of the mike with her new album, "Living In The Last Days."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LONG JOURNEY")

ELIZABETH KING: (Singing) Go long, long journey after while. Go long, long journey after while.

ELLIOTT: Elizabeth King joins me now from Memphis. Welcome to the program.

KING: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: First, I have to say, 15 kids? That was a lot of baby raising.

KING: It was (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIZABETH KING SONG, "LIVING IN THE LAST DAYS")

ELLIOTT: The title track, "Living In The Last Days." Tell me about that song.

KING: Well, I am living in the last days because God has given me a promise. And to me, every day I get up, it's another opportunity to live. And the promise is 70 years. And I got that and more. So I know that I'm living in my last day (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING IN THE LAST DAYS")

KING: (Singing) Living in the last day, the last day, living in the last one, the last day, living in a time when no one can see the right way. Calling the right wrong, right wrong, calling the wrong right, wrong right, makes me know why we're living in the last days.

ELLIOTT: Now, this is your debut full-length album, like we said, at age 77, an age when most people are kind of winding down, thinking about retiring. How did it feel to be back in the studio and recording again?

KING: Well, it feels great. I mean, even at my age, I still have a lot of energy, even though I have pain every day. But I guess with all the children and my grandchildren, you know, I still have a lot to do. And so in these last days that God give me to give my energy, that's what I'm going to do.

ELLIOTT: How many grandchildren do you have?

KING: Oh, my God. I think the last time we count the grandkids was, like, 58.

ELLIOTT: Oh, wow. Do they know that you're a recording artist? What do they think about your music?

KING: They know now because they had really never heard me sing, and they are really excited. Oh, Grandma, I didn't know my grandma could do all this stuff (laughter).

ELLIOTT: I have been told that some of the songs that you've put on this album were actually ones that you learned from your mother.

KING: Yes.

ELLIOTT: Which ones?

KING: Like "The Long Journey" (ph). She used to sing that to me all the time. "Walk With Me Lord" (ph) - and then she always would sing "You've Got To Move" (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT TO MOVE")

KING: (Singing) You've got to move. You've got to move. You've got to move, yeah. You've got to move. When the Lord, Lord call your name, be ready. You're going to move. Oh, yeah, you've got to move.

And she always was telling me - she said, one day, I know I got to leave you, and I'm going on a long journey. And then she said, ready or not, am I ready to go or not? I know I got to move, and I'm going to move to a better place. That's what she always would tell me. So now I always wanted before I - you know, the Lord call me home, those were the three songs that I wanted to get out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT TO MOVE")

KING: (Singing) Yes. When the Lord, Lord call your name, I don't care who you are. You're going to move. You got to move.

ELLIOTT: So I want to talk about something that I know is a little bit difficult for you, if you'll allow me. Early on in your life, you survived a near-fatal car crash, and you were told you would never walk again. But here you are, not only walking and moving and singing, but you're singing about moving. I wonder what impact that had on your music.

KING: Oh, it is - and when I talk about it, it just come a fresh - you know? Out of all of those years, it just bring tears to my eyes. It was such a miracle how that car accident happened. The drunk driver - he was - knocked me into the ongoing traffic into a light pole. I could - just knocked all the feeling out of me. Blood was running everywhere, and glass was all in my mouth. When I got to the hospital for, like, 12 days, I couldn't remember nobody coming but this one man and this priest - dressed like a priest, long white hair. And he would say, my child, can I pray with you today? Every day, he came to my room, and that's all I know he would say. Could he pray with me today?

So I asked the nurse - where was this priest that they had, you know, that would come and pray with me every day? And they say, we don't have anybody on our staff that look like what you saying. I said, I know y'all got him because he came in every morning. And they said, no, Ms. King. We don't have nobody. And I said it had to be the spirit that God formed himself to let me know that he was with me. And the next morning, I woke up. I said, I'm going to get up. I'm going to walk. I'm going to walk by myself.

ELLIOTT: And that experience is what made you want to sing?

KING: Made me want to sing more, put all of my - dedicate my - told my whole life to Christ. That's - all I think about now is doing what's good and try to encourage my children, my grandchildren, great-grand - that it's a power. Whether you know it or not, it's a power. And if you follow the power, I'm not saying you're not going to suffer because you are. But when you get in trouble, He'll bring you out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIZABETH KING SONG, "CALL ON HIM")

ELLIOTT: Elizabeth King's new album on Bible & Tire Records is called "Living In The Last Days." Thanks so much for speaking with us and sharing your music.

KING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ON HIM")

KING: (Singing) If you need, need Jesus, call on him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.