Gordon Stoker, tenor singer, pianist, leader and owner of the Jordanaires, the legendary southern gospel quartet that was not only popular in its own field but became unlikely rock ‘n’ roll pioneers when Elvis Presley asked them to back him on some of his earliest RCA recordings, died on Tuesday, March 27, at his home in Brentwood, TN. He was 88
Stoker’s death marks the end of the most legendary of all rock ‘n’ roll backing groups. His son Alan, a Grammy winning audio restoration engineer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, confirmed the group’s demise to The Tennessean reporter Peter Cooper: “The group is over. It was a wonderful run. They were on Grammy winning recordings in six decades, starting in 1959 with Johnny Horton’s ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ and continuing through 2007 with an album by Ray Price and Willie Nelson. My father lived a great life, and left us a great legacy.”
In addition to backing Presley on some of his greatest recordings—an association that lasted from 1956 until 1970 and included appearances on TV and in movies—the group’s work with Elvis lead to a fertile career backing numerous other pop, rock and country artists, including Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline (on “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams,” et al.), Dolly Parton, Bobby Bare, Ringo Starr (on the Beatles’ drummer’s Beaucoup of Blues album), Julie Andrews, Jim Reeves (on “Four Walls,” which was arranged by the Jordanaires’ Neil Matthews), Waylon Jennings, George Jones (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”), Johnny Horton, Ferlin Husky (“Gone”), Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”), Janis Martin (signed to and promoted by RCA as “the female Elvis”), Kenny Rogers (“Lucille”), Red Foley, The Judds, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and others. In Nashville from the mid-‘50s through the 1960s, the Jordanaires’ only serious competition as the vocal backing group of choice was the Anita Kerr Singers—if an artist couldn’t get one, the other got the call.
Apart from Elvis, the Jordanaires’ most fertile rock ‘n’ roll association was with Ricky Nelson, who sought out the group to back him on recordings that became some of his biggest hits and early rock ‘n’ roll classics, including “Young World,” “Lonesome Town,” “Stood Up,” “Waitin’ in School,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Traveling Man,” “Hello Mary Lou.” (In an interview with Contemporary Musician, Stoker said “I’d rather listen to Rick Nelson with the Jordanaires than anything we have ever done,” adding: “He always had us up loud. He had us where Elvis wanted us and RCA would not allow that. We would get it where he wanted it in the studio, almost as loud as he was. That’s the way he wanted it, but by the time New York got through with it, they brought us way down.”)
Gordon Stoker was born in Gleeson, Tennessee, on August 3, 1924 “right on the main drag,” as he once said. His family lived in the telephone office building where his mother, Willie, was employed as one of the telephone system’s two operators and his father, Ambus (or H.A. Stoker, more properly) as the repairman. Immersed in music, each member of the Stoker family played a musical instrument and took lessons outside the home. Their favorite family pastime was attending gospel singing conventions that were held regularly in and around Gleeson, in towns such as Dresden, McKenzie, Paris and Huntingdon. At age eight, Gordon—or Hugh Gordon as the locals knew him—was an assured organist at Tumbling Creek Baptist Church near Gleeson. By age 12 he had made quite a reputation for himself as a member of the Clement Trio, comprised of siblings Fred, Jr. (age 10), Rachel (12) and eight-year-old Gloria. An early morning staple on WTJS radio in Jackson, the trio became a popular attraction on the air and at its live shows, where the Clement siblings’ father would introduce Stoker as “not a banker, not a broker, just the world’s greatest piano player, Hugh Gordon Stoker!”
Elvis in Loving You, performing “(Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear,” with the Jordanaires’ backing
On The Ed Sullivan Show, January 6, 1957, Elvis, with the Jordanaires, performs Thomas A. Dorsey’s ‘Peace In the Valley’
While performing with the Clements at a Snead Grove Picnic, Stoker was spotted by John Daniel of the popular John Daniel Quartet gospel group, who were regulars on Nashville’s WSM radio and the Grand Ole Opry. Daniel vowed he was going to bring young Stoker to Nashville one day and make a star out of him. Upon his high school graduation, 15-year-old Gordon Stoker joined the Daniel group in Nashville was being heard every morning on the powerful 50,000-watt radio behemoth WSM. About four years into his career with the Daniel Quartet, Stoker was drafted into the Air Force to serve during WWII.
Clement Trio fans continued to enjoy Gordon’s skills through the 50,000 watt-powerful WSM radio station that reached every morning into homes as far away from Nashville as Carroll and Weakley counties. Hugh Gordon was a great success, but World War II was raging, and Uncle Sam was calling his children from every walk of life to partake in the battle against evil that threatened the very freedom Gordon so amply enjoyed. In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Air Force, where his typing skills earned him dispatches to Brisbane and Ipswich in Australia to serve as a teletype operator monitoring air traffic.
On The Ed Sullivan Show, September 9, 1956, Elvis, Scotty, Bill, D.J. and the Jordanaires (with Gordon Stoker on piano) tear up ‘Ready Teddy’ and ‘Hound Dog.’ Introduced by an amused Charles Laughton.
Elvis and the Jordanaires on The Ed Sullivan Show, January 6, 1957, ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ written by Otis Blackwell
After serving three years in the military, Stoker moved to Oklahoma to be near family members. He enrolled at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, OK, where, for two years, he studied psychology, later changing his major to music and voice. But where he really wanted to be was back in Nashville, with the Daniel Quartet remained popular after having moved over to another 50,000 watt radio station, WLAC. In 1948 Stoker moved back to Music City and continued his education at Peabody College, but left before finishing his degree studies.
Three years later, in 1951, Stoker joined the Jordanaires, replacing Bob Money as the group’s pianist. The Jordanaires were an outgrowth of a 1940s Missouri-based group, the Foggy River Boys, a brother quartet comprised of Bill, Monty, Jack and Matt Matthews (who were all ordained ministers). The first of many personnel changes over the years occurred in ’48, when Matt and Jack left to join the ministry full time and were replaced by Bob Hubbard (also a minister), bass vocalist Culley Holt, and Bob Money. When Stoker replaced Money, the group briefly renamed itself the Melodizing Matthews before adopting the moniker of Jordanaires, inspired by the Jordan Creek in Missouri.
Elvis and the Jordanaires, The Ed Sullivan Show, January 6, 1957, perform a medley of ‘Hound Dog,’ ‘Love Me Tender,’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’
In 1949, the same year the group joined the Grand Ole Opry, Bob Hubbard was drafted and replaced by Hoyt Hawkins; later that year Monty and Bill Matthews left the fold. Hawkins switched to baritone, with Neil Matthews coming in as the new lead and Don Bruce as the new tenor. When Bruce got his draft notice in 1950, the Jordanaires continued on as a quartet, with Stoker taking over as first tenor. In 1954 Cully Holt left the group and was replaced by new bassist Hugh Jarrett, who remained until 1958 before being replaced by Ray Walker. Capitol Records signed the Jordanaires, and at the same time the quartet began picking up more and more work backing other artists on recording sessions.
Fate intervened most dramatically in the Jordanaires’ career on a Sunday afternoon in 1955, when the group played a show at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis with Eddy Arnold to publicize their new syndicated TV series, Eddy Arnold Time (for the program the group used the name Gordonaires). They sang “Peace in the Valley,” and when the show was over, they were approached backstage by a courteous young man who identified himself as Elvis Presley, a singer just getting started in his career with the Memphis-based Sun label.
Rick Nelson and the Jordanaires perform ‘Lonesome Town’ on The Motown Revue, NBC, August 30, 1985
‘Hello Mary Lou,’ Rick Nelson (with the Jordanaires), 1961
“He said that he’d been hearing us sing on the Grand Ole Opry and he said, ‘Man, let’s sing some of those spirituals,” Stoker recalled of the initial meeting with Elvis. “So, we got to singing with him in the room. That’s when he said, ‘If I ever get a major recording contract, I want you guys to work with me.’ We didn’t think anything about it, we had been told that by a lot of people. It didn’t mean anything at all. But, when RCA signed him in January of 1956 he asked for us.”
Shortly after that meeting Presley signed with RCA Victor and on January 10, 1956, cut his first sessions, in Nashville, with his band of guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana (producer Chet Atkins also sat in on guitar). After completing “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Got a Woman” and “Money Honey,” Elvis requested the Jordanaires be added to the session.
Rick Nelson and the Jordanaires, with a beautiful version of one of his greatest recordings, ‘It’s Up To You,’ live in 1985. The original single peaked at #6 in 1962.
Atkins then called Stoker and invited him—not the rest of the Jordanaires—to join Ben and Brock Speer, from the Speer Family, which was also newly signed to RCA, in the studio with Elvis. Stoker and the Speers backed Elvis on “I Was the One”—the B side of “Heartbreak Hotel” and one of Elvis’s greatest RCA singles that wasn’t an A side—and “I’m Counting on You.”
Following more recording sessions in New York with his band, Elvis returned to Nashville on April 14, 1956, to record “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” with Stoker and the Speers backing him. Elvis took Stoker aside after the session and told him he wanted all the Jordanaires on his recordings, and for most of the next 14 years they accompanied him in the studio, in the movies and on television. When Elvis mounted his comeback tour in 1970, he invited the Jordanaires to join his troupe, but the group had to decline in light of a heavy agenda of better paying recording sessions scheduled for the dates Elvis needed them, thus opening the door for the Imperials Quartet and later, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet.
Patsy Cline’s recording of ‘I Fall to Pieces,’ with the Jordanaires, written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, produced by Owen Bradley. Released on January 30, 1961, it was Cline’s first #1 country hit and first pop crossover hit, peaking at #12.
Patsy Cline’s recording of ‘Sweet Dreams,’ with the Jordanaires, written and originally recorded by Don Gibson in 1956 to the tune of a Top 10 country single, only to have his version topped that same year by Faron Young, whose single went to #2 country. Cline recorded the song with producer Owen Bradley in 1963 for an album to be titled Faded Love, with a scheduled release date in March. The single and album releases were scrubbed when Cline died in a plane crash on March 5, but ‘Sweet Dreams’ wound up being released that summer on a double album retrospective tribute, The Patsy Cline Story. As a country single it went to #5, and crossed over to pop, peaking at #44.
The Jordanaires added depth and drive to Elvis’s arrangements. Schooled (literally—they were all music students in college) in the dynamics of group harmony, their bass and tenor fills were the perfect complement to Hillbilly Cat’s natural emotional outpourings and smooth but sublimely fevered balladeering. Together, they brought gospel fervor to the nascent rock ‘n’ roll culture and retained it throughout their near-decade-and-a-half together, a sound unlike any other artist’s, then or now.
Moreover, they were brave in a way rarely acknowledged by most music historians. In The Tennesseean, author and Elvis historian Alanna Nash pinpointed the Jordanaires’ contribution to Elvis’s breakthrough that was arguably on a par with the music itself: “What may not be so obvious is that Elvis, such a ‘moral threat’ when he first appeared on the national scene in 1956, may not have been so readily accepted by such powerful impresarios as Ed Sullivan had the Jordanaires not lent Presley their sound and support. In a sense, they risked their reputation in the gospel world by performing with him and giving him their stamp of approval. That was Gordon’s doing, all the way.”
Jim Reeves and the Jordanaires, ‘Four Walls,’ arranged by the Jordanaires’ Neil Matthews Jr., written by Marvin Moore and George Campbell. Reeves’s single was a #1 country hit in 1957 and a crossover #12 hit on the pop chart.
Ferlin Husky and the Jordanaires, ‘Gone,’ written by Smokey Rogers. Husky’s second #1 country single, ‘Gone’ remained in the Top 10 for 27 weeks and was a major pop crossover hit at #4.
In 1958 the Jordanaires began their association with Rick Nekson and a year later were recording with Patsy Cline under the aegis of Owen Bradley. By that time Ray Walker had been installed to replace Hugh Jarrett as the bass singer. Cline was wary of the group at first, but she sooned warmed up to them, and they to her. “Patsy didn’t have much of an education and she’d walk over and say, ‘Hey Hoss, what’s this mean?,'” Stoker said. “She called everybody ‘Hoss,’ and sometimes she’d make a funny remark about it. Sometimes she’d make a suggestive remark about it. She was a real character, but a lot of fun to be with.”
The Elvis association assured them a lifetime’s work as backing vocalists, where the members’ college training in voice and basic harmony was put to good use when they mapped out their parts on such hits as Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” or Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,” or Jack Scott’s “What In the World’s Come Over You.” Neil Matthews is credited with developing the fabled Nashville Number System, wherein numbers are used to designate chord intervals and harmonic relationships, which allowed the group to follow the arrangement despite key changes.
Don Gibson and the Jordanaires perform Gibson’s ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You.’ Released in 1958 as the B side of Gibson’s ‘Oh, Lonesome Me,’ which topped the country chart for eight non-consecutive weeks, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ became a #7 country hit as well.
The Jordanaires are also credited with being instrumental in the formation of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists/Screen Actors’ Guild in Nashville and with essentially establishing Nashville as a commercial jingles market.
In 1976 the awards started piling up, beginning with the first of three National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) “Superpicker” Awards (the other two coming in 1977 and 1979); in 1979 NARAS recognized the Jordanaires with a special award for singing on more top ten records than any other group; in 1984 came the Nashville Entertainment Association Masters Award; in 1987 an American Music Award. In 1988 the quartet was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame; in 1999 into the North America Country Music Associations International Hall of Fame; in 2000 into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame; and in 2001, into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2003 the group won its only Grammy, for Best Southern Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album.
The Jordanaires on the Grand Ole Opry TV show, ‘Dig a Little Deeper’
The Jordanaires get bluesy on ‘Sugaree,’ with Gordon Stoker taking a memorable tenor lead
Never retiring, the Jordanaires continued to be in demand as backing vocalists. In 2006 they appeared with bluegrass stars The Grascals on the gospel number “Did You Forget God Today” on the group’s Long List of Heartaches album. Last year they accompanied Kristin Chenowith on “What Would Dolly Do” on her album, Some Lessons Learned.
Hawkins died in 1982 and was replaced by Duane West, who was replaced by Louis Nunley in 2000. Curtis Young also joined in 2000, following Matthews’ death. The group’s final performance was in August 2012, in Tunica, Miss.
Gordon Stoker is survived by Jean Stoker, his wife of 61 years; by sons Alan and Brent, daughter Venita and daughter-in-law Jeanne; five grandchildren and one great grandchild.