Gordon Stoker: Singer with the Jordanaires

 

Gordon Stoker was the leader of the Jordanaires vocal group, who were billed alongside Elvis Presley on many of his hit records including "All Shook Up", "It's Now Or Never" and "Are You Lonesome Tonight". Elvis went as far as telling them, "Let's face it, if it hadn't been for you guys, there might not have been a me."

Gordon Stoker's mother, Willie, was one of the operators and his father, Ambus, the repairman for the telephone system in Gleason, Tennessee, where he was born in 1924. They encouraged his musical talent, so much so that he was playing organ at the Tumbling Creek Baptist Church when he was only eight.

He played piano for a family group, the Clement Trio, and in 1937 he was spotted at the Snead Grove Picnic by the John Daniel Quartet. He became their pianist when he left school at 15 and often played on the Grand Ole Opry.

During the war, Stoker worked as a teletype operator at an air base and then studied music at Oklahoma Baptist University. He rejoined the John Daniel Quartet and then became the pianist for the gospel group, the Jordanaires. With some changes in line-up, he became their lead tenor and by 1953, the vocal quartet was Stoker, Neal Matthews (second tenor), Hoyt Hawkins (baritone) and Cully Holt (bass), the last named being replaced by Ray Walker in 1958.

The Jordanaires recorded in their own right for Capitol Records, but they sang behind Ferlin Husky on his million-seller, "Gone", in 1953. They accompanied Eddy Arnold and Red Foley and had regular session work.

"Elvis loved the sound we had and he'd been hearing us on the Grand Ole Opry for years," Gordon Stoker told me in 1991. "We met him in Memphis in 1955. He was wearing a pink shirt and I had never seen a man in a pink shirt before! He was on Sun Records and he told us that if he ever got a major recording contract, we were going to sing with him. When RCA signed him, he asked for us and we were on his sessions in January 1956."

Those RCA records like "Don't Be Cruel", "Teddy Bear" and "A Fool Such As I" are enhanced by the Jordanaires with their oohs and aahs and bop-she-wahs. Stoker sang harmony duet with Elvis on "All Shook Up" and "Good Luck Charm" and he played piano on "Hound Dog" when the original pianist had to leave. The Jordanaires worked with Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show in which he was filmed from the waist up. They appeared in his films, notably in the train sequence in GI Blues, where they perform "Frankfurt Special".

Soon, every act in Nashville wanted the Jordanaires on their records. They sang "Crazy" with Patsy Cline "The Battle Of New Orleans" with Johnny Horton and "Big Bad John" with Jimmy Dean, and also with Presley's biggest rival, Rick Nelson, on "Lonesome Town".

Stoker recalled, "Jim Reeves was an old maid. He watched the clock and he wanted complete attention at all times. Elvis was never concerned about getting three numbers down in three hours, but Jim knew the longer it took, the less he got in royalties."

The Jordanaires had a busy life of recording sessions and TV commercials and they chose not to work with Presley when he returned to live performance in 1969. "You had to do what was best for you and your family, said Stoker, "and we took the right decision. I think that two shows a night in Vegas is what killed him. He wanted that second show to be as good as the first and so he took uppers to get him going again and then downers to put him to sleep."

The Jordanaires sang with Don McLean on his No l "Crying" (1980), and they became a touring act in their own right. They were featured in a long-running tribute show for Patsy Cline and in 1991 toured the UK with an Elvis interpreter, Johnny Earl.

Among their albums is The Jordanaires Sing Elvis' Gospel Favourites (1986). Stoker was a modest man who was proud of his time with Presley. He told me, "People will be talking about these records 200 years from now."

Hugh Gordon Stoker, singer: born Gleason, Tennessee 3 August 1924; married (two sons, one daughter; died Brentwood, Tennessee 27 March 2013.

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