Founded in 1964, the Imperials have been one of the top gospel music groups in the United States for four decades. Over the years they have changed personnel so many times that only one original member, Armond Morales, remains in the group. Striking a balance between pop and the Southern gospel music of their roots, the Imperials have managed to remain popular among a broad spectrum of Christian music fans.
The Imperials were founded by Morales and Jake Hess as a quintet of four singers and a piano player. Since its inception in 1964, 18 singers have been part of the group, including Russ Taff, Paul Smith, Gary McSpadden, and Jonathan Pierce. During their nearly 40-year history, the Imperials have released an average of an album a year, had 14 of their songs hit number one, and earned four Grammys and 13 Dove Awards.
The Imperials were the brainchild of Jake Hess, who was born in 1927 in the rural community of Mt. Pisgah, Alabama, to a family of struggling sharecroppers. He grew up singing gospel music and dreamed at an early age of forming his own quartet. As he grew older, he sang in gospel groups throughout Alabama before becoming the lead singer of the Statesman Quartet in the
Members include Sherman Andrus (group member, 1971-76), vocals; Terry Blackwood (group member, 1967-76), vocals; Richie Crook (group member, 2001-03), vocals; Steve Ferguson (group member, 1994-99), vocals; Jason Hallcox (group member, 1999-2001), vocals; Ron Hemby (group member, 1986-90), vocals; Jake Hess (born on December 24, 1927, in Mt. Pisgah, AL; founded group, 1964; left group, 1967), vocals; Jeremie Hudson (joined group, 1999), vocals; Gary McSpadden (group member, 1964-67), vocals; Armond Morales (joined group, 1964), vocals; Joe Moscheo (group member, 1966-75), piano; Jim Murray (group member, 1966-86), vocals; Sherrill Nielson (group member, 1964-66), vocals; Jonathan Pierce (group member, 1990-93), vocals; Steve Shapiro (group member, 1996-98), vocals; Henry Slaughter (group member, 1964-66), piano; Jimmie Lee Sloas (group member, 1986-89), vocals; Paul Smith (group member, 1981-85), vocals; Shannon Smith (joined group, 2001), vocals; Russ Taff (group member, 1976-81), vocals; Jeff Walker (group member, 1994-96), vocals; Roger Wiles (group member, 1967-70), vocals; David Will (group member, 1976-99), vocals.
Group founded by Jake Hess as a quintet (four singers and a piano), 1964; concert debut, 1965; recorded first albums with RCA Victor, late 1960s; signed with Impact, released New Dimensions,1968; Love Is the Thing,1969; recorded more than 40 albums by 2000.
Awards: Gospel Music Association Dove Award, Male Group of the Year, 1969, 1975-76, 1978, 1980, and Group of the Year, 1981-83; Grammy Award, Best Gospel Performance, 1975; Dove Award, Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year, 1976, 1981-82, 1984; Grammy Award, Best Gospel Performance: Contemporary or Inspirational, 1977, 1979, 1981; Dove Award, Artist of the Year, 1981.
late 1940s. By then, gospel quintets consisting of four singers and a piano player had become popular throughout the American South, influencing future rock stars such as Elvis Presley. By the early 1950s, the Statesmen were among the most popular of these groups.
But Hess still had not realized his dream of forming his own gospel group, and so in 1964, he decided to start a new group dedicated to singing and playing Christian music. He gathered the group’s original lineup, which included, in addition to himself, the singers, Armond Morales, a bass singer who had been with the gospel group the Weatherfords, tenor Sherrill Nielson, Gary McSpadden, a baritone who had occasionally filled in for Jake in the Statesmen, and piano player Henry Slaughter.
The Imperials made their concert debut in 1965, adding drums, guitar, and bass to their sound soon thereafter. This more modern sound helped the group become popular among young listeners, and many of the group’s early concerts were performed at college campuses. They also recorded albums for RCA Victor, and hosted their own television show, which was based in Nashville and syndicated throughout the country. Hess was forced to stop touring by chronic health problems, including kidney and heart disease. He left the Imperials in 1967, leaving as his legacy the winning combination of traditional Southern gospel music with contemporary pop.
In 1969 the Imperials won the Gospel Music Association Dove Award for Male Group of the Year, an honor they would earn no fewer than five times. Their lineup had changed almost completely by the end of the 1960s, with only Morales remaining from the original group. Replacements Roger Wiles, Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood, and piano player Joe Moscheo were added, and the group continued to grow in popularity into the 1970s. They appeared in concert and cut albums with Elvis Presley and country music artist Jimmy Dean, who also had his own weekly television show on which the Imperials became regular guests.
By the early 1970s the Imperials were playing regular gigs in major American venues like Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, and Reno, and making guest appearances on television shows. In 1975 the group won its first Grammy Award for the album No Shortage. At this time the group’s roster consisted of Morales, Murray, Paul Smith, and Dave Will, a lineup that would hold into the 1980s, through all the rest of the group’s Grammy wins. The Imperials won three more Grammys—in 1977 for Sail On, in 1979, for Heed the Call, and in 1981, for Priority. In that same year the group won the Dove Award for Artist of the Year and Group of the Year, the Imperials’ Russ Taff won the Dove Award for Male Vocalist of the Year, and the group grabbed the Dove Award for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year for One More Song for You.
In 1987 the band abandoned the classic Southern gospel style that had made them popular and adopted a harder, rock-and-dance sound with This Year’s Model. The group, whose lineup at that time included Ron Hemby and Jimmie Lee Sloas in addition to Morales, wanted to change its image from clean-cut conservatism, donning leather jackets and attitudes to match. The new sound was largely courtesy of producer Brown Bannister, who injected loud guitar solos, synthesizers, and hard driving bass grooves into the mix.
The album was an effort to attract a younger audience, and while this may have succeeded to some extent, the group lost many of its most loyal fans who did not like the new direction. Morales, too, was unhappy, and he later sought to bring the group back to its roots, bringing two ordained ministers into the group, Steve Ferguson and Jeff Walker. Both had more experience in preaching than in playing contemporary Christian music, and this was just the influence Morales felt the group needed to bring it back on track.
Returning to their roots, the Imperials moved away from the stadium and big auditorium concerts that had become their mainstays, and began booking gigs at churches and other more intimate venues. By the time they released ‘Til He Comes in 1994, the fans who had brought the group to prominence had returned; the old sound was back.
The Imperials are still going strong at the beginning of the twenty-first century, recruiting singer Shannon Smith to join them in 2001. A reflection of the group’s longevity and eternally youthful sound, Smith was born a full three years after the Imperials were founded. Like the other members of the group, Smith grew up singing gospel music, and has had a lifelong love for both spreading the word of God and playing music.
New Dimensions, Impact, 1968.
Love Is the Thing, Impact, 1969.
Believe It, Impact, 1970.
Gospels Alive & Well, Impact, 1970.
Time to Get It Together, Impact, 1971.
Song of Love, Impact, 1972.
A Thing Called Love, Vista, 1973.
Live, Impact, 1973.
Follow the Man with the Music, Impact, 1974.
No Shortage, Impact, 1975.
Sail On, Dayspring, 1977.
Live, Dayspring, 1978.
Heed the Call, Dayspring, 1978.
One More song for you, Dayspring, 1979.
Christmas with the Imperials, Word, 1980.
Priority, Dayspring, 1980.
Very Best of, Dayspring, 1981.
Stand By the Power, Dayspring, 1982.
Side By Side, Dayspring, 1982.
Imperials Side BySide, Dayspring, 1983.
Let the Wind Blow, Myrrh, 1985.
This Year’s Model, Myrrh, 1985.
Free the Fire, Myrrh, 1988.
Love’s Still Changing Hearts, StarSong, 1990.
Big God, StarSong, 1991.
Stir It Up, StarSong, 1992.
’Til He Comes, Impact, 1994.
Treasures, StarSong, 1994.
Legacy, Word, 1996.
It’s Still the Cross, Big God, 1997.
Songs of Christmas, Big God, 1998.
Hall of Fame Series, Benson, 1998.
Dellar, Fred, Allan Cackett, and Roy Thompson, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony Books, 1987.
“The Imperials,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 19, 2003).
“The Imperials,” Gospel Music Association Gospel Music Hall of Fame, http://www.gospelmusic.org/hall_of_fame/inductee_bio.cfm?ID=362 (March 20, 2003).
The Imperials Official Website, http://www.theimperials.org/index.html (March 26, 2003).
“Jimmy Dean,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 25, 2003).
“Nothin’ But Fine,” Jake Hess Official Website, http://www.jakehess.com/biography.html (March 20, 2003).
“This Year’s Model” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 19, 2003).