As a country/gospel quartet, the Jordanaires have compiled an enviable catalog of recordings that have worn well over the decades. Their clean, smooth style alternately embraces sincere piety, romance, and the joyful, sometimes comic pleasures of a simpler bygone era. Moreover, they have opened doors for such secular acts as the Statler Brothers and the Oak Ridge Boys. The Jordanaires, however, have made their biggest mark as Nashville’s preeminent backing vocalists, singing on literally thousands of recording sessions, including those of Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, George Jones, and the Judds. They made rock ‘n’ roll and country music palatable to pop music audiences, and introduced some innovative studio practices along the way.
Formed in Springfield, Missouri, in 1948, the very first lineup of the Jordanaires—Bob Hubbard, brothers Bill and Monty Matthews, and Cully Holt—patterned their early style after the Golden Gate Quartet. Yet, despite the biblical allusion in their name, the Jordanaires sang more than gospel music. Although sacred themes dominated their early recordings for RCA and Decca, old-time barbershop tunes were a popular feature of their live performances. Later, inspired by the rambunctious pop sounds of the Ames Brothers, they also
Members include Don Bruce (born on August 4, 1933; group member, 1952-53), first tenor; Hoyt Hawkins (born on March 31, 1927; died on October 31, 1982; group member, 1952-82), baritone; Cully Holt (born on July 2, 1925; died on June 28, 1980; group member, 1948-54), bass; Bob Hubbard (born on July 3, 1928; group member, 1948-52), second tenor; Hugh Jarrett (born on October 11, 1929; group member, 1954-58), bass; Bill Matthews (born on September 19, 1923; group member, 1948-51), first tenor; Monty Matthews (born on August 25, 1927; group member, 1948-52), baritone; Neal Matthews Jr. (born on October 26, 1929; died on April 21, 2000; group member, 1953-2000), second tenor; Bob Money (born on May 4, 1929; group member, 1948-50, 1952), piano; Louis Nunley (born on October 15, 1931; joined group, 1999), baritone; Gordon Stoker (born on August 3, 1924; joined group, 1950), first tenor,; Ray Walker (born on March 16, 1934; joined group, 1958), bass; Duane West (born on April 28, 1941; died on June 23, 2002; group member, 1982-99), baritone; Curtis Young (born on January 9, 1943; joined group, 2000), second tenor.
Group formed in Springfield, MO, 1948; debuted at the Grand Ole Opry, 1949; began recording spirituals for RCA, 1950; began 15-year association with Elvis Presley, 1956; began recording with Ricky Nelson, 1958; began recording with Patsy Cline, 1959; began touring with Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and Ronnie McDowell in Memories of Elvis show, 1994; continued to record and perform, 2000s.
Awards-. Special National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Award for singing on more top-ten records than any other group, 1979; NARAS “Superpicker” Award, 1976, 1977, 1979; Nashville Entertainment Association Masters Award, 1984; American Music Award, 1987; inductions, Gospel Music Hall of Fame, 1998; North America Country Music Associations International Hall of Fame, 1999; Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 2000; Country Music Hall of Fame, 2001; Grammy Award, Best Southern Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Curb Records, 47 Music Sq. E., Nashville, TN 37203. Website— The Jordanaires Official Website: http://www.jordanaires.net.
included pop and country material. This versatility allowed them to play both secular nightclubs and religious tent shows, and secured them a regular spot on Red Foley’s portion of the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts.
When the quartet’s regular pianist Bob Money was drafted in 1950, the group held auditions to find a replacement. Among the finalists were Marvin Hughes, later a Grand Ole Opry and Nashville session regular, and young Gordon Stoker. “I never dreamed I would win that audition, but I did,” recalled Stoker for Contemporary Musicians. Stoker, who had played in such aggregations as the Daniel Quartet and the Hawkins Brothers, was only 15 years old when he joined the Jordanaires. When he asked why he’d been chosen over the more accomplished Hughes he was told, “You played the type of piano that we wanted. You didn’t play a lot of fancy stuff.” Explaining the significance, Stoker elaborated: “A lot of piano players will try and take over the show when they start playing, especially in gospel groups . But they didn’t want that. They wanted someone who could just play their songs, play them well, with no missed chords and no fancy runs and fancy notes.”
Stoker, the only member of the early Jordanaires still active in the 2000s, played piano and occasionally filled in as a singer for nearly two years. Then, during an eight-day run at Detroit supper club, first tenor and group manager Bill Matthews suffered a breakdown that forced his departure—and Stoker’s promotion to the first tenor spot. Needing a new regular pianist, Stoker called in his old bandmate Hoyt Hawkins. When Monty Matthews left in 1954, Hawkins took over as baritone. Other changes were equally significant: Hubbard’s induction into the armed services opened the door for talented arranger Neal Matthews, Jr. Then domestic pressure forced out Cully Holt just as the quartet was preparing for a six-month stint in Chicago with Eddy Arnold. “Cully was a handsome guy and his wife was kind of jealous of him—being away from home and her not being with him,” remembered Stoker. With the arrival of bass singer Hugh Jarrett, the Jordanaires had the lineup in place that would help shape music history.
The Jordanaires began singing backup on recording sessions for Elton Britt, Red Foley, Jimmy Wakely, and Hank Snow as early as 1954. One of television’s early talent shows helped spread their appeal even further. “We had won the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scout Show by singing a black spiritual like ‘Dig a Little Deeper [in] God’s Love,’” remembered Stoker, “Black spirituals are what Elvis loved and we would sing those on the Grand Ole Opry.”
“This is what attracted Elvis to the Jordanaires sound,” Stoker continued. “He’d hear us sing those spirituals on Saturday night. Well, we were working with Eddy Arnold and we went to the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis to do a show. Elvis came back behind the stage to meet us, not to meet Eddy. 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.’ 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.’ He was on the Sun label at that time. 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.”
The Jordanaires’ impact on Presley’s recordings should not be underestimated. Their smooth yet effervescent backgrounds made Elvis’s raw-boned rockabilly palatable to pop radio programmers. Further, major smashes such as “Don’t Be Cruel,” “I Was the One,” “Teddy Bear,” “Too Much,” and “Don’t” exhibited the type of group interplay usually found in doo-wop—something Presley could not have achieved at Sun Records.
On tour, The King’s delirious, screaming fans made it difficult for the group to hear the singer. As a result, Presley had the Jordanaires stand very close to him on stage. “We could also tell by the movement of his head or the movement of his body where he was in the song,” explained Stoker. “But, we would be as close to him as we could possibly be. He even wanted it that way in the studio. He always wanted us standing right behind him on those TV shows we did with him. Many times he’d step back on my toes. (Laughs.) But you couldn’t hear anything because of the screaming and hollering.”
At Presley’s request, the Jordanaires received billing on all his releases, a sign of respect that he didn’t accord band members Scotty Moore, Bill Black, or D.J. Fontana. But the publicity windfall didn’t create a rash of hit records for the quartet. “We had one or two numbers on Capitol that got into the top ten,” recalled Stoker. “’Sugaree’ got in the top ten on some stations and some numbers that got in the top 50 during the ’50s. We really wanted Capitol Records to push us . Lee Gillette, who was an official at Capitol Records said, ‘Gordon, let me tell you one thing. You guys are masters in the studio at doing background on recording sessions. If you were to get one or two hit records you’ll just fall by the wayside.’ At the time he said it, we didn’t want to hear it, but now we think back and he was so right.”
Presley’s astounding success caused the Jordanaires to be in even greater demand for session work. “When Elvis started using ‘doo-wahs’ in the background, then everybody wanted ‘doo-wahs’ in the background, and everybody would come in to Nashville and use either the Jordanaires or the Anita Kerr Singers. They were the only two groups doing it all.” As long as the Jordanaires were available when he needed them, Presley didn’t care with whom they recorded. As a result, the group began working with Ricky Nelson—one of Presley’s biggest competitors in the teen idol sweepstakes—on a series of classic hits like “Lonesome Town,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Traveling Man,” and “Hello Mary Lou.” “I guess I’d rather listen to Rick Nelson with the Jordanaires than anything we have ever done,” Stoker told Contemporary Musicians. “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.”
Ray Walker took over the bass spot from Hugh Jarrett in 1958 in time for the Jordanaires to begin working in studio with another legend, Patsy Cline, on such enduring hits as “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “Sweet Dreams.” At first distrustful of the group, she came to rely on the Jordanaires to explain certain lyrics to her. “Patsy didn’t have much of an education and she’d walk over and say, ‘Hey Hoss, what’s this mean?,’” Stoker chuckled fondly. “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 group’s greatest asset in the studio was Neal Matthews, whose arrangements supplied the catchy hooks that made Jack Scott’s “What In the World’s Come Over You,” Jim Reeves’s “Four Walls,” Johnny Horton’s “Battle of New Orleans,” and Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” major hits. Matthews also developed the Nashville Number System, wherein numbers are used to designate chord intervals and harmonic relationships. The system, widely used today, allowed the group to follow the arrangement despite key changes. It’s important to note that all the Jordanaires were college-educated musicians who had studied voice and basic harmony. This training helped them log thousands of session hours with taste and economical speed.
Stoker recalled how the group worked: “Neal would take it down and the four of us would stand around a piano and say, This would be good here. This would be good there.’ A lot of times he would ask the session leader, ‘Would you like this here? Would you like this there?’ Then, a lot of times he would ask the person that we were singing with, ‘Do you have any suggestions?’ Most of the time they would say, ‘No, we’re just going to leave that to you.’ (Chuckles.) I’m sorry to say that 90 percent of the time they’d say, ‘We’re going to leave that to you.’so, you really had to come up with something fast.”
“Everything was live up until the ’80s,” Stoker went on. “We did two to four sessions a day for some 20 to 25 years . A lot of people asked, ‘How did your voice hold out?’ Well, we would have substitutes, and the substitutes were always waiting at your fingertips on the telephone to run and do a 2:00 session or 6:00 session. The sessions ran 10:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. You’d go from this studio to that studio. We did that for over 20 years.”
Occasionally augmenting their sound with soprano Millie Kirkham, the Jordanaires worked with a virtual “who’s who” of Nashville recording acts. In fact, studio work became so lucrative that when Elvis Presley returned to live performing in 1970 the group simply couldn’t afford to take the pay cut that lengthy Las Vegas gigs and tours would have represented. Indeed, their rendition of the Coca-Cola jingle “It’s The Real Thing,” earned them more money than a whole year of dates with The King.
After Presley’s death in 1977, the group began honoring their former boss by recording a series of tribute albums both in gospel and secular styles. Viewed by many as the last surviving link to Presley’s best era, they found themselves in demand for nostalgia shows and began touring with Moore, Fontana, and Presley sound-a-like Ronnie McDowell. By the late 1990s, they had augmented their solo show to include tributes to Patsy Cline.
Although Hawkins and Matthews have died, the Jordanaires stayed in business by hiring former substitutes Louis Nunley and Curtis Young, among others. And while country music has changed drastically, requests for their in-studio services remains high. Says Stoker: “Of course, it is funny that every session we go to, among the first things they want us to do is get the four of us together for pictures.”
Beautiful City, RCA, 1953.
Peace in the Valley, Decca, 1957.
Heavenly Spirit, Capitol, 1958.
Glory/and, Capitol, 1959.
Of Rivers and Plains, Sesac, 1959.
(With Tennessee Ernie Ford) A Friend We Have in Jesus, Capitol, 1960.
Land of Jordan, Capitol, 1960.
To God Be the Glory (featuring Ray Walker), Capitol, 1961.
Spotlight on the Jordanaires, Capitol, 1962.
Church in the Wildwood, Vocalion, 1964.
(With Tennessee Ernie Ford) Great Gospel Songs, Capitol, 1964.
(With Red Foley) Songs of Devotion, MCA, 1964.
This Land, Columbia, 1964.
Big Country Hits, Columbia, 1965.
Beyond This Day, Worldwide, 1966.
Church in the Wildwood, MCA/Coral, 1969.
Monster Makers, Stop, 1969.
We’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, Ember, 1972.
Elvis Speaks to You, Green Valley, 1977.
(With Tennessee Ernie Ford) Swing Wide Your Golden Gate, Word, 1978.
(With Jimmy “Orion” Ellis, Scotty Moore, and D.J. Fontana) Christmas to Elvis, Classic, 1978.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, CEMA/Capitol, 1985; reissued 1995.
The Jordanaires Sing Elvis’s Gospel Favorites, Magnum Force, 1986.
The Oak Ridge Boys/The Jordanaires, Capitol/EMI, 1987.
Elvis Memories, Worldwide Music, 1990.
The Jordanaires 40th Anniversary, Worldwide Music, 1990.
The Jordanaires Sing Elvis’s Favorite Spirituals, 100% Music, 1990.
The Jordanaires with Friends, Denmark, Worldwide Music, 1991.
Wonderful Time up There, Woodford Music, 1991.
The Jordanaires Sing Gospel, Arrival, 1992.
The Statler Brothers/The Jordanaires, K-Tel, 1992.
(With Patsy Cline) Patsy Cline: Collection, MCA, 1992.
Golden Gospel Greats, Time/Life, 1993.
Memories of Elvis by the Jordanaires, K-Tel, 1993.
(With the Dinning Sisters) Rhinestone Christian, Goldrhyme, 1993.
The Songs We Sang with Elvis, Woodford Music, 1993.
Memories of Elvis, K-Tel, 1994.
A Tribute to Elvis’s Favorite Spirituals, SOR, 1994.
(With Jim Reeves) The Essential Series: Jim Reeves, RCA, 1995.
Great Gospel Songs, Curb, 1996.
The Jordanaires Early on Classics, Raymar Music, 1998.
The Jordanaires Early on Spirituals, Raymar Music, 1998.
The Jordaniares Sing Elvis’Favorite Gospel Songs, Revival, 1997.
The Jordanaires Sing the King, Music Club, 1998.
The Jordanaires: Famous Country Music Makers, Castle/Pulse, 2000.
(With Ricky Nelson) Ricky Nelson: The American Dream, Bear Family, 2001.
The Jordanaires Great Gospel Hits (featuring “God Bless The USA”), Curb, 2002.
(With Larry Ford and the Light Crust Doughboys) We Called Him Mr. Gospel: The James Blackwood Tribute Album, Art Greenhaw, 2003.
With Elvis Presley
How Great Thou Art, RCA, 1967.
He Touched Me, RCA, 1971.
Elvis: The King of Rock ‘n’Roll—The Complete 50’s Masters, RCA, 1992.
Elvis: From Nashville to Memphis: The Essential 60’s Masters I, RCA, 1993.
Elvis-30 1 Hits, RCA, 2002.
McCloud, Barry, editor, Definitive Country: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Country Music and Its Performers, Perigree, 1995.
Warner, Jay, The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups: A History 1940-1990, Billboard Books, 1992.
“The Jordanaires,” All Movie Guide,http://www.allmovie.com (July 2, 2003).
“The Jordanaires: Biography,” Country Music Television, http://www.cmt.com (July 2, 2003).
The Jordanaires Official Website, http://www.jordanaires.net (May 19, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from the author’s interview with Gordon Stoker on May 20, 2003, from which quotations used in this biography were drawn.