The list of famous singers with biographies is huge and gets longer almost every day. Even so, there are just a few books on those voices that built the solid, reliable and harmonic background for countless hits.
It is hardly possible to imagine songs such as Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” “Don’t be Cruel,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and many others without the perfect background vocals of Hoyt Hawkins, Neal Matthews Jr., Hugh Jarrett (to be replaced in 1958 by Ray Walker) and of course Gordon Stoker. This former vocal gospel group The Jordanaires became Presley’s standard sound foundation.
The band as such kept performing until 2013 in varying lineups, until Gordon Stoker’s son Alan declared the band dissolved after his father’s death in 2013. By then they had performed as a band for 65 years.
Gordon, managing and directing the band from his home in Tennessee, since the 1970s told the quartet’s story in countless interviews for magazines, radio, and TV. The renowned singer, AFTRA (the singer’s union) local president, Grammy winner and Country music Hall of Fame member, organized and held together the legendary gospel ensemble.
Besides that, over the years he built an audio archive with his memories committed to tape, a priceless treasure. It is from those sources that the book under discussion here slowly took shape, with the help from Alan Stoker and Michael Kosser. Alan Stoker is also a famous audio engineer, musician and archivist for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
Kosser is a popular songwriter and author from Nashville who published twenty titles on music and musicians so far. Besides his work for Variety and other media, he edited the title at hand and adds valuable information to the recordings and text fragments, wherever insider knowledge is needed and Gordon’s chronology must be supported with data, timelines and events.
In the end, this title is a noteworthy cooperation and to a large extent, it is the story of a group that already in the early 1950s backed up country music super stars such as Eddy Arnold and finally were offered the privilege to be the constant background singers for Elvis (when sold to RCA) from 1956 until 1970. The Jordanaires sang on 200+ of his recordings, in all 28 movies, regularly went on tour with him.
Furthermore, were they the solid, reliable vocal backup on more than 2,000 (!) other recording acts. They teamed up with the big stars, such as Dolly Parton, Ricky Nelson, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Fats Domino, Kenny Rogers, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and many others. And they can be heard on records such as Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” David Houston’s “Almost Persuaded,” and Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John,” to name just a few hits.
They were such a force in American popular culture, that the sound of pop music of the late 1950s would have been virtually impossible without them. As excellent singers and arrangers, they were booked continuously for tours and the studio, for several kinds of music and sound ambiance. They were “… also a prime force in bringing country music into the mainstream of American culture, and there were weeks when you could hear their voices on half the records in the country’s Top 10.” They, instead of getting light headed with their success, unlike many of the big names they backed up, basically continued their modest lifestyles. They were churchgoing, decent family people, country folks, you could say and their families and heartland always had priority, no matter what.
And like no other backing band, they mixed gospel, country, rock’n’roll and pop influences into a firm and comfortable foundation any good singer easily could perform his songs on.
Of the many studio sessions and singers they accompanied that are remembered by Stoker, the chapter devoted to Patsy Cline is one of the best here. Similarly interesting is a piece in the last section, namely “Day by Day with the Jordanaires” that documents their schedules, specific arrangement techniques and their patterns. Hard to believe, but they were such professionals, that learning and flawlessly recording the backing of a brand-new song in just a few hours of studio time were the standard procedures. The book comes with many pictures (some in color) that tell of the easy and creative atmosphere back then.
The tone of the book is very straightforward, as about 90 percent of the text actually comes from Gordon Stoker, who could be talking straight to you over the dinner table. Very congenial, often funny but always restrained and never boasting, many details of some of the greatest pop records and how they evolved are laid down, and his style not for a moment ceases to entertain. Maybe that is the reason why readers will forgive some of his recollections that often jump several decades and quote various people to make a certain point, although the event itself happened some 20 years earlier or later.
After finishing this account of wild, interesting and sometimes unbelievable events, arrangements, gigs, tours, last minute alterations that resulted in hit records and countless details of studio sessions, one may feel a bit shaky. As with this band, the history of music of several decades was significantly shaped. And if there is one outfit that can be called “the greatest backup group in the history of recorded music,” you can read about it right there.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023
Gordon Stoker, Alan Stoker, Michael Kosser (ed.) The Jordanaires: The Story of the World’s Greatest Backup Vocal Group. Backbeat Books, 2022, 280 p.