Of course, without the Elvis connection, Gordon Stoker–lead tenor of the Jordanaires, one of the greatest vocal groups of the twentieth century–would likely not be getting his well-earned due just now at the time of his passing. But as great as Stoker and his group were with Elvis, completing each other’s breaths on everything from the very silliest novelty tunes to the deepest possible statements of scarifying belief, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they were also–along with the Blackwood Brothers and the Statesmen–one of the signature stylists of the white gospel quartet sound that probably influenced Presley (and by extension the rest of the century’s cultural revolution) more directly and forcefully than any other form of music.
And, oh by the way, it wasn’t only Elvis they backed brilliantly and often. Vital as that connection was, by the time they were through, the sheer numbers made even that mighty catalog a drop in the bucket. They ranged across country, pop, rock and roll and gospel with such fluent ease that they became instantly taken for granted by everyone except the top artists and producers who kept calling and calling and calling on them until the only place that hadn’t called was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which, alas, knows a thing or two about not calling singers.
Still, there was a lot of upside to being the group Elvis walked up to in the pre-fame years and said when he made it he would call on them–and of having Elvis be a man of his word. A good living was to be had, plus a lot of respect and fame and a chance to be a vital element on some of the greatest records ever made (I’d point especially to the crooning that cuts against the fury of “Hound Dog” and takes it–and rock and roll–to a whole other place by simultaneously releasing the tension and ratcheting it up, but examples of their brilliance abound).
If there was a downside it was that the world, in effect, lost a truly great gospel group. Oh sure, they kept making gospel records and certainly those I’ve heard from the later periods were never less than good. But man cannot truly serve both God and mammon and by themselves the group lacked Elvis’ unique ability to swing to and fro between the darkness and the light. Put them in a room with the greatest singers in the world and they would bring whatever the moment required, a truly priceless ability they possessed to a degree not shared by anyone else. Put them on their own and, once the jobs started coming, they quite reasonably chose to play it safe.
But there was a reason Elvis loved them so much, and it wasn’t because he heard them singing backup for somebody or other. One of the great finds of my early record collecting career was a pair of double EPs in Fort Walton Beach’s now sadly departed Circles of Sound record shop. They had these two sets of the Jordanaires and the Blackwood Brothers at reasonable prices–they always had reasonable prices God bless ‘em–and to be honest, when I got them home I didn’t expect much from the long-associated-with-pop Jordanaires, especially after I played the Blackwoods first and they burned a hole straight through my turntable.
Boy was I wrong. I couldn’t find any reasonable-sounding examples of those particular recordings on-line, but you can get a good sense of the flavor from this (that’s Stoker on the higher tenor lead):
I wouldn’t want to give up what was gained when this sort of thing was (mostly) set aside. Not the revolution I wouldn’t!
But those who would make up their own minds owe it to themselves to somehow track down (by what means God only knows) their early fifties version of “You Better Run” (not sure where Stoker featured at that point, but he was certainly a member) which calls for a quiet room after midnight whilst rocking at least as hard as anything happening in doo-wop at the time…and points to roads never quite taken, even by Elvis.
Though, naturally, they did just fine by him as well:
And, of course–when it came to backing rock and rollers of the first rank–they never lost it:
Elvis? Ricky? Gordon?
Gonna be a helluva reunion somewhere! (and hey, I left off Don Gibson and Patsy Cline and….well, you know, all those others.)
[NOTE: For anybody interested in mid-century white gospel, the one form of American music that has never been embraced by record collectors, the Bear Family has done its usual masterful job on the massive box set devoted to the Blackwood Brothers--pricey but priceless, if you know what I mean. I keep praying that I'll live long enough to see them, or someone, do similarly right by the pre-secular Jordanaires and the Statesmen. I ain't into Ipods and MP3s and my vinyl's gettin' scratchy!...Come to think of it, Gordon, could you put in a good word?]