October 25, 2008

Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker, two members of the legendary vocal group the Jordanaires, can pinpoint the moment when they fully embraced making a career of singing behind stars—instead of trying to become stars.

As Stoker recalled, the Jordanaires recorded a catchy version of “Sugaree,” a Marty Robbins song, which got a good reaction when released in the early 1960s. The Jordanaires encouraged Ken Nelson of Capitol Records to promote the single aggressively, but the label executive gave the members some valuable advice. “You guys are masters in the studio doing background,” Stoker quoted Nelson as saying. “If we have one or two hit records on you, it’s going to take you away from the background field, and eventually you’ll just be forgotten. Stay in the background field, and it’ll be good to you.”

Around the same time, Eddy Arnold echoed Nelson’s advice, telling them, “Boys, remember, if you make a million dollars with your name up in lights, you’ll spend a million dollars trying to get your name back in those lights.”

Indeed, the Jordanaires stand as the longest running, most recorded and most successful studio vocal group in music history. One estimate has the sales of records with the Jordanaires singing harmony as having topped eight billion, and they have performed on countless sessions over more than fifty years. During their busiest stretch in the 1960s, they had a period when they could be heard on nine of the Top Ten songs on the country music charts. Another time, when reading a year-end issue of Billboard magazine, Walker could tally that the Jordanaires had recorded with eighty-two of the one hundred top country artists of the year.

As the latest studio-recording veterans honored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s ongoing Nashville Cats series, Stoker and Walker discussed musical lives that stretched back more than a half century. During a ninety-minute interview by museum staffer Bill Lloyd before a packed house in the Ford Theater, the two Jordanaires told stories that were alternately humorous and poignant about important personal milestones and their relationship with a long list of famous stars they supported.

Stoker joined the Jordanaires as tenor singer in 1950, and Walker became the bass voice in 1958. Along with Neal Matthews and Hoyt Hawkins, the two form the most famous version of the legendary vocal quartet. The group continues to record and perform today with harmony veterans Louis Nunley and Curtis Young as members.

Because of their high-profile role in television appearances, concerts, and recordings, the Jordanaires rank as the most famous of the musicians toasted in the Nashville Cats series, which honors important studio musicians from Music City’s past.

"In most cases, Nashville Cats honors musicians who helped create the records we know and love, but are generally found just out of the spotlight,” Lloyd said in introducing Stoker and Walker. “But this afternoon we’re going to take that rule of thumb and bend it just a little. Today’s Nashville Cats are so well-known that you can actually read their names on the labels. For instance, ‘Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires.'"

Besides being a vocal foil for the King of Rock & Roll, the Jordanaires provided their signature harmony sound on on beloved hits by Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Dean, Don Gibson, Johnny Horton, Ferlin Husky, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Nelson, Jim Reeves, Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, and thousands of other artists. The Jordanaires were elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

Lloyd pointed out that, as the vocal group’s career went on, they often were more famous than the artists they supported in the studio. “However high their profile, the Jordanaires chose to spend much of their career in a supportive role to the singers they would back,” Lloyd said. “Imagine yourself as an up-and-coming star, and you look out in the studio, and the group singing behind you is more famous than you are, and they’re OK with that. That says a lot about Nashville.”

Along the way, the Jordanaires also had a significant impact on “how music was made and how business was done” in Nashville, Lloyd said. The late Neal Matthews, a member of the Jordanaires from the 1950s to the 1990s, initiated what has become known as “the Nashville number system,” a shorthand way of outlining musical arrangements for studio musicians. Stoker helped open the first American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, providing Nashville studio singers with a union of their own.

Stoker and Walker both explained how they began singing professionally as children, both getting hired by vocal quartets in their teens. After joining the Jordanaires, they learned how the group was different than other gospel-influenced quartets. “We were actually the first white group that sang black spirituals,” Stoker said.

Walker expanded on this theme by demonstrating the difference between gospel music, which tends to sing on the beat and on the subjects of salvation, right or wrong, and heaven or hell. A spiritual slides more behind the beat and is a story song with a moral and not as directly about being saved.

Part of what drew Elvis Presley to invite the Jordanaires to join him in the studio was their ability to sing like the black spiritual groups he loved. “When we first met Elvis in 1955, he said he wanted to hear some of that spiritual stuff we do,” Stoker said in one of several clips of audio performances and TV appearances shown during the Nashville Cats tribute. The King initially met the group in Memphis, backstage at an Eddy Arnold concert, before Presley had become a national phenomenon. He asked the group to sing “Peace in the Valley” with him, and he enjoyed the experience so much that he said he wanted the Jordanaires to sing with him if he ever received a big record contract.

“When RCA signed him in 1956, he called for us,” Stoker said. “That was a relationship we had for some fifteen years, until 1971. We will always treasure that, I can assure you.”

As it turned out, not all of the Jordanaires sang on Presley’s first RCA sessions. Instead, producer Chet Atkins asked Stoker to join Ben and Brock Speers as the harmony singers for the initial Presley recordings for RCA. When Stoker protested, saying he had never sung with the Speers, Atkins said, “It don’t make no difference. Just come in and do some ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ He ain’t going to be around long anyway.”

Presley was upset by Atkins’s behind-the-scenes move concerning his harmony singers. He told Stoker that if anything from the first session was a hit—among the songs recorded was the #1 hit “Heartbreak Hotel”—he would use the Jordanaires from then on. The vocal group went on the road with Presley, too, but Atkins once again united Stoker with the two Speers brothers for the second RCA session. “Elvis didn’t like Chet Atkins to the day he died because he felt Chet had pulled something over on him,” Stoker said.

The Jordanaires also performed with Presley on twenty-nine of his film soundtracks, and they appeared in several of his films. They only quit working with Presley because they didn’t want to leave their Nashville session work long enough to do an extended Las Vegas residency with the Memphis rocker.

“We were dear friends,” Stoker said. “It was like a big family. He didn’t have any family, so he was very loyal to us, and we were to him.” Added Walker, “He always knew we wouldn’t tell him something that wasn’t true. He always trusted us.” They also spoke of their admiration for Patsy Cline and told of the influence producer Owen Bradley had on her recordings. “She was feisty, and she had her opinions,” Walker said. “Her and Owen fought before nearly every session.”

For example, Cline wanted to put a western-swing style ending on “I Fall to Pieces,” but Bradley objected. When the singer asked Walker’s opinion, he said, “Patsy, stick with Owen. He knows more about you than you do. He’ll take you places you never dreamed you could go.”

Similarly, she wanted to record “Crazy”—“one of the prettiest backgrounds we’ve ever done,” Stoker said—at a faster tempo, similar to the way songwriter Willie Nelson first recorded it. “She was actually mad when she did that recording,” Stoker said.

Today, the Jordanaires are in seven halls of fame, with Stoker in eight, because he’s in the Piano Hall of Fame. The quartet continues to perform and record.

—Michael McCall