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Stoker Part of Half a Century of Music History

By Pam Harris - Special to the Weakley County Press

The eyes of the entertainment world are on Tennessee as Memphis celebrates 50 years of rock 'n' roll. July 5 marks the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley's recording of the regional hit, "That's All Right, Mama". While Tennessee has contributed many musical greats to the world - from country to rock to jazz - this article is about one of Weakley County's own, a musical legend in his own right.

He could be a name-dropper, if he wanted to be. After all, he has recorded with the likes of Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Loretta Lynn and Elvis, just to name a few. His list of co-artists includes more than 2,000 pop and country stars of the '50s, '60s and '70s, and he has known the joy and sorrow of friendships that ended all too soon such as those with Reeves, Cline and Ricky Nelson, who all died tragically in plane crashes.

He could be a snob, if he wanted to be. His awards are too numerous to mention, but the 2003 Grammy for the Best Southern Country Gospel Album definitely stands out, as do inductions into several halls of fame, including the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He has traveled the nation and the globe, appeared in movies, been a regular on WSM's The Grand Ole Opryland and appeared on television programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show and the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show. To someone outside of entertainment circles, his accomplishments are impressive, if not overwhelming.

But Gleason native Gordon Stoker is neither a name-dropper nor a snob. He is, instead, a sincerely nice gentleman who loves his hometown and county, loves his family and loves what he does - singing and performing with The Jordanaires quartet. He is a humble man and has been content to lend his talents as a background vocalist and musician to singers of all genres.

Stoker reflected on his successful career and remembered that a record producer "told us not to worry about making the Hit Parade. He said 'The background field will be good to you.'" The producer was right. While other entertainers have come and gone, The Jordanaires are still recording and performing for audiences. "Back-up work is steady," Stoker said. "You're not here today and gone tomorrow."

Steady indeed. He's been at it for 54 years, and his schedule is full. The group just cut a Christmas CD and is preparing to record a bluegrass collection. Stoker recently returned from a performance in Canada, and he and the group leave for Ireland at the end of May. They'll be in Tupelo, Miss., on June 4 to do an Elvis tribute and in Tunica in August.

Stoker's musical career began early. Everyone in his family - his parents, two brothers, a sister and Stoker - sang and played musical instruments. His mother and brother Wayne played the guitar. His specialties were the piano, organ and accordion. They sang and played at singing conventions that were common on weekends in the 1930s, mostly in Weakley, Henry and Carroll counties, but at least a couple of trips were made to Jackson and Memphis. "As far as we could go in those days, we went," Stoker said.

Stoker recalled winning his first award at a convention in Weakley County when he was 7- or 8-years-old. He still has it proudly displayed among his other, more prestigious honors. "I sang 'Have you ever been lonely, have you ever been boo,'" he said, chuckling over his youthful mispronunciation of the word 'blue.' He also won medals at various competitions for being the best pianist. His real break came, however, when at age 12 or 13 he impressed John Daniel of the Daniel Quartet, regulars on the Grand Ole Opry.

Stoker was at the annual Snead Grove picnic, which drew thousands of spectators to McKenzie to see the showcased talents of local and Opry stars, when Daniel heard him perform with the Clement Trio of McKenzie. Stoker was the regular piano player for the group -- Gloria, Fred Jr. and Rachel Clement, ages 8, 10 and 12, respectively, and had garnered a certain amount of local recognition through their regular performances at singing conventions and on early morning radio with WTJS out of Jackson.

When Daniel heard the young pian-ist, he was impressed by his talent. He asked Stoker his age and told him that he'd give him a call after Stoker graduated from high school. He would, he said, make the young man a star.

"I never dreamed he'd do it," Stoker said. However, Daniel kept up with the young musician and he kept his promise. He called Stoker the week he graduated, and Stoker headed to Nashville, where he performed with the Daniel Quartet on WSM radio. "That's the last time I lived in Gleason," he said.

In 1943, the United States was em-broiled in a brutal world war, and Sto-ker was drafted into the Air Force. The same nimble fingers that gracefully danced on a piano keyboard also flew across typewriter keys and enabled him to serve his country as a teletype operator in Australia. There he monitored air traffic and was discharged from the service three years later. He went to Oklahoma, where some of his family members lived at the time, to study psychology and music at Oklahoma Baptist University. In 1948, he returned to his home state to attend Peabody College in Nashville. There he rejoined the Daniel Quartet.

Little did he know that his future was being determined by a group of four men - brothers Bill and Monty Matthews, Bob Hubbard and Culley Holt - in Springfield, Mo., who began in 1948 as a barbershop, gospel and country quartet. They called themselves The Jordanaires. By 1949, they had secured a regular Saturday night spot on the Grand Ole Opry and had also gone through some personnel changes. Bob Money, their pianist at the time, was drafted and Stoker auditioned to be his replacement. He got the job.

"I was not the best musician by any means," he said modestly. He said they told him that his playing style was not fancy but just the style they wanted. After establishing himself as a pianist, he had the opportunity to become the first tenor in the group, and his position was secured.

The Jordanaires were regulars on the Opry, and on a Sunday afternoon in 1955, they played a show with Eddy Arnold in Memphis. Afterwards, a blonde, courteous young man, wearing a pink shirt and black pants, approach-ed them and told them that if he ever got a recording contract, he wanted them to sing back-up for him. Stoker said he didn't think much about it at the time, people often did that and continue to do so today.

On Jan. 11, 1956, Chet Atkins called Stoker to do a session with a new singer that Atkins said probably wouldn't be around for very long. It was the same young man that had approached them that day in Memphis - Elvis Presley. RCA had just signed The Speer Family, and Stoker, along with Ben and Brock Speer, sang back-up for "Was the One," the first recording session Elvis had ever done with vocal background. In April they were called upon again to sing back-up for Elvis in Nashville.

Elvis, who had heard The Jordanaires regularly on the Opry, didn't know that Stoker was the only actual member of the group that had recorded with him. He called Stoker aside and told him that he wanted the group to sing back-up for all of his songs. So began a relationship that lasted for 14 years.

"The greatest thing that ever happened was when Elvis asked us to work," Stoker said. Elvis insisted that The Jordanaires' name be placed on the record labels, and the recognition they received opened doors to other opportunities. "Elvis opened the door for everybody," Stoker said. "You could hardly find a guitar picker anywhere in those days. Now there is one on every corner. Elvis has inspired the world to sing and play."

The Jordanaires ended their recording relationship with Elvis when he began to perform in Las Vegas. Two shows a night, he said, was too hard for anyone. Elvis replaced The Jordanaires with The Imperials, who were later replaced by J. D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet. Sumner and the Stamps were about to quit when Elvis died. "I've always felt that two shows a night is what killed him," Stoker said, stating that he believes the rigid schedule prompted Elvis to become more dependent upon prescription drugs.

Jenna Wright, also a Gleason native but now a Martin resident, is Stoker's niece and remembers what it was like growing up with a famous uncle. She remembers well an incident that drove home to her that her uncle was more than just a beloved relative, he was also something of a celebrity.

When she was 8 or 9, "Uncle Gordon" was visiting family in Gleason and came to the school to pick up his niece one day. She was already seated in the car when Stoker decided to go into the building to chat with his former English teacher. Wright said that Elvis was very popular at the time and everyone around Gleason knew that her uncle was connected with the rock 'n' roll idol. As she waited in the car, she noticed a group of teen-age girls gathering around the vehicle. What happened next surprised the young girls began kissing the car! Just because they assumed Elvis had ridden in or touched it.

Her uncle's fame and connection to Elvis triggered another incident at her Gleason home a couple of years later. Some friends from Memphis, not connected with Elvis or The Jordanaires, were visiting her family. Local residents saw the luxury vehicle with Shelby County plates parked at their house, and it wasn't long until traffic began to clog the residential street. It was funny, she said, but her father Wayne had to go outside to set everyone straight and break up the traffic jam. Wright found the incident hard to understand. Her uncle's connection to fame was taken for granted.

"He was just Uncle Gordon to me," she said.

There is no doubt that this famous uncle holds a special place in her heart. "He never has forgotten his family, and he has never forgotten his roots," she said. Stoker and his wife of over 50 years, Jean, have three children and still live in the Nashville area, but he comes back fairly often to visit. Jean is a Nashville native and a musician as well. "She's a wonderful person," Wright said about Stoker's wife. "They very definitely complement each other. They're top notch."

Stoker ranks high on another Tater-towner's list: Mike Snider. Snider, who is known for his banjo-playing ability and down-home humor, may have never been where he is today if not for Stoker.

"Actually, Wayne Stoker was the man that got the ball rolling," Snider said. Wayne told his brother about Snider's talent and called the banjo picker to come to his house to perform. Stoker liked what he heard and asked the powers-that-be at the Opry to give Snider a chance.

Not only did the Opry invite Snider to perform, but they also invited the whole town of Gleason to attend. Snider said about 2,000 Weakley Countians, most of whom were Gleason residents, showed up.

"The Opry holds about 4,400 people, about half were people from around here," he said. That was Jan. 21, 1984.

Snider said that it was the support of his hometown that brought him special recognition and helped to further his entertainment career. He appeared on Nashville Now the night before his Opry performance because word had gotten out about the number of tickets reserved for Gleason residents.

"If they hadn't come and shown up like they did, it wouldn't have amounted to a hill of beans," Snider said. "I'm awful thankful to my little town." He said that although he only played two tunes that first night, his total time on stage was about 20 minutes due to Roy Acuff chatting with him. Since that time, Snider has become an official member of the Opry and had a seven-year run on the Hee Haw comedy hour. Snider said he had planned originally to be a farmer, admitting that becoming a professional musician had not been a lifelong dream.

"It was so outrageous, I never entertained the thought," he said. "I just played the banjo for fun." Thanks to Wayne and Gordon Stoker, however, (and being talented enough to win the National Banjo Championship at age 22) he has achieved what most can only imagine

Stoker's connections and recordings read like a list of "Who's Who in the Music World." Paul McCartney told Stoker that The Jordanaires had influenced the Beatles with their vocal harmony. Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Elvis Presley, and the list goes on. Stoker has recorded with them all. His musical accomplishments, however, are not what make this man so special to those who know and love him. It is his kind heart and good humor.

Jenna Wright still has a Christmas ornament that he purchased for her when she was a child. He bought it early in his career, while in New York City, and she displays it each year. "It represents a man who totally loved his family and his roots," she said, "but wanted a little girl in Gleason, Tennessee, to know that there is a bigger world out there."

Perhaps Todd Morgan, the director of media and creative development at Elvis Presley Enterprises, describes him best. "Anyone who thinks Dick Clark is the eternal teenager of show business has never met Gordon Stoker," he wrote. "His energy and passion for life and work and friends and family is boundless. He's always got something going on. The only thing he has at the ready more often than music is humor. Any conversation with Gordon always involves a good laugh."

Not a name-dropper nor a snob, just a kindhearted gentleman blessed with enormous talent. Weakley Countians can be proud to call him their own. Source: Weakley County Press

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