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Gordon Stoker - Gleason's Musical Marvel Makes it to Nashville: Part one of a two-part series

By Deborah Turner
dturner@mckenziebanner.com

Gordon Stoker plays the organ, lovingly restored, that he played when he was eight years old during services at Gleason's Tumbling Creek Baptist Church. By the age of 12, he was playing piano for the Clement Trio and at 15 was pianist for the John Daniel Quartet of Grand Ole Opry fame. In 1950 he became a member of the Jordanaires, a move that eventually propelled him into the Country Music and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.

Gordon Stoker, whose Tater-town roots stretch all the way to Nashville, still keeps cherished keepsakes of his youth. His mother's old guitar rests alongside his brother's banjo in a corner of a room brimming with mementos of days gone by; along one wall is the beautiful, richly grained, solid walnut organ he played - beginning when he was just eight years old - at Tumbling Creek Baptist Church outside Gleason. The old Kimball organ was made for a time when electricity was scarce, at best, with thick pedestals on either side of its frame providing a base from which coal oil lamps once offered dim light during church meetings held after the light of day had passed into the shadows.

These were the days when good weather brought fine entertainment to rural demesnes in the form of country and gospel singings that were held at locations not too far from the beaten path. In McKenzie, the Snead Grove Picnic attracted throngs of merry-makers as did the weekly singing conventions that were held every first Sunday in Paris, every second Sunday in McKenzie at the high school gym, and successive Sundays at Huntingdon and Dresden.

"We used to have a lot of singing conventions. My mother and dad were hung on them; we'd go to Fulton, Martin..." recalls Gordon, or Hugh Gordon, as he was known among singing circles as the young and talented piano player for the Clement Trio.

Gordon credits his parents - mom Willie and dad Ambus (known locally as H.A. Stoker) - with his early immersion in music. Music was an important part of the Stoker family in which each member of the family played a musical instrument and was provided with lessons outside their home.


Gordon had been born on August 3, 1924 "right on the main drag in Gleason" in the telephone office building where his family made their home, as his mother was one of two operators for the telephone system and his father was the repairman.

"My mother was the night time operator," Gordon says, a grin spreading across his face as he recalls, "You couldn't make a phone call after 9:00 p.m. or before 6:00 a.m."

Incoming phone calls were completed by means of a "switchboard" that connected the lines between caller and receiver. Calls made after the hour deemed unacceptably late for phone calls were either unanswered or met with the announcement, "It's after 9:00 p.m."

"Maybe if it was somebody she knew, she would go ahead and connect them," admits Gordon, whose collection of memorabilia also includes an old crank telephone once worked on by his father.


As a pianist, Gordon's talent was challenged by the skills of another piano player who frequented the local singing conventions: "She added stuff to her music," Gordon says in tones that still reflect the awe that inspired him to go home and duplicate her efforts, practicing tirelessly beyond the limitations of his education.

His endeavors paid off for the trio whose fame continued to grow.

"We had a hot trio, believe me," recalls Gordon, declaring, "We'd stop the show anywhere we'd go!" Vocalists for the trio were the Clement children: Gloria, age 8; Rachel, 12, and Fred, Jr., who was 10 years old. At age 12, on the piano, Gordon was red hot - so hot that a performance at the Snead Grove Picnic garnered the attention of Mr. John Daniel of the immensely popular John Daniel Quartet, just one of many country acts of the late 1930's that were brought to the picnic from the WSM radio station and the Grand Ole Opry.

He grins as he recalls his first step toward fame: "John Daniel, manager of the group, heard me play, and said, 'Son, how old are you?'"

After confessing he was only 12 years old, he recalls, Mr. Daniel vowed, "I want to bring you to Nashville; I'm going to make a star out of you!"

Hugh Gordon was already a star in West Tennessee, where early morning radio shows on WTJS in Jackson made "The Clement Trio" a household name. He chuckles as he relates a phone call he received, about two years ago, from a "lady from McKenzie" who was passing through Nashville and called to ask if he was the same Hugh Gordon Stoker who once played for the Clement Trio.

She fondly recalled - some 60 years later - the memorable way Mr. Clement introduced his role with the group: "He's not a banker, he's not a broker, he's just the world's greatest piano player, Hugh Gordon Stoker!"

"Lot of people who knew me years ago still call me Hugh Gordon," he admits, counting Minnie Pearl among that group after becoming one of the Grand Ole Opry's youngest performers at the age of 15 when, true to his word, John Daniel called a week after his graduation from high school and invited him to join the quartet.

Clement Trio fans continued to enjoy Gordon's skills through the 50,000 watt-powerful WSM radio station that reached every morning into homes as far away from Nashville as Carroll and Weakley counties. Hugh Gordon was a great success, but World War II was raging, and Uncle Sam was calling his children from every walk of life to partake in the battle against evil that threatened the very freedom Gordon so amply enjoyed. In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Air Force.

Dismayed by the interruption of his career, Gordon was nevertheless aware of his great fortune when a typing test - in which he excelled - earned him the job of teletype operator. Stationed in Brisbane and Ipswich in Australia, he worked in the airport's control towers, using teletype to monitor air traffic.

"I had a good deal; not very many men in the early '40's knew how to type, so I was really lucky, believe me," relates Gordon, obviously respectful of fellow servicemen whose job descriptions landed them more certainly in harm's way.

After three years in the military, Gordon moved to Oklahoma near family members, enrolling at Oklahoma Baptist University where, for two years, he studied psychology, later changing his focus to music and voice.

"I just wasn't pleased not being back in Nashville," Gordon says decidedly. The Daniel Quartet was still going strong on WLAC, another 50,000 watt station. In the latter part of 1948, he decided to return home to Nashville, where he continued his studies at Peabody College, though his education was aborted short of achieving a degree.

Gordon picked up where he had left off with the Daniel Quartet until, about a year later, opportunity knocked when the Jordanaires came to town. In a move that would propel him into fame unforeseeable at the time, Gordon auditioned successfully to become the new pianist for the quartet. In the next few years Gordon would meet his wife as well as a young man in a pink shirt who would change the course of his life forever: Elvis Presley.     Source: The McKenzie Banner

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