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Gordon Stoker - "The Amazing Years"

By Deborah Turner
dturner@mckenziebanner.com


Hugh Gordon Stoker, holding the accordion, made his debut into the music business as the piano player for the Clement Trio of Gleason. With Hugh Gordon are little Gloria Clement, Fred, Jr. and Rachel.

Read Part 1, Gordon Stoker - Gleason's Musical Marvel Makes it to Nashville, here

Gordon Stoker was raised among a family of musicians in Gleason in the 1930's, a time when singing conventions were prime entertainment among small southern towns that took turns hosting the events, giving locals at least one opportunity each month to enjoy the shows while many ventured to neighboring towns on successive weekends for the added spice of variety.

One of the most spectacular of the singing conventions was the Snead-Grove Picnic in McKenzie, where local talent mixed with stars of the Grand Ole Opry to the delight of enthusiasts who came from near and far to enjoy the popular event. It was here that 12-year-old piano sensation Gordon Stoker caught the eye and ear of John Daniel, manager of the famed Daniel Quartet, who proclaimed his intention to make the boy a star someday.

While members of the Daniel Quartet waited for Gordon to grow up before whisking him away to Nashville (an act that was set in motion just one week after he graduated from high school at the age of 15), Gordon set about promoting his own fame as a member of the Clement trio, the sensational young group that in addition to Stoker was made up of the Clement children: Gloria, Rachel, and Fred, Jr.. The hot young trio was an early morning staple on WTJS radio, listened to regularly in homes where television had not yet made its debut.

Fans continued to enjoy Gordon's inimitable skills on the piano as WSM radio in Nashville broadcast the sounds of the Daniel Quartet to homes across Tennessee. Gordon's success with the quartet was interrupted, however, when he was drafted into the Air Force in 1943. He served as a Teletype operator for three years during World War II, then devoted a few years to education - studying psychology, music and voice - before being drawn back to Nashville, where the Daniel Quartet was still going strong.

Hugh Gordon Stoker rejoined the Daniel Quartet upon his return to Nashville, bringing back his special brand of piano skills that had increasingly thrilled listeners since he was eight years old. Meanwhile, in Springfield Missouri, a new quartet, The Jordanaires, was formed in 1948 by Bill and Monty Matthews along with bass singer Culley Holt and second tenor Bob Hubbard.

The following year The Jordanaires were in Nashville, having been hired by the Grand Ole Opry. Then, once again, the draft changed the face of music when the group's original piano player, Bob Money, was drafted.

Gordon auditioned among competition like Boyce Hawkins and Marvin Hughes, both of whom later played for The Jordanaires from time to time, Hawkins filling in as needed and Hughes playing for the group during Grand Ole Opry shows.

Gordon won the audition, becoming the group's piano player in 1950, the same year he met his wife, Jean, at a singing in Nashville.

"We had a church singing every second Tuesday; it was a big singing," Gordon shared, recalling once more the affairs that filled weekends everywhere with music.

"She loved to sing gospel songs and I loved to play them," he continues by way of explaining the attraction that grew between the young couple. As a member of the Wilkerson Trio, along with her sisters Mildred and Edna, Jean was also a performer at the singing where she met Hugh Gordon, finally meeting the young man whose music she had enjoyed since both were children.

"She had listened to me play as far back as 1942. People listened to the radio every morning before work," he says, explaining again the differences in the era before television was a widespread source of entertainment and information. When Gordon and Jean married on September 9, 1951, The Jordanaires sang "Tell Me Why" at the wedding with Boyce Hawkins at the organ.

In 1952, Gordon's career shifted suddenly and dramatically when first tenor Bill Matthews was unable to perform during the first evening of an engagement at a supper club in Detroit, Michigan.

"Hoyt Hawkins came to play piano," says Gordon, who was forced that evening to assume the role of first tenor at a moment's notice. More changes were in store for the group when Bob Hubbard was drafted, with Neil Matthews (no relation to the former Matthews brothers) taking the second tenor position in 1953.

For 47 years, from 1953 through 2000, the group's membership was almost constant with Gordon Stoker at first tenor, Neal Matthews as second tenor, and Hoyt Hawkins as baritone. Their joint tenures were interrupted in 1982 when Hoyt passed away with the baritone position then filled by Duane West, who died last year. In the bass position, Ray Walker filled Hugh Jarrett's position (who had replaced Holt in 1954) in 1958 and continues to present.

The quartet is currently composed of first tenor/manager Gordon Stoker, second tenor Curtis Young (who filled Neal's position when he died in 2000), baritone Louis Nunley (who took Duane West's place) and bass Ray Walker.


In 1955, The Jordanaires traveled to Memphis to sing with Eddie Arnold at Ellis Auditorium, the historic and architecturally rich edifice that, unbelievably, was razed last year to make room for the expansion of the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

When the show was over, a young musician who was working hard at earning his own success went backstage to meet The Jordanaires. He told the group that if he ever got a major recording contract he wanted them to sing with him. At the time he was recording on the Sun label, a recording company now famous as "the birthplace of rock and roll." In addition to Elvis Presley, the label recorded such legends as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins as well as Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Bill Justis, and Harold Jenkins (now known as Conway Twitty.)

The only thing that made the young man memorable at the time, Gordon says, was his long sideburns.

"Boys didn't have long sideburns back then," he explains, "But the main thing was that he had on a pink shirt. Boys just did not wear pink shirts in 1955."

The young gentleman was none other than the prince who would become the King of Rock and Roll, his pink shirt and sideburns just a sampling of the ways he would shake up the world with his new brand of music.

"Elvis had heard us sing on the Grand Ole Opry's Prince Albert Show; we would always sing a fast-moving spiritual and that's what he liked," says Gordon, who says Presley had wanted to join a quartet himself and had auditioned for two groups in Memphis but was turned away.

Gordon later ran into one of the quartets who had turned away the King and asked, incredulously, "You turned down Elvis Presley?"

"We had to," was the reply, "You give Elvis one part and before you know it he's singing another part." Singers within a quartet must be very disciplined within their assigned roles, Gordon explains, lending insight to the astonishing harmonics of The Jordanaires.

True to his word, Elvis called the group in January 1956 after signing on with RCA Records, beginning a relationship that would last nearly 15 years and a friendship that would last even longer.

Gordon sang duets with Elvis on hit records like "All Shook Up", "Good Luck Charm", and "Easy Come Easy Go" while the full quartet sang back up on most of Elvis' songs.

Gordon pulls out a CD containing 30 of Elvis' number one hits. "We're on 24 of them, that gives you an idea of how many we did," he says. He's wrong. While the ratio may be right, the numbers don't compare, with The Jordanaires performing on an astounding 361 records with the King, not to mention 28 of some 31 Elvis movies.

Memories of the Elvis years come easy for Gordon, his recollections aided by more keepsakes in what may best be described as a trophy room, were it not for the fact that the mementos displayed are not meant to boast but to remember and honor. In the same room with his childhood keepsakes - his mom's guitar, his brother's banjo, the church organ of his youth - are the vibrant photos of a lifetime of music alongside Elvis and other great stars of country, gospel and rock and roll.

There's The Jordanaires with Elvis, taken at 7:00 in the morning after recording all night in Studio B in Nashville; a scene from the set of Elvis' - and the Jordanaire's - first movie, "Love Me Tender", and a collage of scenes from four other movies: "King Creole", "Loving You", "Jailhouse Rock" and "G.I. Blues", and memorable early photos of Elvis performing on the Ed Sullivan Show.

There's even a custom made jacket Elvis once wore, authenticated by its label, with accompanying photos of the King performing in the coat.

One of Gordon's favorite memoirs is a metal wall hanging he first spied in an overseas restaurant, perhaps Amsterdam, that shows a close up of an early Elvis with undyed, sandy hair, and smaller inserts of an airplane and an older model vehicle. None of the components make sense, says Gordon, trying to reconcile the pieces into a coherent whole.

It was some time later when the hanging fell into Gordon's hands when he received a phone call one day. "I'm downtown in Nashville," said the accented voice of the restaurant's owner, "I brought a present for you."

Emblazoned across the top of the collage are the words "The Amazing Years", which alone give credence to the components; whatever they were, they came together to create truly remarkable years. The same can be said of The Jordanaires' amazing years, with over 50 years of continuous demand for the singers' vocal talents giving testimony to their tremendous versatility and awesome skill.

Besides Elvis, there are photos of many other artists with whom The Jordanaires have performed: Patsy Cline ("We loved, Patsy, didn't everybody," Gordon sighs), Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Connie Frances and George Jones. The photos get newer and gain color as the years progress on The Jordanaires own "wall of fame", with Vince Gill, Steve Warner, the Judds and Tanya Tucker just a few of the contemporary artists with whom The Jordanaires have performed. The most recent estimate of recordings sales using the The Jordanaires' for background vocals is 2.6 billion.

But The Jordanaires are performers in their own right, as well, their discography reflecting continuous releases from 1950 to the present. Their honors include:
* 1998: Gospel Music Hall of Fame
* 1999: North America Country Music Associations International Hall of Fame 2000: Rockabilly Hall of Fame
* 2001: Country Music Hall of Fame
* 2002: Golden Voice Awards Vocal Group of the Year
* 2003: Grammy for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album ("We Called Him Mr. Gospel Music: The James Blackwood Tribute Album" with The Jordanaires, Larry Ford and The Light Crust Doughboys)

Their voices are heard on Coca-cola's ad, singing "We'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" and are those of the singing portions of the 1990 animation "Rock a Doodle".

Nowadays, after 53 years in the music business, The Jordanaires remain in great demand, singing back up for various artists plus performing Elvis tributes with Scotty Moore, Elvis' original guitarist, and D.J. Fontano, his original drummer. Most recently, The Jordanaires performed last weekend in Jackson with Elvis Wade, one of the most famous Elvis impersonators.

Gordon remembers Elvis with a fondness reserved for family. "He was a great, super nice guy," he shares, "much too good for his own good. He was always in a good mood; he always had a good attitude - there's nobody that had a good attitude like Elvis. He was one of us; he considered himself one of the group, and he was an inspiration to be around; he made the best of any situation. In 15 years he never blew up and, believe me, he should have. His mother raised him that way, to make the best out of any situation... most of the time you can't do anything about it anyway."

It was Elvis' good nature, Gordon says, that allowed people to take advantage of him in everything from the songs he sang to his appearance. "We used to tell him, man if you don't want to do it, don't do it," Gordon declares, "But he would say, 'No, I'd rather do it than argue with them."

The Jordanaires left Elvis when it was decided he would do two shows a night in Las Vegas. "I always thought two shows a night is what took his life," Gordon says sadly, "It's just hard... They pushed him, he wasn't well; he was taking uppers and downers all the time. He was never on hardcore drugs - he didn't even smoke marijuana - but that eventually took his life."

In their spare time, Gordon and Jean enjoy spending time in Florida. "We love the auto races," Gordon says. Until recently the Stokers enjoyed boating as well, the two house boats they enjoyed over 17 years each named "Sugaree" after the 1957 Jordanaires hit which was written by Marty Robbins.

For most of the year, the Stokers live in their home state of Tennessee in lovely Brentwood just outside Nashville. Their spacious home is located on what was once pastureland of T.G. Shepphard's ranch in a music community that is rapidly growing.

The Stokers have two sons - Alan and Brent - and a daughter, Venita, plus five grandchildren. Gordon's first cousins Merle Penick and Lozette Burrow still live in McKenzie while his brother Wayne is well known in Gleason.

And while Gordon is reminiscing about old times and old friends, they are remembering him as well. Wanda Clement of McKenzie is the widow of Fred Clement, Jr. of the Clement Trio. Now 71, Gloria Clement Lott lives in Bartlett, TN where her son says, "She can still captivate the audience or should I say, 'congregation' at the Ellendale Baptist Church where she faithfully attends with her husband of 52 years."

Says Gloria, who is the last remaining member of the Clement Trio besides Gordon, "I thought he was the best piano player in the world, too. He used to sit me up on the bench at the piano and teach me my part along with my mother. I just loved him to death. We just had a great time singing; when he left our world just left."

For more information about The Jordanaires, see their website at www.jordanaires.net and listen to them, like old times, on WSM Radio, 650 A.M. "on your radio dial."   Source: The McKenzie Banner

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