Hugh Gordon Stoker, leader of Country Music Hall of Fame vocal
quartet The Jordanaires, died on Wednesday, March 27, at his Brentwood home after a long illness.
Mr. Stoker, whose high tenor vocals grace thousands of significant recordings
by Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Loretta Lynn, Rick Nelson and many others, was 88.
“For more than 70 years, Gordon Stoker made enormous contributions to the Nashville
music industry, beginning in 1942 as pianist for the John Daniel Quartet
on radio station WSM,” said John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of
Fame and Museum. “Singing tenor with the Jordanaires, Stoker backed
hundreds of featured artists in the recording studio, ranging from
Red Foley, Don Gibson, Kenny Rogers and George Jones to Connie Francis,
Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme and Julie Andrews.”
Mr. Stoker was a professional musician from the age of 15, when he joined the
Daniel Quartet and came to Nashville. He joined the United States Air Force in 1943
and served overseas, returning to America in 1946, when he enrolled in college.
He came back to Nashville in 1948, studying at Peabody College. In 1949, he successfully
auditioned for a year-old quartet called The Jordanaires. He initially joined
as a pianist, but he soon became “first tenor,” singing the highest parts
in the reorganized quartet, which featured him in conjunction with
Neal Matthews Jr., Hoyt Hawkins and Culley Holt. That lineup was soon
in demand as a backing vocal unit for country recording sessions, adding gospel-style harmonies to recordings
by Red Foley, Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold and others.
A Memphis teen and aspiring musician named Elvis Presley heard The Jordanaires singing
in Memphis, and he became a fan of the group, pledging, “If I ever get a contract with
a major company, I want you guys to back me up.”
When Presley began recording for RCA in January 1956, he did in fact request The Jordanaires
for his first-ever session with backing vocalists, but Chet Atkins instead hired brothers
Ben and Brock Speer to sing with 31-year-old Gordon Stoker.
Presley wondered aloud why The Jordanaires weren’t there, and Mr. Stoker explained that
Atkins hadn’t hired the quartet. By June of that year, though, Mr. Presley’s sessions
featured the group in its entirety, and The Jordanaires became an integral part of his sound.
“With Gordon’s soaring high tenor and leadership, the quartet changed the sound
of pop records with their signature backing vocals, even if they sang only nonsense
syllables,” said author and Presley historian Alanna Nash. “Just as they brought spirituals
to the predominately white audience, they did the same for rock and roll, vocalizing behind
“What may not be so obvious is that Elvis, such a ‘moral threat’ when he first appeared on
the national scene in 1956, may not have been so readily accepted by such powerful impresarios
as Ed Sullivan had the Jordanaires not lent Presley their sound and support,” Nash
continued. “In a sense, they risked their reputation in the gospel world by performing
with him and giving him their stamp of approval. That was Gordon’s doing, all the way.”
Soon, The Jordanaires were heard on more hit recordings than any other vocal group, and
their notoriety made them one of the world’s most popular vocal acts. Ray Walker joined
the group in 1958, completing The Jordanaires’ classic lineup of Stoker, Walker, Matthews
and Hawkins: That lineup that was inducted into the Country Music Hall
of Fame in 2001. The group often appeared on television and in movies with Presley,
Ferlin Husky, Zsa Zsa Gabor and others.
The Jordanaires may be heard on classic recordings including Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel”
and “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” Husky’s “Gone,” Reeves’ “Four Walls,”
Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Rogers’ “Lucille,” George Jones’ "He Stopped
Loving Her Today" and many more.
“They were on Grammy-winning recordings in six decades,” said Mr. Stoker’s son
Alan Stoker, a curator at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “That started in
1959 with (Johnny Horton’s) ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ and continued through
2007 with an album by Ray Price and Willie Nelson.”
The Jordanaires also originated the “Nashville Number System” of musical notation, now
standard in Music City recording studios. And they were instrumental in establishing
Nashville offices for performers’ unions.
Hawkins died in 1982 and was replaced by Duane West, who was replaced by Louis
Nunley in 2000. Curtis Young also joined in 2000, following Matthews’ death. The group’s
final performance was in August 2012, in Tunica, Miss. Mr. Stoker was the group’s
leader and owner, and The Jordanaires’ franchise will not go on without him.
“The group is over,” said Alan Stoker. “It was a wonderful run. My father lived a
great life, and left us a great legacy.”
Mr. Stoker is survived by Jean Stoker, his wife of 61 years; by sons Alan and Brent, daughter
Venita and daughter-in-law Jeanne; five grandchildren and one great grandchild.
Visitation will be held from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, March 28, and again on Friday,
March 29, at Woodlawn-Roesch-Pattton Funeral Home, 660 Thompson Lane in Nashville.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, March 30, at 2 p.m. at Christ Presbyterian
Church, 2323 Old Hickory Boulevard in Nashville, with visitation one hour prior to the service.
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