Gary James' Interview With The Jordanaires
Is there anybody who hasn't heard or heard of the Jordanaires? The group gained national recognition in 1957 by winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show. Soon after, The Jordanaires were providing background vocals for Elvis Presley's records. Besides Elvis, the Jordanaires can be heard on albums and singles by such artists as Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Neil Young, Marty Robbins, and the list goes on and on.
We talked with Jordanaires member Gordon Stoker about Elvis, the record business, and what The Jordanaires are doing these days.
Q - Singer Tommy Sands has stated that The Jordanaires were receiving letters from someone, signing them Elvis Presley.
A - We did a charity show for crippled children in Reno, Nevada. When we got to the auditorium, we had a special delivery letter. It said: Dear Jordanaires, You guys are doing something very close to my heart. You know how much this means to me for you to appear for crippled children tonight, and I hope you understand what I did, the reason I did what I did, I hope you will understand. I love you guys, and I hope to see you soon. Something like that. 'Sincerely Elvis'. It was typewritten, and the signature looked a lot like his signature. Of course, anybody could copy his Elvis signature, it was very easy to copy. But the first line said, "I'm happy you're hear tonight" (laughs). And so, we said that part we would buy, that Elvis might have spelled 'hear' instead of 'here'. That's possible. That much we thought was funny. Each one made a copy of it, and kept it. I still have a copy of it. For quite some time somebody called me on the code-a-phone, on my tape. It went on for I don't know how long. It drove us nuts because he would take up so much room on the tape. It was very irritating, especially if I was trying to get my long distance calls because I would have to listen to all that crap. But finally they gave up, and quit doing it.
Q - Tommy said two of the guys in the group believe the letter is the real thing, and the other two guys think it's fake. What do you believe?
A - I think Tommy might have misunderstood. I think he's talking about Ray Walker, the bass singer. Ray will occasionally be on the same television talk show, and he'll be asked "Do you really think Elvis is alive?", and he'll say 'Well, it's very possible he could be." But, I think if Ray would stop to think, Elvis had too much of an ego to lay in the bushes for ten years before he came out. Why didn't he come out sooner than this?
Q - Are all the guys in today's Jordanaires original members?
A - Well, we lost one member six years ago, Hoy Hawkins. He passed away with a heart attack. Ray Walker, the bass singer, has been with us since 1958, so you're still talking about a long time. Neal (Mathews) and I have been around since 1950, '51, and '52.
Q - The Jordanaires have been referred to as the "masters of backing vocals." How did you acquire that skill?
A - Ray Walker has a degree in music. I lack nine hours in getting my degree. All four of The Jordanaires had several years of college work before we got together with the group. We had two hit records with Red Foley singing Oohs and Aahs. We really just kind of made it up as we went, just something we thought would sound good behind a solo singer. We more or less started it, especially as far as Country music is concerned. From that, we started using the Number System. We were the ones that introduced the Number System to all the music industry - in Hollywood, New York. Neal Matthews, the second tenor singer and arranger in the group, started taking down, it's really a shorthand version, like your tonic chords are one chord, your subdominant chords are your four chords, your dominants are your five chords. He would just take it down as you go along. He'd make the bars and the numbers of the chords, he'd use the numbers, whereas if you changed the keys, it wouldn't made any difference. The tonic chord is still the one chord no matter what key you're in. We started using the Number System for three or four years. We couldn't get anyone else to use it at all. Elvis and numerous acts would laugh at us, calling it chicken scratching, but, we continued to use it. You see, if you don't come into the studio and work fast, they have to replace you. They'll get another group. There were no overdubs when we started out. So, what I'm trying to tell you is that Anita Kerr Singers and The Jordanaires were the only two groups that were very, very fast in getting background, and that's the reason why we got so many sessions. Before we knew it, everyone was using the Number System, and they're using it now very widely.
Q - It's too bad you didn't put a copyright on it.
A - We should have. You're exactly right. Of course, we're nominated for the Hall of Fame this year. I don't know if we'll get it. It's us and Tennessee Ernie (Ford).
Q - Why didn't the Jordanaires ever relocate to say New York or Los Angeles?
A - We were offered a good position in Los Angeles because they said we would save a fortune in arrangements, (laughs), if we'd move to Los Angeles and do sessions out there, But, we said why move there. The scale was the same in Los Angeles as it was in Nashville.. What would we gain? Capitol Records tried to get us to move and work strictly for them.
Q - Elvis would say to you, "Man, what have I got? I can't sing. I can't play. I can't dance." How could anybody that insecure get so far in the business?
A - (Laughs) Isn't that weird? We'd say, "man regardless of what you think, you've got something that they want. Smile and give it to 'em." We always encouraged him. He was such a likeable guy. This guy had a beautiful attitude about everything. He had a good outlook on life. He cut-up and kidded and played and picked at you and all that type of thing. He wasn't pushed on time. No one pushed him. We used to have a lot of fun. We loved him dearly. We loved him like a brother. Anytime that he would get depressed or put out about the various songs, we'd come in and say, "No that's great", or "you're gonna make 'em like it regardless." And that's why I'm so thankful that this guy told us how he felt in 1969. We were in Hollywood doing an album or a soundtrack, I don't remember which. Elvis said if there hadn't been a Jordanaires, there probably wouldn't have been an Elvis. And we all looked at him and said "What? What are you talking about man? Are you crazy?" He said, "No, I'm serious. I'm very serious." He said, "You guys took an interest in me when I didn't want to record. You took an interest in me."