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April 20, 2013

Jim Bailey: Gordon Stoker backed up Nashville’s greatest singing stars

Many of us recall the national broadcast of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry back in the early 1950s. One of the regular groups was The Jordanaires.

That group brought a gospel sound to the world of country music. They also spent much time in the recording studios and at concerts backing up some of the top names in the music world. The tenor singer was Gordon Stoker, who had been a professional musician since the age of 15 when he joined the John Daniel Quartet as a pianist and came to Nashville.

Stoker, who in recent years had made several appearances on the Gaither Homecoming videos, died March 27 at age 88. He had been in declining health for some time.

Starting as pianist with The Jordanaires, Stoker soon moved to the high tenor part. The quartet became in demand for some of country music’s top stars as backup musicians, and they added gospel-style harmonies to recordings by Red Foley, Hank Snow, Eddie Arnold and others.

One of those others included a teen-ager who heard them sing in Memphis and pledged, “If I ever get a contract with a major company, I want you guys to back me up.”

That was Elvis Presley. Stoker was present for his first recording session with RCA, along with Ben and Brock Speer. And soon after that The Jordanaires were hired to back him up. They may be heard with him on classic recordings such as “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”

The Jordanaires also did the backups for Ferlin Husky’s “Gone,” Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Presley historian and author Alanna Nash said of them, “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. Just as they brought spirituals to the predominantly white audience, they did the same for rock and roll, vocalizing behind Elvis. 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. In a sense, they risked their reputation in the gospel world by performing with him and giving their stamp of approval. That was Gordon’s doing, all the way.”

In the quartet’s later years the group included not only Stoker but Louis Nunley, who grew up in Anderson. Nunley, who helped develop the successful Nashville sound, died last year.

The Jordanaires, who last sang in August 2012, are officially retired as a quartet, son Alan Stoker announced. Gordon is also survived by Jean Stoker, his wife of 61 years, and another son and a daughter.

Jim Bailey’s reflections on Anderson’s past appear on Sunday. His regular column appears on Wednesday. He can be reached by e-mail at jameshenrybailey@earthlink.net.

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