It was the night of July 2, 1956, and in the New York studios of RCA Victor a young Elvis Presley had just finished his thirty-first take of a new song called “Hound Dog.” Elvis had just premiered the song on Milton Berle’s television show, and it looked like a sure hit. RCA had brought to New York Elvis’s regular band (Scotty Moore, Bill Black, D. J. Fontana), but for this session Elvis had added a “male quartet” as well.
The RCA secretary stared at the union cards the men had signed and carefully began typing the “session sheet” for the recordings. They were personable young men, these singers: one named Gordon Stoker, who sang lead, had even taken over the piano playing for the date when the regular piano player had had to leave for another job. Then there was Neal Matthews, who had a sky-high tenor, Hoyt Hawkins on baritone, and Hugh Jarret on bass. And the name of the group? She searched her memory. Some kind of “aires.” It sounded like they were saying Gordonaires. Yes. That would make sense, with a leader named Gordon.
The Gordanaires it must have been. She typed it on the sheets, and the bit of history that validated one of the biggest two-sided hits in music history, “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” went into the files—wrong. Had the secretary known country and gospel music as well as Elvis did, she would have known in a flash that the group was actually called the Jordanaires. She would have known that they were far from some anonymous backup group, even in 1955. They had been regulars on the Grand Ole Opry since 1949, and had appeared on Eddy Arnold’s summer TV show.
They had recorded for almost every major label, starting with Decca in 1949–50, moving to RCA Victor in 1951, and on to Capitol in 1953. They had recorded gospel hits like “Mansion Over the Hilltop” (1951), “On the Jericho Road” (1953), “Gonna Walk Those Golden Stairs” (1951), and “Tattler’s Wagon” (1953). They had sung backup on records by Hank Snow, Elton Britt, Stuart Hamblen, and Red Foley. Through their work as staff musicians for WSM in Nashville, they had also done dozens of nationally heard singing commercials. The Jordanaires—spelled with a J—were anything but an obscure “male quartette.” In 1955, when they began their association with Elvis, they were one of the best known and hottest groups in country music. And they were about to get hotter.
The Jordanaires originated in Springfield, Missouri, about 1948 when two brothers named Bill and Monty Matthews decided to organize their own quartet. Both men were ministers, and had begun singing with their father, who was a traveling evangelist. After gaining fame as part of a juvenile quartet called the Matthews Brothers, Bill and Monty started their own group; Culley Holt, from McAlester, Oklahoma, was hired to sing bass, and Bob Hubbard was added on baritone.
In 1949 their pianist Bob Money was drafted, and Gordon Stoker was hired to replace him. Stoker was a veteran of the gospel scene who had won his spurs playing with WSM’s famed John Daniel Quartet. Stoker would soon graduate to singing lead, and would play a pivotal role in the group’s development. The original Matthews brothers left the group about 1953 and went back to Missouri; Stoker then asked young tenor Neal Matthews Jr. to join up. Matthews had grown up in country and gospel music; his father (Neal Matthews Sr.) had sung for years on the Opry with the Crook Brothers band.
“That was actually my first professional gig,” he recalls, “playing mandolin with them on the Opry when I was thirteen.” When the Jordanaires came to the Opry, Wally Fowler’s Oak Ridge Quartet was already on the show, and by then Neal was playing guitar with them. Baritone Hoyt Hawkins signed on, fresh from a stint with a popular family group, the Hawkins Quartet—with whom Gordon had originally played piano. It was a complex set of changing around, but by 1955 the quartet had a stable, well-seasoned personnel and had started exploring new roles for quartet harmony in the 1950s country scene.
Their RCA singles and Capitol albums and singles soon won them a reputation as experts in “spirituals”—what the music industry then called black or black-derived gospel. Some of their best-known songs were covers of groups like the Golden Gate Quartet, who provided them with “Noah.” Since most of the early 1950s lineup were as interested in pop as country or gospel, they also consciously expanded their repertoire; a 1956 press release announced that they had decided “to add country, pop, and rock & roll music to their repertoire.” But it was their recording with Elvis in 1956 that really, in the words of Neal Matthews, “opened the doors for us.” Presley had used Gordon Stoker (with two members of the Speer Family) on his earlier RCA sides such as “Heartbreak Hotel.” Stoker recalls: “He told me on that session, if anything from this session becomes a hit, I want the Jordanaires to work with me from now on.
And just that verbal agreement was what we had with him for some fifteen years.” Elvis was soon insisting the Jordanaires sing on every session, and he once even complained to his producers when he thought the company was mixing an album to emphasize his own voice too much over that of the group. When not working with Elvis, of course, the Jordanaires were available to do freelance work with others—and everybody wanted their sound. They recorded in New York, Nashville, and Hollywood, and worked for almost every major country singer of the day, from Marty Robbins to Loretta Lynn, and for pop singers like Patti Page, Connie Francis, Rick Nelson— even unlikely performers like Julie Andrews and Andy Griffith. By 1965 they were voted one of the five top singing groups in the world, and their press releases were claiming that the quartet had “initiated a new type of vocalizing by providing a background of vocal harmonizing for a lead singer.”
By the early 1960s the Jordanaires were hardly able to find time to do their own albums, and even diehard fans were despairing of keeping up with the full number of records they sang on. The number of hits they sang on in one year—1957—totaled over 33 million copies. In spite of all this, the Jordanaires kept their base in Nashville. Stoker recalls: “Lee Gillette of Capitol Records offered us a fabulous deal for us to move to the West Coast. He said, ‘You all would save us a fortune in vocal arrangements on our sessions. We’ll guarantee you all the work in Hollywood that you can stand.’ And of course I’ve often wished we would have done it.” Even in Nashville, they soon were doing four sessions a day, six days a week.
In 1969, when Elvis decided to make his live concert “comeback” and asked the Jordanaires to join him again, they had to say no: they were too entrenched in their own very profitable world of session work. As the Jordanaires changed the sound of pop music’s background, they also made an important contribution to the Nashville music scene. In the early 1960s Neal Matthews perfected a shorthand music notation system for use in studio sessions—a way of jotting down chord changes that later came to be known as “the Nashville Number system.”
By 1963 this system was in common use among Music Row session players, and was later subject of a 1985 book issued by Tree. The group also founded the Nashville chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists/SAG, and built the first high-rise office building on Music Row (UA Tower). Basking in numerous awards and honors, the current edition of the Jordanaires (Stoker and Matthews, along with Duane West, Ray Walker, and Louis Nunley) continues to perform and record. One of their most recent projects was a K-Tel cassette called Memories of Elvis.