Those Guys in the Background
Have you heard of the Jordanaires?
Some of you would say yes; most would say no. So, let me rephrase the question.
Have you heard the Jordanaires?
The answer is yes, for virtually everyone reading these words.
For 40 years, the Jordanaires sang background vocals on an astonishing number and variety of recordings—most famously for Elvis Presley, but also for Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Ringo Starr, Gordon Lightfoot, Dolly Parton, Don McLean, Branda Lee, Chicago, and hundreds of other artists.
For much of that time, they were booked from morning to midnight at recording studios in Nashville and L.A. They would show up, hear a demo, work out harmonies, record the track in an hour or two, and move on to the next session. A tiny sampling of those recordings:
Don’t Be Cruel
I Fall to Pieces
The Battle of New Orleans
Big Bad John
Coal Miner’s Daughter
It’s Only Make Believe
You get the idea. For those of us living during that time, the Jordanaires recorded the soundtrack of our lives.
The lead singer was Gordon Stoker (far left on the bookcover), who started out as their piano player, then joined the group as high tenor. During their glory years, Hoyt Hawkins sang baritone, Ray Walker was the booming bass, and Neal Matthews was second tenor and, more importantly, the arranger. On arriving at the session, Matthews would hear the song for the first time and then, in minutes, sketch out harmonies so the group would be ready to record.
I just finished The Jordanaires: The Story of the World’s Greatest Vocal Backup Group, as told by Gordon Stoker with Michael Kosser and Gordon’s son, legendary producer and music archivist Alan Stoker. The book was filled with great stories and plenty of photos. I took special pleasure in reading it, since my history (lightly) touched the group’s story at a several points.
Many of the Jordanaires’ early recordings, including “Crazy” and most of Patsy Cline’s other classics, were done with producer Owen Bradley at the Quonset Hut, a studio on Nashville’s Music Row designed by Bradley’s engineer, Mort Thomasson, who also ran the sessions. Thomasson was married to my cousin Betty, whom my wife and I got to know at family gatherings after we moved to Nashville.
Most of the Jordanaires’ L.A. recordings with Elvis Presley, such as “Teddy Bear” and “King Creole,” were done at Radio Recorders, where, in the studio down the hall, you might have found my father working on religious and educational films and filmstrips. Twenty years later, you might have found me.
My most solid and certainly most thrilling connection with the Jordanaires was in 1987, when a group of us from Walt Disney Records traveled to Nashville to record a 1950s rock ’n’ roll album for children, titled Rock Around the Mouse. One of the best tracks was “Pinocchio’s Boogie,” sung by Elvis impersonator Rick Schulman.
Figuring we couldn’t lose anything by asking, we invited the Jordanaires to do the backup vocals. Incredibly, they agreed, and we experienced the artistry of Gordon Stoker and his buddies. (By then, Hoyt Hawkins had passed away and been replaced by Duane West.) You can listen to it here.
My abiding memory of that session, besides watching Rick in the darkened studio wearing pink plastic sunglasses and pointing to the sky, was of the Jordanaires’ kindness and professionalism, as much their trademark as those perfectly blended voices.