Jordanaires Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker divulge sweet memories with Ralph Emery
Hosted by legendary WSM midnight shift disc jockey-Nashville Now television host Ralph Emery, Ralph Emery Live was a live country music interview series consisting of Emery asking each guest about their early years and career milestones, illustrated by vintage pictures and short video performances.
If an acoustic guitar was nearby and the artist possessed a courageous streak, Emery tended to request impromptu, unplugged performances. A live call-in/email segment generally produced enlightening anecdotes, but sometimes it became painfully obvious that the fans’ questions were not previously screened.
The December 14, 2009 episode featured fellow legends the Jordanaires, inducted into five Halls of Fame — e.g. the Country Music Hall of Fame and Gospel Music Hall of Fame — and surely one of the top 10 most famous vocal support groups in history, as Emery’s guests.
The two longest serving members, Gordon Stoker — first tenor, pianist, and manager beginning in 1949 — and Ray Walker — bass extraordinaire who replaced Hugh “Big Hugh Baby” Jarrett in 1958 as well as a licensed preacher in his spare time — represented the team, fielding Emery’s judiciously-researched questions with rapid fire precision.
The expert four-part harmony singers became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1949, but it was actually effortless balladeer Eddy Arnold who gave the group their first big break five years later, hiring them as his backing group on the syndicated Eddy Arnold Time TV program. Several extremely rare black and white clips were shown.
If you can believe it, the group had to be billed as the Gordonaires due to a contract stipulation. As the singers had trademarked the Jordanaires’ name, the show’s producers protected themselves in the event the group decided to depart for greener pastures.
The Jordanaires are best known for being Elvis Presley’s backing vocalists from 1956 to 1970, appearing on nearly 70 percent of the King of Rock and Roll’s studio output along with notable live and television show dates, too.
The winning Presley association played a critical role in maintaining the group’s longevity above the marquee. In an in-depth video interview accompanying this article, Stoker confirmed, “The fact that Elvis used background voices opened so many doors for the Jordanaires and all the background groups. No one was making a fat living singing ‘ooh’s’ and ‘ahh’s’ until Elvis came along. He wanted ‘ooh’s’ and ‘ahh’s.’ So many groups all over the country — all over the world as a matter of fact — started making fat livings just singing ‘ooh’s’ and ‘ahh’s’ and what have you. I have to give Elvis credit for that.”
Presley was naturally the dominating force in the interview, and viewers were treated with many wonderful stories, including the recording of the ubiquitous “Blue Christmas” and the lesser known but still number one-status “Surrender.”
Presley was cajoled to record the former, so he treated it as a joke, suggesting that female soprano Millie Kirkham — pretty much the unrecognized “fifth Jordanaire” — repeatedly sing the nonsensical “whoo-ooh-oohs.” The rock ’n’ roller achieved the final operatic note of “Surrender” several years later by copying Walker’s heaving-hurling vocal technique. Sounds crazy, but entirely true.
For a crash course of Walker’s prominent bass vocal parts with Presley, check out “A Fool Such As I” and “Who Needs Money.” Stoker left an indelible impression on Presley’s gospel rave-up version of “Working on the Building,” “Good Luck Charm,” and the immortal “All Shook Up.”
But their association with Presley is a mere microcosm of their vast career. By 1957 Rick Nelson wisely asked Presley for the Jordanaires’ services, and the group went on to back Nelson on career-defining rockabilly and shimmering ballads like “Poor Little Fool” and “Travelin’ Man,” both containing easy to spot Walker vocal accents.
Over 2,500 artists have utilized the classic harmonies of the Jordanaires, encompassing Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Ringo Starr, and Chicago. By 1969, the quartet was singing on roughly 80 percent of the songs recorded in Nashville.
During the interactive viewer segment, one of the best moments came when a fan remarked that the Jordanaires were so much more than Presley’s backing vocalists, adding that their harmonies, solo and otherwise, set the standard for much of what listeners hear on 21st century terrestrial radio.
One quibble about the Jordanaires’ Ralph Emery Live appearance was that it was much too short. A star-studded 60-year career can’t be condensed into sixty minutes. A video of a Jordanaires’ 2006 concert appearance in Regina, Canada, showcasing an inspired a capella version of “Oh Come, Angel Band,” deserved to be aired in its entirety.
Overall, no major revelations were forthcoming, considering Emery’s vast encyclopedic knowledge of country music and relaxed, conversational line of questioning. Nevertheless, it was an utterly entertaining experience witnessing a country music-early rock ’n’ roll history lesson straight from the artists who were there. There are much worse ways of spending 60 minutes of your life absent-mindedly tuning into the boob tube.
At the time of the Emery sit-down, second tenor Curtis Young and baritone Louis Nunley completed the Jordanaires lineup. Having been stable for over 10 years, the lineup was inexplicably shattered in expedited fashion. Health problems took their toll when Nunley passed away at age 81 in October 2012.
Stoker succumbed to a series of strokes just six months later, having lived a rewarding life during his 88 years. Acknowledged as the Jordanaires’ chief architect and trademark owner, Stoker’s demise officially retired the group name. Walker and Young still tour and record intermittently.
Broadcast over a total of four seasons on RFD-TV, production on Ralph Emery Live was quietly extinguished in 2011 for reasons never fully explained to the media — perhaps the genial host was experiencing poor health, advancing age, restlessness, network interference, or low ratings.
YouTube videos of Ralph Emery Live are criminally hard to obtain. Joining RFDtv’s subscription based, online Country Club will unlock select episodes under the slightly revised title of Ralph Emery’s Memories.
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