Born in Gleason, Tennessee in 1924, Hugh Gordon Stoker started playing piano as a kid. He worked around West Tennessee with a gospel group called the Clement Trio. During the 40's he came to Nashville and began to accompany the John Daniel Quartet, a gospel unit who worked on the Grand Ole Opry until he joined the Air Force in 1943.
After his 1946 discharge, Stoker attended college for two years in Oklahoma, then transferred to Peabody College in Nashville and rejoined the Daniel Quartet. Things changed when the Jordanaires came to town from Springfield, Missouri, where they'd organized in 1949. Stoker became their new pianist in 1950.
Their early records for Decca and Capitol was virtually all gospel but they also sang backup behind other vocalists, doing secular music as well, and became favorites on the Opry. As the lineup changed, Stoker became first tenor vocalist, and for many years managed the group. He's prominent on these two videos:
"Dig A Little Deeper" A kinescope from an early TV show featuring Opry stars. Emcee Carl Smith (then married to June Carter) introduces them. Stoker is seen singing tenor.
"When The Saints Go Marchin' In" from "Eddy Arnold Time." The group were regulars on this syndicated TV show. Stoker's clear, clean tenor cuts through. The lead guitarist: the legendary Hank Garland, part of Arnold's band during that time.
Gordon Remembers Elvis
Elvis Presley was about to sign with RCA Victor when he met the Jordanaires in 1955 at a show in Memphis when they were in town promoting the Eddy Arnold show. But why should I tell you? Let Gordon tell you himself from this later interview with a lot of other cool Elvis memories.
The First Ed Sullivan Show: September 9, 1956
The Jordanaires were on with Elvis on his first appearance with Sullivan, on September 9, 1956. Sullivan, injured in a car crash was not. Actor Charles Laughton emceed the show. Here, the group doesn't sing but Stoker plays piano as Elvis sings Little Richard's "Ready Teddy." Everyone's in the act on "Hound Dog." They were on other Sullivan shows with him as well.
The Last Ed Sullivan Show: January 6, 1957
He sings a medley here of things he's done in the past, and you can actually hear the Jordanaires behind him as they sounded on the records.
The Gannaway Films: 1956
Around the same time, Filmmaker Al Gannaway was producing musical films Grand Ole Opry stars in color in Nashville. Here, they sing another gospel classic: "Workin' On A Building." And believe it or not, these were recorded with just ONE overhead mike. Autotune didn't exist back then. No one needed it.
Ironically, Elvis's success got them more work as Nashville began scrambling to sell country records to pop fans. There were two vocal groups in Nashville in 1956: the Anita Kerr Singers (male-female) and the Jordanaires. Steel guitars fell out of favor with some (not all) singers on records and backup singers took their place. Stoker and the group worked with Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Patsy Cline and many more stars. They were frequently called on to record with a wide variety of acts, both gospel, country and rock. The famous "Nashville number system" used by studio musicians to create arrangements quickly, was was the group's creation.
1957: "Look Who's Blue" with Don Gibson
The Jordanaires also sang behind Gibson this hit record as they did "Oh Lonesome Me.", Hank Garland, who'd graduated from Eddy Arnold to become one of Nashville's top recording session guitarists, does the honors.
The group built an identity beyond Elvis, and toured worldwide ever since, though the original lineup has continued to change. But Gordon Stoker remained the connection to the original group and to Elvis…until near the end of his life. Another generation of Stokers have come to prominence in Nashville. Son Alan is a respected audio restoration engineer who's worked at the Country Music Hall of Fame for decades. The Jordanaires themselves were inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
The Last Appearance—Memphis: August 17, 2012
Stoker's illness took him out of the active group, but he managed to hang in there, right up to this final appearance on August 17 of last year with Elvis imitator Cody Slaughter in Memphis. With him is Ray Walker, who took over leadership of the group in recent years.
Stoker owned the Jordanaires, name and all. And he made it clear--and son Alan reiterated to Nashville Tennessean music writer Peter Cooper--there will be no post-Gordon Stoker Jordanaires. The group and its storied 62 year run is over. And what a hell of a run it was.