SINGING WITH THE KINGThe Groups That Performed With Elvis
By Don Cusic
Jim Hamill, lead singer for the Kingsmen, once had a quartet with Cecil Blackwood called the Songfellows in Memphis in the early 1950s. One day a teenager named Elvis Presley, who was driving a truck for an electrical company at the time, auditioned for the group. According to some versions of that story, Hamill put his arm around Elvis' shoulder and said, "Son, you better stick to driving that truck. You can't sing a lick!"
Recently, Hamill sought to clear up that story. "I did not tell Elvis he couldn't sing," said Hamill. "I told him he couldn't hear harmony - and he couldn't. As long as he was singing lead, he was fine, but when the baritone or the tenor took the lead, then someone had to sing harmony, and he could not harmonize. He'd sing baritone a line or two, then switch off to tenor for a couple of lines, and wind up singing the lead part. That was the reason we didn't take him into the quartet with us."
A few months after being turned down by the Songfellows, Elvis signed with Sam Phillips and Sun Records. But about this time, Elvis was hearing harmony better and so Hamill and Cecil Blackwood asked if he'd like to join the quartet. This came about because Cecil was leaving to join the Blackwood Brothers after two members had been killed in a plane crash. According to Hamill, Elvis talked to Phillips about getting out of the Sun contract to sing gospel but the contract stuck and ended up with Colonel Tom Parker and RCA where, as they say, the rest is history. But this was certainly not the end of Elvis' involvement with gospel music. Indeed, until his death, Elvis continued to sing gospel, follow the careers of gospel quartets, and feature some of those quartets on his records and shows.
The first gospel quartet Elvis is closely associated with is the Jordanaires, who recorded with him on his earliest RCA recordings. Elvis had first met the Jordanaires at the Grand Ole Opry when he performed there in 1955. They had been formed in 1948 in Missouri but Gordon Stoker, first tenor, was the only original member left at this time. Hoyt Hawkins, baritone, had joined in 1950 and in 1953 Neal Matthews, second tenor, joined and Hugh Jarrett was added on bass. All had studied music in college and sang spirituals as well as barbershop quartet songs. Their performance of spirituals was the reason they were on the Opry and the reason Elvis asked them to record with him.
On January 5, 1956, Elvis did his first session for RCA. The session was held at 1525 McGavock Street in the studio owned by the Methodist TV, Radio and Film Commission. The producer of the session was Steve Shoals, who had negotiated the purchase of Elvis' contract and all masters previously recorded by Sun in Memphis from Sam Phillips for $35,000 plus a $5000 bonus to Elvis. Also at this session were Col. Tom Parker, who was not Presley's fulltime manager yet (Bob Neal had been managing Elvis in Memphis and was still performing that duty part-time), guitarist Chet Atkins, Elvis' road musicians Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and Bill Black, and the Jordanaires.
During the three hour session, Elvis recorded three songs: "Heartbreak Hotel" was the first finished, then "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, which would be his second single from RCA, and "I Was the One,"which was issued on the "B" side of "Heartbreat Hotel."
According to Jerry Hopkins in his 1971 book Elvis: A Biography, the young singer told his backup group that "if any of the songs went big, he wanted to record all his stuff" with them. Gordon Stoker notes that "we didn't think they'd go big. We didn't think much about it at all. We didn't even remember Elvis name, really. It was just another job for us.
In 1956 Elvis exploded, selling 10 million records and making appearances on television shows with Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and Ed Sullivan, which all combined to launch him as teen idol and cultural icon. The remaining songs on Elvis' first album were recorded in New York at RCA's studio there with three songs from the Sun tapes added to round out the release. But as Elvis continued to come back to Nashville to record, the Jordanaires were on the sessions, singing with him.
The Imperials, a Southern Gospel quartet begun by Jake Hess, were hired by Mary Lynch, secretary to Chet Atkins, for Elvis' gospel album How Great Thou Art. RCA wanted the sound of a choir so the Imperials were hired in addition to the Jordanaires and some female singers. The Imperials were facing hard times with their quartet when this job came along - Jake Hess had quit the road for health reasons and many promoters had cancelled scheduled dates after Hess left, leaving the Imperials struggling to survive. The Imperials had an office in the RCA Building and had become friends with Mary Lynch, which led to their being hired for this album.
The Imperials were also connected to Jimmy Dean, then host of his own ABC-TV show, by Mary Lynch. They sang backup on his albums, travelled with him and performed on his TV show as part of the Cimarron Singers. Later Dean dropped the rest - New York singers dressed in cowboy outfits - and hired the Imperials for backup work as well as some opening numbers on his live shows.
Meanwhile, back in the Presley camp, Elvis had gone from being a teen heartthrob to a member of Uncle Sam's Army and, when he got out in 1960, spent the next years in Hollywood making movies. As a result, Elvis had not performed before live audiences - except on movie sets - for eight years when he decided to return to the stage. This was in 1969 and he hired the Imperials to perform with him. The offer to the Imperials came after the Jordanaires had turned down Elvis' invitation to play Vegas and tour because, as studio singers, they did not feel they could afford to be away from Nashville this much. For the Imperials this meant they were now juggling appearances with Dean as well as Elvis.
After several years of this, as well as trying to have their own career in the gospel world, the Imperials were at a crossroads. At this time, Elvis offered only a background spot while Jimmy Dean offered the same amount of money, a backup slot, and a solo portion of his show as well as participation in his new syndicated TV show. So the Imperials quit Elvis for Jimmy Dean. Later the group decided to concentrate on their own career in gospel rather than pursue secular exposure and have remained one of the premier gospel groups since, moving from Southern Gospel into the Contemporary Christian music area.
After the Imperials left, Elvis instructed Charlie Hodge, one of his "Memphis Mafia," to call Sumar Talent for another gospel group. Heading the agency at the time was J.D. Sumner, and he suggested the Stamps Quartet, who had been re-formed and were coming along well as a group. Sumner wanted to get off the road and go into management and booking and hired another bass singer, Richard Sterban (now with the Oak Ridge Boys) to sing with the Stamps. The rest of the line-up included Bill Baize, Ed Enoch, and Donnie Sumner, J.D.'s son.
J.D. saw this booking as a short-term replacement for the Imperials, which Sumner also booked. In short, he felt he was protecting his client, the Imperials, who were facing the double booking problem and expected the Imperials to re-join Elvis at some future time.
J.D. Sumner first met Elvis around 1949 when Elvis was 14 and J.D. was a member of the Sunshine Boys Quartet. Elvis had always been a fan of gospel music and Memphis was a hotbed for this activity, being the home and headquarters for the Blackwood Brothers, the leading quartet in Southern Gospel at the time. When J.D. joined the Blackwoods, he continued to see Elvis at concerts, letting him in the back door at Ellis Auditorium occacsionally so he wouldn't people like J.D., the Blackwoods, and other gospel quartets were idols and other gospel quartets were idos and he set his sights on singing gospel with them someday. Thus, when Elvis saw Sumner sitting down while the Stamps assembled on stage to rehearse, he promptly asked, 'Why aren't you up here?"
J.D. replied that he had just come as a manager and booker looking out for his group. Elvis told him in no uncertain terms to get himself on stage and pointed out that J.D. had his own microphone set apart to sing in and Elvis wanted some of those deep bass drops during his show that Sumner is so noted for. And so it was done.
Later, Elvis told the Stamps he wanted them to open his show with about a 20-minute performance. The Stamps gathered and began naming songs they could do - secular tunes - but Sumner made the decision to stick with gospel. Their first solo performance was in Greenville, South Carolina, and the group received two standing Ovations. Later that night, Elvis called J.D. to his room and thanked him for the gospel performance, then gave him a check for $10,000 and asked if the Stamps would continue to sing gospel to open the show. J.D. looked at the check and replied, "Why, certainly, boss."
The Sweet Inspirations also sang with Elvis, joining just before the Imperials did. These three black women had gospel roots and contributed to the big sound Elvis liked on his shows. However, they did not record with him (except on his live albums). Still, he loved the gospel sound they provided, adding a touch of black gospel to his show.
J.D. Sumner has often told about touring with Elvis, how after almost every show Elvis would gather the singers together to sing gospel songs. One time Sumner brought Rex Humbard, the popular TV evangelist, backstage and Elvis asked if he should only sing gospel. Humbard answered "No" because Elvis could reach so many more people and "till more soil" by singing what he sang.
Sumner spent a good deal of time at Elvis' home and was always amazed at how many gospel albums Presley owned. "All he listened to was gospel," said J.D. "He didn't even listen to his own records." Sumner went on to relate a story that occurred when a whole group was at Elvis' home in Memphis to record. At this point Elvis would only record when he felt like it and on this particular Saturday evening he apparently did not feel like it, although RCA had set up a whole studio in his home. Finally, just before eight Elvis came down and told the group he did not want to record and that he was going to watch the Florida Boys, whose television show was coming on in five minutes.
Sumner was surprised and rushed back to his hotel room to watch the show, too. He told the Florida Boys about the incident, and they were pleased and surprised, but they would never have known that Elvis was a fan unless Sumner had told them. This underscores a unique situation: although Elvis was a big fan of Southern Gospel, and many in Southern Gospel were fans of his, there was no communication between the two. Part of this was because of the isolation of Elvis, but part of it was also because rock and Southern Gospel are literally worlds apart. They only came together because of Elvis Presley's using Southern Gospel groups on his show.
Calling Elvis Presley the most important figure in the history of rock 'n' roll is not an original thought. Ditto the notion that he is the most important figure in shaping American popular culture in music in the latter half of the twentieth century. These observations may not be totally accurate - musical movements and social changes hinge on more than just one person, even a performer as dominant as Elvis Presley - but it is interesting to note that many of the things which attracted so much initial attention to Elvis, like his longhair, flashy clothes and showmanship, came from the Southern Gospel world. J.D. Sumner states that "Southern Gospel singers always wore flashy clothes, even back in the early '50s. And we had real long hair combed back before long hair ever came in style." Sumner also notes that during the early days of Elvis, the singer "lost jobs because he was trying to wear his clothes and hair like gospel singers."
Elvis admitted to copying the singing style of Jake Hess, telling Johnny Rivers once as one of the Statesmen's records was playing (Hess was lead singer for this group), "Now you know where I got my style from." It is perhaps ironic then that the source for so much of Elvis Presley's music and personal style came from the Southern Gospel world. The attitudes, taste, and style that came from Elvis first came from those in Southern Gospel, and were passed on to a whole generation of teenagers who had never heard of Southern Gospel or, if they had, disliked it. Meanwhile, the man who stood alone at the top of the rock world, inspiring countless others to pick up a guitar, gyrate, and sing, always had a yearning in his heart to be a member of a gospel group.
Much more can be said about Elvis' affection for gospel music but it can all be summed up by noting that at his funeral in Memphis in August 1977, Kathy Westmoreland - who sang with Elvis on his shows and his records - sang "My Heavenly Father Watches over Me," Jake Hess and two members of the Statesmen sang "Known Only To Him," James Blackwood with the Stamps sang "How Great Thou Art," and, finally, the Stamps sang "Sweet Sweet Spirit."