Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Gordon Stoker, tenor singer for Country Music Hall of Fame vocal group the Jordanaires, died Wednesday morning, March 27, 2013, at his home in Brentwood, Tennessee. He was 88.
Born August 3, 1924, Stoker was a native of Gleason, Tennessee, where he grew up in a musical family. By age eight he was playing piano in church, and he soon played at singing conventions in Western Tennessee and Kentucky. At one, he impressed John Daniel of the professional John Daniel Quartet, who invited Stoker to become the quartet's pianist when he finished high school.
Gordon had some time away from the Daniel Quartet, but rejoined them soon after. About a year later, opportunity knocked when the Jordanaires came to town. In a move that would propel him into fame unforeseeable at the time, Gordon auditioned successfully to become the new pianist for the quartet.
FROM THE JORDANAIRES WEBSITE, GORDON STOKER BIO:
Gordon had been born on August 3, 1924 "right on the main drag in Gleason" in the telephone office building where his family made their home, as his mother was one of two operators for the telephone system and his father was the repairman.
"My mother was the night time operator," Gordon says, a grin spreading across his face as he recalls, "You couldn't make a phone call after 9:00 p.m. or before 6:00 a.m."
Incoming phone calls were completed by means of a "switchboard" that connected the lines between caller and receiver. Calls made after the hour deemed unacceptably late for phone calls were either unanswered or met with the announcement, "It's after 9:00 p.m."
"Maybe if it was somebody she knew, she would go ahead and connect them," admits Gordon, whose collection of memorabilia also includes an old crank telephone once worked on by his father.
As a pianist, Gordon's talent was challenged by the skills of another piano player who frequented the local singing conventions: "She added stuff to her music," Gordon says in tones that still reflect the awe that inspired him to go home and duplicate her efforts, practicing tirelessly beyond the limitations of his education.
His endeavors paid off for the trio whose fame continued to grow.
"We had a hot trio, believe me," recalls Gordon, declaring, "We'd stop the show anywhere we'd go!" Vocalists for the trio were the Clement children: Gloria, age 8; Rachel, 12, and Fred, Jr., who was 10 years old. At age 12, on the piano, Gordon was red hot - so hot that a performance at the Snead Grove Picnic garnered the attention of Mr. John Daniel of the immensely popular John Daniel Quartet, just one of many country acts of the late 1930's that were brought to the picnic from the WSM radio station and the Grand Ole Opry.
He grins as he recalls his first step toward fame: "John Daniel, manager of the group, heard me play, and said, 'Son, how old are you?'"
After confessing he was only 12 years old, he recalls, Mr. Daniel vowed, "I want to bring you to Nashville; I'm going to make a star out of you!"
Hugh Gordon was already a star in West Tennessee, where early morning radio shows on WTJS in Jackson made "The Clement Trio" a household name. He chuckles as he relates a phone call he received, about two years ago, from a "lady from McKenzie" who was passing through Nashville and called to ask if he was the same Hugh Gordon Stoker who once played for the Clement Trio.
She fondly recalled - some 60 years later - the memorable way Mr. Clement introduced his role with the group: "He's not a banker, he's not a broker, he's just the world's greatest piano player, Hugh Gordon Stoker!"
"Lot of people who knew me years ago still call me Hugh Gordon," he admits, counting Minnie Pearl among that group after becoming one of the Grand Ole Opry's youngest performers at the age of 15 when, true to his word, John Daniel called a week after his graduation from high school and invited him to join the quartet.
Clement Trio fans continued to enjoy Gordon's skills through the 50,000 watt-powerful WSM radio station that reached every morning into homes as far away from Nashville as Carroll and Weakley counties. Hugh Gordon was a great success, but World War II was raging, and Uncle Sam was calling his children from every walk of life to partake in the battle against evil that threatened the very freedom Gordon so amply enjoyed. In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Air Force.
Dismayed by the interruption of his career, Gordon was nevertheless aware of his great fortune when a typing test - in which he excelled - earned him the job of teletype operator. Stationed in Brisbane and Ipswich in Australia, he worked in the airport's control towers, using teletype to monitor air traffic.
"I had a good deal; not very many men in the early '40's knew how to type, so I was really lucky, believe me," relates Gordon, obviously respectful of fellow servicemen whose job descriptions landed them more certainly in harm's way.
After three years in the military, Gordon moved to Oklahoma near family members, enrolling at Oklahoma Baptist University where, for two years, he studied psychology, later changing his focus to music and voice.
"I just wasn't pleased not being back in Nashville," Gordon says decidedly. The Daniel Quartet was still going strong on WLAC, another 50,000 watt station. In the latter part of 1948, he decided to return home to Nashville, where he continued his studies at Peabody College, though his education was aborted short of achieving a degree.
Gordon picked up where he had left off with the Daniel Quartet until, about a year later, opportunity knocked when the Jordanaires came to town. In a move that would propel him into fame unforeseeable at the time, Gordon auditioned successfully to become the new pianist for the quartet. In the next few years Gordon would meet his wife as well as a young man in a pink shirt who would change the course of his life forever: Elvis Presley.
Gordon Stoker was raised among a family of musicians in Gleason in the 1930's, a time when singing conventions were prime entertainment among small southern towns that took turns hosting the events, giving locals at least one opportunity each month to enjoy the shows while many ventured to neighboring towns on successive weekends for the added spice of variety.
One of the most spectacular of the singing conventions was the Snead-Grove Picnic in McKenzie, where local talent mixed with stars of the Grand Ole Opry to the delight of enthusiasts who came from near and far to enjoy the popular event. It was here that 12-year-old piano sensation Gordon Stoker caught the eye and ear of John Daniel, manager of the famed Daniel Quartet, who proclaimed his intention to make the boy a star someday.
While members of the Daniel Quartet waited for Gordon to grow up before whisking him away to Nashville (an act that was set in motion just one week after he graduated from high school at the age of 15), Gordon set about promoting his own fame as a member of the Clement trio, the sensational young group that in addition to Stoker was made up of the Clement children: Gloria, Rachel, and Fred, Jr.. The hot young trio was an early morning staple on WTJS radio, listened to regularly in homes where television had not yet made its debut.
Fans continued to enjoy Gordon's inimitable skills on the piano as WSM radio in Nashville broadcast the sounds of the Daniel Quartet to homes across Tennessee. Gordon's success with the quartet was interrupted, however, when he was drafted into the Air Force in 1943. He served as a Teletype operator for three years during World War II, then devoted a few years to education - studying psychology, music and voice - before being drawn back to Nashville, where the Daniel Quartet was still going strong.
Hugh Gordon Stoker rejoined the Daniel Quartet upon his return to Nashville, bringing back his special brand of piano skills that had increasingly thrilled listeners since he was eight years old. Meanwhile, in Springfield Missouri, a new quartet, The Jordanaires, was formed in 1948 by Bill and Monty Matthews along with bass singer Culley Holt and second tenor Bob Hubbard.
The following year The Jordanaires were in Nashville, having been hired by the Grand Ole Opry. Then, once again, the draft changed the face of music when the group's original piano player, Bob Money, was drafted.
Gordon auditioned among competition like Boyce Hawkins and Marvin Hughes, both of whom later played for The Jordanaires from time to time, Hawkins filling in as needed and Hughes playing for the group during Grand Ole Opry shows.
Gordon won the audition, becoming the group's piano player in 1950, the same year he met his wife, Jean, at a singing in Nashville.
"We had a church singing every second Tuesday; it was a big singing," Gordon shared, recalling once more the affairs that filled weekends everywhere with music.
"She loved to sing gospel songs and I loved to play them," he continues by way of explaining the attraction that grew between the young couple. As a member of the Wilkerson Trio, along with her sisters Mildred and Edna, Jean was also a performer at the singing where she met Hugh Gordon, finally meeting the young man whose music she had enjoyed since both were children.
"She had listened to me play as far back as 1942. People listened to the radio every morning before work," he says, explaining again the differences in the era before television was a widespread source of entertainment and information. When Gordon and Jean married on September 9, 1951, The Jordanaires sang "Tell Me Why" at the wedding with Boyce Hawkins at the organ.
In 1952, Gordon's career shifted suddenly and dramatically when first tenor Bill Matthews was unable to perform during the first evening of an engagement at a supper club in Detroit, Michigan.
"Hoyt Hawkins came to play piano," says Gordon, who was forced that evening to assume the role of first tenor at a moment's notice. More changes were in store for the group when Bob Hubbard was drafted, with Neil Matthews (no relation to the former Matthews brothers) taking the second tenor position in 1953.
For 47 years, from 1953 through 2000, the group's membership was almost constant with Gordon Stoker at first tenor, Neal Matthews as second tenor, and Hoyt Hawkins as baritone. Their joint tenures were interrupted in 1982 when Hoyt passed away with the baritone position then filled by Duane West, who died last year. In the bass position, Ray Walker filled Hugh Jarrett's position (who had replaced Holt in 1954) in 1958 and continues to present.