Jordanaires Look Back On The Days With Elvis Quartet Sang Backup For The King For 15 Years.

Posted: October 09, 1988

The Jordanaires sang backup for Elvis Presley for 15 years, but not even they can agree on what killed the King.

"The Vegas scene was what killed him," said Gordon Stoker, first tenor in the quartet that backed Presley from 1956 to 1970. "He couldn't take those two shows a night. He wanted the last show to be as good as the first show."

Consequently, said Stoker, "he took downers to put him to sleep. He took uppers to get him up. He should only have done one show a night."

But second tenor Neal Matthews said, "I think his downfall was his weight problem. He was so concerned about his weight and his looks. I'm sure he got caught up on diet pills.

"That, plus the immense pressure that was imposed," Matthews continued. ''If he wanted to go to a movie, he had to hire the theater all night."

Two of the Jordanaires offered their recollections of Presley as they awaited word on whether they will receive a major honor from the Country Music Association during the group's 22d annual awards show. The program will be televised tomorrow night (9 until 11 o'clock on Channel 10) from the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Tenn. The Jordanaires are among the nominees for election to the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. They have been nominated in the category of performers who were active at least 30 years ago.

After looking over the opposition, Stoker said, "Roy Rogers is the strongest one we're up against."

Besides the old-time western movie star, others competing against the Jordanaires are the Louvin Brothers, comedian Bill Carlisle and songwriter Cindy Walker.

Originally formed in Springfield, Mo., in 1948, the Jordanaires moved to Nashville the next year and stirred much admiration with their gospel singing. Stoker joined the group in 1950 and Matthews in 1953.

Presley began his career in Memphis in 1954. He was a 19-year-old truck driver when he cut his first record on the Sun label: Arthur Crudup's rhythm- and-blues "That's All Right, Mama"; on the flip side was Bill Monroe's bluegrass "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

"We met him in 1955," said Stoker during a phone interview from Nashville, where the group members live. "He heard us sing on the Grand Ole Opry many times. He said, 'If I get a major record contract, I want you to sing backup for me.' "

The manager who made Presley rich, Col. Tom Parker, got Presley the major record contract he wanted, with RCA in 1956. Just as Presley had planned, Parker contacted the Jordanaires and signed them up to work with him.

Neither Stoker nor Matthews has any bad tales to tell about the King.

"The last time we worked with him," said Stoker, "he was on prescription drugs. But Elvis wasn't on heroin or coke. He didn't even smoke marijuana.

"Elvis didn't eat," said Stoker. "He didn't eat good food at all. Junk food and pills about killed him. Hamburgers and banana sandwiches."

"We had a rapport with him that was unparalleled," said Matthews. "We never had a problem with him in the studio. He always cut up and had fun. He never came on with us like a big star."

LONGTIME BACKUPS

The Jordanaires appeared with Presley in 28 movies, and backed him on every record he made for a decade and a half. They split with him in 1970 when he began to work regularly in Las Vegas. Stoker said the Jordanaires were too busy with studio sessions backing other acts to follow the King into the gambling center.

"At first, he didn't understand," said Stoker. "He got a little peeved." But soon enough Presley moved on, replacing the Jordanaires first with the Imperials, and then with the Stamps Quartet, the group that was backing in 1977, the year of his death.

As for the Jordanaires and the flamboyant Parker, Stoker said: "We're still friends. Elvis and the Colonel weren't the best of friends. We're probably better friends with the Colonel than Elvis was."

For anyone interested in learning more about Presley and Parker, Stoker

recommends a book called Elvis and the Colonel, by Dirk Vallenga and Mark Farren. Stoker calls the book "pretty cruel," but adds, "it's a pretty good book."

THE SAME SENSATION

Matthews has no doubt that the King is an act for all ages. If Elvis were starting out today, he said, "I think he would probably cause the same sensation as he did in the past. Elvis had a charisma about him. When he performed on stage, he was electrifying."

Eleven years after Presley's death, the Jordanaires are still working regularly. They can be heard on Sawyer Brown's current album, and on the next albums coming up for the Judds and for Carl Perkins.

They still do movie work, too. You can hear them on the sound tracks of the two best movies ever made about country singers: Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), the autobiography of Loretta Lynn, and Sweet Dreams (1985), a biography of Patsy Cline.

Understandably, the personnel of the Jordanaires has changed more than once over the last four decades. In addition to Stoker and Matthews, who served all through the Presley era, the foursome currently is filled out by baritone Duane West and bass Ray Walker.

Unknown singers, in particular, continue to hire the Jordanaires to back them and perhaps give their careers a kick start. That will surely continue whether or not the group is elected to the Country Music Association Hall of Fame. After all, if you had the opportunity to sing with the quartet that Elvis Presley preferred to all others, wouldn't you?

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