PIANO, VOCALS & FRIEND
updated Aug 3, 2013
Real "Party Animals" Down On Music Row Nashville , June 1991
Nashville April 3, 2013: It has now been a week since I got the news from music journalist Michael McCall, that Gordon Stoker, a special person in my life since I was nine years old, passed away. What follows is not an account of the tremendous musical legacy Gordon and his group The Jordanaires left the world, ( For starters I don't think the amount of recordings sold that they were on, something like 8 Billion, will ever be matched) but rather the small, but life changing part he played in my life, that I will always be grateful for and never forget.
"We need to stop meeting this way" That's what Gordon said as he sat down next to me in the chapel of Woodlawn Funeral home out on Thompson Lane, here in Nashville, back in the early summer of 1987. I totally agreed. We were there along with a cast of 1000's to say good by to songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, someone Gordon knew very well and I only knew through Boudleaux & Felice Bryant's tremendous body of work ( like all of the Everly Brothers first big hits just for starters ) that had been effecting me for just about as long as Gordon's singing and piano playing had, when I first became aware of him in 1956 through Elvis. I quipped back at Gordon, "You know if a bomb hit this chapel, the Nashville music industry, just might cease to exist! Not because of my presence at all, but by almost every mover and shaker I could think of in the industry,who filled up the place that sunny June day. I was just a face in the crowd then, but I was glad Gordon recognized my face and decided to sit alongside of me. He could of sat with any number of his longtime friends and peers. We had only met face to face for the first time about a month earlier, right after I arrived in Nashville. Gordon invited me to attend a taping of the TNN Show "New Country " where he and the rest of the Jordanaires (Neal Matthews, Duane West, and Ray Walker) were backing up Don McClean on songs like Vincent, and American Pie. Gordon had seated me at his table, introducing me to some other industry folks that night.
What Gordon meant by "We need to stop meeting this way", was a reference to what brought us initially together __ Ricky Nelson's plane crash, on New Years Eve of 1985. I was living in Florida then and had written a song about Rick and his band called "The Man With The Leather Guitar" about a month after the crash, when I saw a taping of Rick performing with The Jordanaires at the Hollywood Bowl,with his incredible band, Andy Chapin, Bobby Neal, Pat Woodward and Rick Inveldt, that died with Rick and his fiance Helen Blair. A faulty heater set the cabin of the DC-3 aflame, as they flew from Alabama to Texas for a show there. Only the pilot and co pilot survived. As I would learn later on from Alan Stoker ( Gordon's oldest son) The Jordanaires were supposed to be on that plane too. They only backed out at the last minute, when the promoter of the Texas show started bickering about the concert fee. It was such an 11th hour cancellation, that when Alan first heard the news about the crash, he thought his Dad and the group was on the plane!
Flashback, an oldies band I was playing with then, recorded a little demo of that song and we sent a few copies out to folks we thought might like to hear it, like Rick's brother David and Gordon, who much to my surprise called me out of the blue at my home in Clearwater, Florida. He said that I had written a very fine tribute to one of the nicest and sincerest people the Jordanaire's had ever worked with. Now that is quite a list ! (not necessarily the nicest and sincerest, no need to rank them) but the list of major recording artists The Jordanaires had sang with during the 36 years (as of 1986) that Gordon was with them. Keep in mind Gordon and The Jordanaires. kept on going and going, right up till August of 2012, when he did his very last show with Ray Walker who had been a Jordanaire since 1958, Louis Nunely, who came from Nashville's other legandary vocal group, the Anita Kerr singers. Louis became an official member in 1999 and passed away just last October, and Curtis Young, who joined in 2000, replacing Neal Matthews, who had been there since 1952 singing that signature tenor harmony with Gordon. Neal only stopped because he laid down on his couch one afternoon in April of 2000 and did not get back up.
Gordon put me in touch with Jimmie Haskell, out in California. Jimmie produced many of Ricky Nelson's hit records and we talked about doing something with The Man With The Leather Guitar. He too thought it was a honest and strong song and asked me what I thought about James Burton doing it? James is a guitar legend from his playing with Rick and Elvis and more. I naively asked Jimmie, Does James Sing ? .... he doesn't his Telecaster does the singin'.
Nothing materialized with Jimmie Haskell, but boosted by Gordon's encouragement about my songwriting, I started back at it in earnest in 1986 after a long layoff since the 1970s. There were letters from him ( I still have them ) and phone calls between us throughout 1986. I sent him other tunes I had written like Behind The 8 Ball Again and All The King's Men ( a tribute song to all the musical people who helped Elvis along the way in the early days) when I told him I was planning to move to Nashville, to pursue songwriting, he said " Look me up when you get here." The move to Nashville was life changing, but the master plan for music and me, was laid out some thirty years earlier, back in 1956 when I entered the 5th grade. Gordon played a part back then too. Here are a few excerpts from my 1998 audio-biography. If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets.
It was September of '56, I was in the fifth grade. My class room was on the 2nd floor, just across the alley from the single story cafeteria. The high schoolers were playing records during lunch and the sound just drifted right up. The windows were open most of the time, as there was no air-conditioning back then. Somewhere between The Great Pretender and Day O, I heard one that really sucked me in. It was probably during math too, as math would dog me in the years ahead. The song was “Don’t Be Cruel” and man I had to have it! So much so, that my mom had to drive me to Center Moriches, the closest big town, about a twelve mile round trip, that day after school, to spend 59 cents of my 50 cent allowance on it. ( I got an advance) But what a bargain it was 'cause there on the other side was another great record, “Hound Dog”, with two count ‘em , TWO, RED HOT guitar breaks. ......
The guitar became a reality for the rest of my life just two months later on Christmas of '56. Between that time, Elvis made two appearances on Ed Sullivan show that sealed the deal for me and music.This photo from the Sullivan show rehearsal, has Gordon is not only singing with Elvis but playing the piano too on Don't Be Cruel. A song that still knocks me out . Everytime I play it on piano, I think of Gordon.
Sullivan Show Rehearsal Oct 1956
Behind Elvis are D J Fontana on drums, Bill Black on bass, Gordon on piano and Jordanaire baritone Hoyt Hawkins
Through the 50's I bought many Elvis records 45's, EPs and LPs. On the Elvis labels, because he insisted on it, The Jordanaires got artist billing (a rarity for R&R recordings ) I liked everything about them. Songs like I Want You I Need You, I Love You, Treat Me Nice, Loving You, Teddy Bear and Don't were just a few of my favorites. I dug the overall sound, the guitar piano and bass parts, the feel and that signature vocal sound in the background that complimented Elvis so well. Gordon would always give Elvis credit for creating the demand for vocal group backing which kept the Jordanaires extremely busy for decades.
That's Gordon Singing The Duet Harmony With Elvis On All Shook Up
Ricky Nelson who really started making records because his girlfriend had flipped out about Elvis' also used the Jordanaires on his recordings. However he could not bill them on the label, due to Col Tom Parker's exclusive contract with them for Elvis. One of my favorites of Rick's was "Sweeter Than You" a B side that also became a hit. On that tune bass singer Ray Walker hits notes that sound like a bowed stand up bass .... incredible.
Between Gordon's soaring high notes ( e.g. Peace In The Valley) and Ray's bottom end, you needed a good Hi-Fi set to fully appreciate what these men were capable of vocally. We got one in 1957, a Grundig Majestic with multiple speakers. I recall the summer day in 1959 I brought home Ricky's "Just A Little Too Much" 45 and discovered "Sweeter Than You" on the flip side. I was probably into my 10th repeat of Sweeter, when my big brother Butch, yelled at me ...for crying out loud PLAY SOMETHING ELSE !! .. .....Just today while driving, "Sweeter Than You" came on on my car radio. I cranked it up and let it rattle my soul.
MUSIC APPRECIATION & EDUCATION ON THE GRUNDIG -MAJESTIC
At Our House Mastic Beach, Long Island 1959
Who would have guessed then, that thirty five years later after seeing them with Elvis, I’d be working with the legendary Jordanaires in Nashville on my tune All The King's Men, as a possible part of the sound track for the ABC-TV Show ELVIS. While running down the song, Neal who arranged the vocal part they put on it, quipped my lyric to " They Used The GORDANAIRES! " I found out many years later, that they were actually billed as that on The Eddy Arnold Time TV program, a show they did out of Chigago in 1955. It was not an ego thing, far from it . It was the TV Producers using it to protect themselves incase the group left the show prematrurely. The Jordanaires was first formed in 1948 and Gordon was their leader and with them the longest of anyone ( 63 years ) first joining as their pianist in 1950 before taking the spot as high tenor in 1952.
"THE GORDONAIRES" ON THE " EDDY ARNOLD TIME " TV SHOW 1955
The Tennessee Plowboy Strumming On The Ol' Banjo While A Smiling Betsy Johnson Sits By Him
After our session, which was over in a heartbeat or two, Gordon and Neal, reminisced with me about the Hound Dog / Don't Be Cruel recording session in New York. Gordon: “ We used the RCA Studio In New York. They had to work in Elvis’ recording schedule around his exploding appearances. Gosh we must of done close to thirty takes of “Hound Dog” and we were worn out. Neal: “That AHHH, in the middle of the instrumental we did was awful. Apparently Elvis knew what he was looking for, as he just kept on going take after take, Scotty Moore (the guitarist) thought we had it about take number 12.” Gordon: “I believe it was take 17 or 18 that Elvis used. Now “Don’t Be Cruel” went down much easier. We got the arrangement together and the whole thing was recorded in about 20 minutes.” Whew I thought, 20 minutes to create one of the greatest records ever. To my way of thinking everything is in perfect balance on that production. I know they sampled Elvis’ tapping time on his guitar to add to the sound track for the TV show. Well I definitely had an ear for hits and “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog” both went to number one. “Don’t Be Cruel” which was slated as something to put on the other side, held the record of staying at # 1 the longest for over 30 years. I think it stayed there for 13 weeks! What should’ve been causing great joy for everyone involved in the project, was causing ulcers for “The Colonel” Elvis’ manager. Col. Tom Parker was furious with the RCA suits over the success of what I feel is a landmark recording. “YOU IDIOTS JUST WENT AND GAVE AWAY A HIT RECORD”.
AT RCA STUDIO IN NYC 1956
Hoyt. Hugh, Neal & Gordon gather 'round the mike to sing that awful AHHH ( according to Neal ) in Hound Dog
WORKING WITH THE KINGS MEN AT BACKSTREET STUDIOS NASHVILLE MAY 1989
Ray, Me, Gordon, Neal, and Duane, Gordon had been at the dentist that day and was still hurting a bit, which is why he isn't smiling.
ALL THE KING'S MEN
Well The Boy Had Promise When He First Came Around To The House Of The Rising Sun
Marion Said Listen Sam I Think I Found You One
A White Cat Who Can Sing The Blues And Give The World A Thrill
Sam Called Up Scotty, Scotty Called Up Bill
They Were Loyal, They Were Strong They Were His Band Of Merry Men
They Helped Him Sing His Song ...... All The Kings Men
He Was Three Days Shy Of 21 In 1956
When The Prince Bopped Down McGavock Street To The Atkin's House Of Licks
He Had DJ On The Drums, Steve Sholes Behind The Glass
A Round Table Of Chet's Old Boys To Add A Touch Of Class
They Helped Him Sing His Song ...... All The Kings Men
Then They Took A Walk Down Lonely Street And It Echoed Down The Stairs
To Add Some Extra Spark They Used The Jordaanaires
Hoyt Hawkins, Neal Matthews, Hugh Jarrett, Gordon Stoker
Sang At The Coronation That Won The Whole World Over
They Were Loyal, They Were Strong, They Built His Castle Way Back Then
They Helped Him Sing His Song ...... All The Kings Men
©1986 Ken Spooner
That day in the studio, I had cut three songs for show producer Jerry Schilling who was one of Elvis' boyhood friends to consider using on the TV show that had already started airing on ABC. The other two were done in the paired down early Elvis style of his Sun Records era and even though Gordon and the guys didn't sing on them they wanted to listen to them anyway. The smiles on their faces were like stamps of approval. Though Gordon was in a bit of pain that night, having had some dental work done earlier. Duane really dug Larry Keith's singing on "Memphis Was On Roll " and Gordon commented on "Slap City" , that demo singer Joe Diffie did the vocal on. "That fellow has a future in this business" Something I knew from the first time I heard Joe when we worked at Gibson Guitars back in '87. What I didn't know then was, ABC had already pulled the plug on further production of that series. Some said it was the high cost of production at $600,000 per episode ,others said it was ratings . Whatever it was, only six episodes were ever shown of Elvis The Early Years. Another friend of mine, Steve Pippen got a part in the filming, but as far as I know that episode never aired even in the repackaging they used to do of it on TNT.
Joe's future was put into high gear when producers and old friends Johnny Slate and Bob Montgomery heard him sing my demo of Behind The 8 Ball Again, a tune I brought to town with me. Gordon had heard the early work tape of it I sent him from Florida. Longtime song publisher Montgomery, had just started heading up the Epic label around then and signed Joe. If The Devil Danced In Empty Pockets a tune I wrote with Kim Williams, was finally recorded in December of '89 for Joe's first album that came out in the summer of 1990. 15 months later in April of 1991 Epic released If The Devil Danced as a single ( so much for overnight success) and by Memorial Day 1991, it was sitting at #1 on all the radio record charts : Billboard, Radio & Records, Cashbox, and in Canada too. It was time to celebrate.
There were two #1 parties held on Music Row . The first one by ASCAP (the performing rights org that collects royalties from airplay for you. The second one was a outdoor lawn party held at Tree Publishing. They had hung a huge banner from their building for a week prior to party with Kim and my name on it so word got around the industry. But of all the folks who showed up to celebrate, seeing Gordon there was real button buster for me. (except I was wearing a T Shirt) That photo at the top of this page was taken that day. I introduced Gordon to Joe and they talked about the recording of Teddy Bear which Joe was doing in his show. Joe wasn't quite sure exactly what nonsense syllable they were singing. They did a lot of that with Elvis and it sure sounded great. BOP SHOO BOP! It is also the day that I probably spent the most one on one time with him. Where I should of been schmoozing with industry folks, I found just talking with Gordon, much more satisfying. He said "I knew all along you could do it man... congratulations" We talked about a lot of different stuff that day. One thing I recall that really struck me was, when he told me of all the celebs he had ever worked with and or met, he only got tongue tied one time. Riding in an elevator in NY City one day and Della Reese got in . He said her talent just made him awestruck and he couldn't speak. Far Out !
Over the years, I came to know just what a humble, gracious and caring man Gordon was. In 1998, I released my bio book of my 40 some years in the music biz. My reason for doing so was prompted by two life changing events. The plane crash that took Walter Hyatt, my closest cowriter friend I had ,and a doctors diagnosis of my health problem, where I was bluntly told to get my affairs in order. The book was reviewed by music writer Michael McCall in the Nashville Scene ( Nashville's version of NY's Village Voice ) Michael mentioned the health situation and my phone rang the day the paper hit the stands. Guess what I heard when I picked up. "Ken ... Gordon Stoker, I just read this weeks Scene, how are you doing ? I was just as floored as I was the first time he called me in Florida twelve years before.
I saw Gordon around town a few times down the road, but it was mainly just a quick hello, how are you? One bright sunny day we were both at a summer strings school concert that one of his grandchildren and my son participated in. We did talk a time or two about doing a book on Nashville sidemen and session players, folks I always championed, because I felt they had as much and sometimes more to do with a records success as the person whose name was on the label.
I regret I never took him up on that, if only for the stories I know he could tell. The next time we met for any length of time was another of those We Have To Stop Meeting Like This situations. Neal Matthews, his singing partner at the high end of the Jordanaire spectrum since 1952, passed away in April of 2000. We didn't say too much to each other that day because I could tell he really needed space to mourn.
When The Jordanaires were finally announced they were voted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2001. I called Gordon to say congrats and it's about time. I also had to say, I wished that the glacier like CMA had acted much sooner, so Neal could of shared the joy in person with you that he had earned as well. Like much of music row politics, it made no sense to me at all. They had proved themselves decades ago. Just Gordon & Ray were left from the group that was inducted that included Hoyt & Neal.
2001 GORDON & RAY AT LONG LAST !
MY VISIT TO THE ROTUNDA WHERE THE CIRCLE IS UNBROKEN
I always enjoyed sending Gordon birthday cards and onetime I sent him a CD with one that I made from the very first recording of a tune, I knew was a staple in The Jordanaires Gospel repertoire. Blessed Assurance. This recording was from circa 1905 and was on an Edison Wax Cylinder! I took it into my friend Rich Adler's studio and we played it on a windup cylinder machine with a big old RCA Ribbon mic (just like the one the Jordanaires sang into thousands of times) in front of the megaphone speaker. You can see the process and hear that tune here He really enjoyed it and had never heard it before. He called me to ask if he could make a copy of it to give to his friend gospel singer Bill Gaither. "Of course you can man" ... I sent him another CD of it too. Last August, I sent him a card and wrote in it HEY PIANO MAN .... YOU HAVE MADE IT TO ALL 88!
The last time I saw Gordon was about three years ago appropriately at The Hall Of Fame. They run a series in their Ford Theatre on the the living legends of the Nashville Music Industry where they sit. get interviewed, reminisce and demonstrate sometimes, just what made the whole thing work. That day they were doing a program on producer Jerry Kennedy. When the show broke up we spoke briefly and he grabbed my Greek captains sailor hat and tried it on quipping " Just call me Jimmy " ( Longtime label head Jimmy Bowen was always seen with one on) I only found out last summer that Gordon too had done one of those shows and I regret not knowing or I would of been there for certain. I did learn something though from the transcript of it, that cleared up a bewidering mystery of why the encounter I had with Chet Atkins back twenty years ago over All The KIngs Men got ugly ... But that is for another page and another time ...this is page about Gordon and me.
SATURDAY MARCH 31st 2013
Well here we are again meeting like this, except I knew this time was the last time, unless something happens in the paranormal world none of the living can see ? I drove out to Christ Presbyterian Church on Old Hickory Blvd for the memorial service. There was an hours visitation prior to the service and I got there in time for that too, as I had skipped the two earlier visitations last week over at Woodlawn, simply because that was where he first told me over a quarter of a century ago " We got to stop meeting like this"
The parking lot was already pretty full when I got there at 1PM and lots of thoughts were racing through my mind as I walked in. The first person I said hello to was D J Fontana (Elvis' original drummer) who I had met a long time ago at Scotty Moore's place. I didn't see Scotty (Elvis guitarist and one of the main reasons I took up the guitar) but I heard he is not doing too good. Then I said hello to Alan, Gordon's son, who I met when I first came to town through his Dad. Alan said to me " Thanks for coming ...you were his friend " There was quite a line to talk with Jean (Mrs. Stoker) who I had only seen once or twice before when I bumped into Gordon around town, but was never officially introduced to. WSM DJ and music historian Eddie Stubbs was next to me on Jean's receiving line and we chatted briefly about Gordon's amazing legacy. When I got to meet Mrs. Stoker face to face and said who I was, her eyes lit up in surprise and she gave me a big hug and said how nice to finally meet you. Once again I was totally STOKED by a Stoker. Like her husband of over six decades was, Jean Stoker is a living portrait of grace.
I had only corresponded a few times with Brent Stoker via Face book this past year. He was the one who told me that his Dad had suddenly gotten very old quickly, He too was more than gracious and you can tell when someone really means what the say. He said "Thank You for being here for Dad." The closed casket was in the visitation room and I spent a few moments there alone. I had worn the same hat that Gordon tried on the last time I saw him and let it brush against the casket as I said a private good by. I then went to pay my respects to Ray Walker who was also very close by the casket. We briefly reminisced about the session we did together which now seemed a lifetime ago. I sat down for a spell and wondered about just how many sessions Ray must of done with Gordon and how many more Gordon had done during the eight years before Ray joined in. It can boggle the mind. Others in the crowd of several hundred I noticed without actually looking around were Ray Stevens, Ralph Emory, Bob Moore ( Studio A Team bass player) Harold Bradley ( studio A team guitarist ) I know there were many many more there.
It was getting close to the time for the service and I found myself a seat in the chapel. Two large screens behind the alter were showing a slide show that was comprised mainly of great family photos, and nice dose of group shots with the many stars Gordon and all the different Jordanaire guys worked with through the years. The organist played some music and then the service started. The preacher who was fairly young, spoke the stuff that preachers do and he also said that Gordon himself had chosen the music that we would hear. Surprisingly there were only three sacred songs played through the service. One of just the Jordanaires, one with Elvis and one with Eddy Arnold. The sound in the large church was magnificent and I would of loved to have heard more, especially Peace In The Valley, if only for the way Gordon hit those high notes at the end. WHAT !! YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD HIM DO THAT ? Click Here Stop, Look and Listen to their performance with Elvis back in 1957 from the Ed Sullivan show . This clip has some extra footage you don't normally see
Brent Stoker spoke and gave us some beautiful and humourous anecdotes of what it was like growing up with his Dad. One of the first that got the crowd smiling through the rain, was when as a real youngster he asked his Mom . What does Dad do for money? Where does he get it from? Seeing it from his point of view it had to not be unlike the Ozzie & Harriet show where people often would say What does Ozzie do? Another good one that you have to be a Nashvillian to fully appreciate, happened when Gordon took the kids to the Nashville Christmas Parade. Well along comes the Channel 5 (WCBS) Float and Chris Clark the longtime local newsanchor is on top of it. Chris points out and waves to Gordon in the crowd on the sidewalk. Well this just impressed the heck out of eight year old Brent who exclaimed "DAD ! YOU KNOW CHRIS CLARK? WOW !!! .... Gordon just shrugged, gee no ... we have never met before. Another time they were in a department store checkout line, buying some goldfish, when a woman in the next line over freaks out grabs Gordon and says My God.. Your Gordon Stoker , Please Tell me something about Elvis!.... Brent had some really good stories that day and I'm sure he has hundreds more.
I chose not to go to the Woodlawn Cemetery this time. Last time I did was when they laid Neal to rest there. I do plan on visiting with Gordon sometime in the near future one on one out there. Probably next August 3rd.
Here is another clip
SATURDAY AUGUST 3rd, 2013
Hey Gordon :
I said back in April, that I would come to see you Aug 3rd. It was a rainy Saturday today, but as I drove on out to Woodlawn, I had warm sunny memories and music that goes back some 58 years now to keep up my spirits. It was my first time back to Woodlawn, since Neal was buried there. Man ...Woodlawn is a huge place The only thing I knew about where to find you was, that you were on the third floor of the mausoleum. I parked in the most empty of the three parking lots, walked in and took the elevator straight up to the third floor. The door opened and it was multiple choices of which hallway to enter. Somehow. I walked right to you without a hitch, other than a few pauses to look at some of your peers on the way to you like, Tammy Wynette, Otis Blackwell, Liz Anderson etc. In the main hallway, Boudleaux & Felice Bryant stopped me in my tracks and your words to me from June 1987 when we were there for Boudleaux's sendoff came rushing back " We got to stop meeting like this."
I turned my head and there you were just across the hall.
Ray Walker told me you all got to hear a mix of "Elvis & Me" that you cut with Jimmy Webb, but I brought the actual finished recording anyway ( it gets released next month ) and played it. At the end, where you, the guys and Jimmy are just driving the tune home, I heard voices coming down the hall. I was thinking UH OH ! someone is going to ask me to shut it off. But it played to the fade....
I peered out into the main hall and no one was there. Then I looked out the window of the alcove you are in and realized I was parked right under your window. Seems almost unbelievable!