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December 19, 2014

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Enhancing Elvis’ stardom, backup singer earned acclaim

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Gordon Stoker

Gordon Stoker, longtime lead tenor for the famed Elvis Presley backup group the Jordanaires, said the king of rock 'n’ roll once told him and the other members of the gospel harmony quartet something that really shocked them, but also certified their value to him.

"We were all sitting around eating hamburgers (at 1 a.m. during the late 1960s) and he (Presley) just looked at us and said, 'If there hadn't been the Jordanaires, there probably wouldn't have been a me,’” Stoker told the Las Vegas Sun in a 1999 interview while backstage at the Gold Coast Hotel, preparing for a tribute show to Patsy Cline.

"He said, 'You guys took an interest in me when I didn't want to record. You took an interest in me when the material was terrible.’ He had a word for the material: crap," Stoker said, noting that the hit “Stuck on You” was one of Elvis’ least favorites.

But Stoker said Presley, ever the professional, still went into the studio with the Jordanaires at his side for 15 years and, without complaining, recorded a lot of songs — the really good ones and the really bad ones.

Stoker, who along with the Jordanaires played Las Vegas regularly over the past four decades and was elected to the Country Music and Gospel Music Halls of Fame, died Wednesday at his home in Brentwood, Tenn. He was 88.

A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Christ Presbyterian Church, 2323 Old Hickory Boulevard in Nashville.

Stoker’s voice can be heard on Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas,” “Hound Dog,” "It's Now or Never," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and “Teddy Bear," among others. In the 1950s and '60s, Stoker appeared in films with Presley, including "King Creole," "G.I. Blues" and "Girls! Girls! Girls!"

Stoker and the other Jordanaires also can be heard on Cline’s "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces" and "Sweet Dreams"; Ricky Nelson’s "Traveling Man," “Lonesome Town” and "Hello Mary Lou”; Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John”; Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans”; Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man”; and Kenny Rogers’ ”Lucille.”

Stoker also provided background vocals for Sissy Spacek in the 1980 film about the life and music of Loretta Lynn, "Coal Miner's Daughter."

Among the estimated 2,500 stars that Stoker and the other Jordanaires backed up as studio vocalists were Loretta Lynn, Roy Orbison, Vince Gill, Jimmy Buffett, Ringo Starr, Johnny Cash, Chicago and Dolly Parton.

Stoker recalled that while Presley’s early-morning hamburger-chomping confession was a wonderful endorsement, he got one that was just as nice and just as rewarding several years later from the Beatles’ Paul McCartney.

"He (Paul) said, 'When (the Beatles) listened to Elvis' records, when we listened to Ricky Nelson's records, we never listened to Elvis or Ricky, we listened to what you guys did, the oohs and ahhs,’” Stoker told the Sun. “'We learned to sing harmony by listening to (the Jordanaires).’”

Although members of the Jordanaires changed over the years, the lineup that was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 was Stoker, second tenor Neal Matthews (who died in 2000), baritone Hoyt Hawkins and bass singer Ray Walker. Also in 2001, the group was elected to the gospel music shrine.

Stoker and the group performed with Elvis on the Ed Sullivan television show in 1957, won a 1964 Grammy for Best Gospel Recording and performed for President Gerald Ford at the White House in the mid-1970s.

Stoker and the Jordanaires, however, did not perform with Presley when he opened his record-setting engagement at the Hotel International (now LVH) in 1969 because they had too many studio recording obligations in Nashville at the time. The Imperials were brought in to replace the Jordanaires for those Las Vegas shows.

When Presley died in 1977, Stoker and the Jordanaires recorded tribute albums to him.

Born Aug. 3, 1924, in Gleason, Tenn., Stoker began playing piano at age 8. Seven years later, he was playing professionally. He joined the John Daniel Quartet after high school and went into the Air Force in 1943.

Stoker joined the Jordanaires in 1950, two years after they were formed in Missouri, replacing original pianist Bob Money. He soon became the longtime lead vocalist.

The Jordanaires caught Presley’s attention in the mid-1950s while they were performing as backup to Eddy Arnold at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

In an undated interview, Stoker said he never had aspirations of being a star himself — singing in the background was his place in the music world.

"A record producer (once) told us to forget about the hit parade," Stoker said. “(He said) stars are here today and gone tomorrow. The industry needs good backup singers. We didn't think he was telling the truth, but, boy, was he ever. For 23 years we had two to four sessions a day, six days a week."

Stoker is survived by wife, Jean Stoker, sons Alan and Brent, daughter Venita, five grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Ed Koch is a former longtime Sun reporter.

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