Tony Cummings charts the long and fascinating career of THE CLASSIC IMPERIALS
Album titles have seldom seemed more appropriate than last October's US release of 'Still Standing' by the Classic Imperials. For though this was the first album utilising the Classic Imperials moniker 'Still Standing' in fact heralded the return of one of the longest running groups/brands in Christian music. The Imperials were for decades one of the most popular Christian music acts clocking up an astounding four Grammy Awards, 17 Dove Awards (including the inaugural Male Group Of The Year in 1969 and the first ever Artist Of The Year in 1981). As well as that they backed Elvis Presley on stage, in the recording studio and in the feature film Elvis: That's The Way It Is. And if that wasn't enough, the Imperials were a pivotal act in moving US Christian radio from Southern gospel to pop, R&B and rock. It's hardly surprising then that the Imperials still have a fan base numbered in the tens of thousands.
"Once someone's become an Imperials fan, usually they're lifelongers," noted the 79 year old bass singer Armond Morales, who has carried the group's torch since the very beginning across 42 albums and concerts in 21 countries. "Our original fans have since spread the music to their children and now their grandchildren, so the legacy is being passed down across several generations. It allows each era and album to stand on its own and literally give the group the chance to reach all audiences."
The Classic Imperials consist of a "rock solid lineup" of bass singer Morales, 29-year veteran baritone/lead Dave Will, the recently returned tenor/lead Paul Smith and new group member tenor/lead Rick Evans (who has had stints with the Dennis Agajanian Band, Franklin Graham Crusade Team and Promise Keepers).
The 'Still Standing' album released through the Hall Of Fame Music Group covers a diverse set of musical styles. Said Paul Smith, "The new album has different elements, like southern rock and an urban country flavour at times, while our voices always create a really unique sound. We never really put our minds towards a particular sound or avenue, but we wanted to include ones that can identify with people and leave a lasting impact. This batch of songs is real and relevant, which is meant to appeal to those who've walked with us before, plus newer and younger fans. 'Still Standing' is more song driven than sound driven."
'Still Standing' features production from country sensation Michael Peterson ("From Here to Eternity") and Nashville heavyweight Rick Webb. Said Rick Evans, "The Imperials have always been a big melting pot when it comes to their audiences. We all have different subcultures and denominations from the church, but because of our history and the secular acclaim the group had and has, we also have an additional group of people that might not normally listen to Christian music. Any time the group's ever put on a concert, the goal's been to let everyone in the room come to a place where God is the centre of our focus and not our denomination. We're four guys who are living for the Lord and who want to serve him, but we also want to meet people wherever they're at and let the music do the talking."
The roots of the Imperials go back to one of the towering talents of Southern gospel, W J "Jake" Hess. Hess was born near Athens, Alabama, the son of a sharecropper who was a shape-note singing school teacher. Jake became an experienced quartet vocalist and served brief stints with such pioneering Southern gospel groups as the Sunny South Quartet (1946), the John Daniel Quartet (1946-1947) and the Melody Masters (1947-1948) before joining the Statesmen in autumn 1948. He spent most of the next 15 years with this group, except for brief periods in 1956 and 1962 during which time the Statesmen, recording regularly for RCA Victor, became hugely popular talisman for the whole close harmony Southern gospel genre. However, by the early 1960s Hess aspired to found his own group and he departed the Statesmen in December 1963.
Hess wanted to start a new group recognized as "king" of the Southern gospel field and thought the "Imperials" would be a good moniker. After getting the go-ahead from Marion Snider for permission to use the name (Snider had previously operated an Imperial Quartet named after its sponsor Imperial Sugar), Hess gathered together pianist Henry Slaughter from the Weatherford Quartet, ex-Oak Ridge Boys baritone Gary McSpadden, the Weatherford Quartet's bass singer Armond Morales and Speer Family tenor Sherrill (Shaun) Neilsen to join him under the name The Imperials.
The choice of name possibly indicated the insular nature of Southern gospel culture as there was already a best selling African American group, Little Anthony & The Imperials, who had moved from '50s doowop hits to '60s soul music best sellers. Anthony Guordine and his fellow Imperials didn't take legal action against the Southern gospel Imperials (though by a strange coincidence Guordine became a Christian in 1978 and recorded some gospel music). Commented Armond Morales, "I had a personal agreement with Little Anthony & The Imperials. It was a handshake. We were in two different market places. I called him about it so we wouldn't cross paths and he agreed - 'you're in a different market and we can get along fine. Let's do what we want to do.'"
After an album on Skylite 'Jake Hess & The Imperials' the group signed with the Benson Co - then basically a custom record label - and became one of their first professional groups. On Benson's Heart Warming label a veritable flood of Imperials albums were recorded to be sold by the group during their constant touring. In just two years eight albums - 'Introducing The Illustrious Imperials', 'Fireside Hymns', 'Blends And Rhythms', 'Talent Times Five', 'Slaughter Writes - Imperials Sing', 'Happy Sounds Of The Imperials', 'He Was A Preachin' Man' and 'Slightly Regal' - were released. It was constant touring that built up the Imperials' popularity. The Southern gospel scene of the time was a strange mixture of conservatism - identical looking groups dressed in identical business suits - and licence - group members often engaging in flagrant womanising while on the road. Hess got the Imperials to dress casually in sports jackets of different colours. More importantly, he made all the group members sign morals contracts stating they would not dally with members of the opposite sex.
The members of the Imperials were making $200 to $250 per week. At this time the Imperials' office was in the RCA building on Nashville's Music Row. Through their friendship with Mary B Lynch, who was Chet Atkin's secretary at the time, they got booked for what was to be a groundbreaking recording session. The King of Rock 'n' Roll Elvis Presley was coming to Nashville to record tracks for a sacred album, 'How Great Thou Art'. Elvis already had the one-time Southern gospel group the Jordanaires as his regular vocal group accompanists but for some of the songs he wanted a choir effect. The Imperials and four female studio singers were drafted in.
The contact with superstar Elvis was a mixed blessing for the Imperials. Shortly after the Elvis sessions, Sherrill Nielson left the Imperials, changed his name to Shawn Nielson and went in pursuit of a secular career, performing alongside Elvis Presley and signing with RCA Records. Hess brought in a replacement for Nielson, Jim Murray. Jim had previously sung with the Melodaires and the Orrell Quintet in Detroit, Michigan before moving to Dallas, Texas where he sang with the legendary Stamps Trio and then Bob Wills & The Inspirations. The new lineup group recorded two albums in 1966, 'Sing Their Favorite Hymns' and 'Sing Inspirational Classics'. By 1967 though Henry Slaughter resigned from the Imperials and with his wife Hazel became a popular Southern gospel act as well as being regularly named Best Gospel Instrumentalist by the Dove Awards and writing a stream of Christian radio hits.
Slaughter's piano-playing replacement was Joe Mascheo. The Imperials had moved their base from Atlanta, Georgia to Nashville, Tennessee and Moscheo was well known around town playing with The Prophets, a Southern gospel group whose lead singer Dwayne Allen was to go on to find fame and fortune with the Oakridge Boys. In 1967 Hess, McSpadden, Morales, Murray and Moscheo released the album 'To Sing Is The Thing'. The album was released on the Benson company Impact label imprint. It proved to be the last Imperials release on which Jake Hess and Gary McSpadden appeared. After suffering a heart attack Hess decided to come off the road and quit the Imperials. Morales took over the leadership of the group.
As it turned out there were to be many more years of musical activity for Hess. He soon became host of a daily television show at WLAC Nashville, recorded as a solo artist for RCA Victor and led a group called the Music City Singers and later the Jake Hess Sound, which included his teenage children. After a stint in Los Angeles, he rejoined the Statesmen again from 1977 to 1979 and then early in 1981 joined with Hovie Lister, James Blackwood, JD Sumner and Rosie Rozell to form the Masters V. Hess remained with the Master for seven years then in 1988 got back with Lister as part of a reformed edition of the Statesmen Quartet, remaining for another five years. Again plagued with heart ailments, Jake Hess retired to Columbus, Georgia, in 1993. After that, he made occasional public appearances, most often at Bill Gaither concerts, albums and videos and worked on his autobiography. In 1997 he was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame. He died on 4th January 2004.
Baritone singer Gary McSpadden also had a busy Christian music career after departing the Imperials. Leaving in 1967 to join his father in planting a church in Fort Worth, Texas, he returned to music in the '70s as a member of the Bill Gaither Trio. While singing with the Gaither groups, McSpadden recorded a series of MOR gospel albums for labels like Paragon, Word and Greentree.