Tony Cummings charts the long and fascinating career of THE CLASSIC IMPERIALS
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With Hess' sudden departure things got very difficult for the Imperials. 93 scheduled dates were cancelled by gospel promoters who had booked the Imperials because Hess was the lead singer. This left the group in dire financial straights, broke with hardly any dates for the coming year. They played some churches for love offerings, getting $50-$100 a night sometimes, trying to keep the group together and themselves alive.
While the church were lukewarm in showing financial support for the Imperials, Chet Atkin's secretary Mary B Lynch again came through for the group. She connected the Imperials with country music star Jimmy Dean who had gone Gold in 1961 with "Big Bad John" and who had a widely watched ABC television show. Dean had a recording date scheduled but didn't know any of the songs. The Imperials worked with him, teaching him the songs, and for this were given the job of singing backup with him. Dean and the Imperials got along so well that he invited the group to go with him to California as part of the Cimmaron Singers, a group of about 12 guys dressed in cowboy garb who were really studio singers form New York. Soon, Dean dropped the rest of the Cimmaron Singers and hired the Imperials alone to sing backup plus some opening numbers for his show. The Imperials found themselves playing Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, Reno, fairs, rodeos and the top theatres in the country.
With the Imperials making reasonable money, and a lineup of Armond Morales (bass), Jim Murray (tenor), Joe Moscheo (piano, featured vocals) and new men Roger Wiles (baritone) and Terry Blackwood (the new lead singer from the legendary Blackwood Brothers Southern gospel dynasty), the group were ready to record again. But recognising that much Southern gospel had become by 1968 stylised and dated the Imperials were keen to bring new sounds and a new approach to their new album, called, appropriately enough, 'New Dimensions'. The album with its pop production and soul-tinged harmonies was light years away from the old school country-styled Southern gospel and with American Christian radio giving airplay 'New Dimensions' sold well.
Said Morales, "I think we embraced a different style, away from the Southern gospel style. I wanted to do a music that had pop melodies and orchestration with gospel words and that's what we called contemporary in those years. So we launched out and because of that churches began to turn us down because of what we were representing. It was not godly in their sight. So it took several years to break that barrier."
Although some Southern gospel conservatives disliked the pop elements of 'New Dimensions', the Dove Awards named The Imperials Male Group Of The Year for 1969. Also in 1969 the group got a phone call from Elvis Presley. Soon the group were performing in concert with Elvis as well as Jimmy Dean - which meant even more Vegas appearances. Working with Elvis was a very prestigious job, but for it the Imperials made a lot of sacrifices. Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis' notorious manager, would call two weeks before a tour and tell the group where they would play. The problem was that the group also had other bookings in the gospel world. They would have to scramble to cancel these bookings, making a lot of people in the gospel industry not-so-happy in order to work with Elvis.
The Imperials toured with Presley, sharing the stage as his backup singers from 1969 to 1971. Morales was asked whether he thought Elvis was a Christian. He responded, "I believe he knew about God. His personal relationship I didn't know until almost three years I was with him. I did give him one time a Living Bible, he didn't have a Bible and they had just come out with that edition. And he thanked me for it. He was kind of like Saul in a way - he'd wake us up in the middle of the night to come and sing gospel music with him and that would give him peace. So I believe in the last part of his life he did actually receive Christ as Lord of his life."
But how did Morales react to Elvis' womanising? "It wasn't my business," Armond responded. "All you can do is live your life in front of somebody and don't cross the line yourself because it's a mockery of what you represent. So I was very careful and Elvis honoured my Christianity and my belief in Jesus and he'd always warn me if there was going to be some kind of party that wasn't quite right, that I would be embarrassed about. He told me, 'You probably shouldn't come tonight'. And other nights he'd say, 'Bring Bonny, it's going to be a great evening; we've got a lot of movie stars coming and you'll have a great time'. And that's the truth."
The Imperials continued to release albums for Impact/Benson - 'Love Is The Thing' in 1969 and 'Gospel's Alive And Well' in 1970. By 1970 the second baritone spot in the group was beginning to resemble the manager's job in a losing Premier League football club. In 1970 Phil Enloe replaced Roger Wiles, the following year Greg Gordon briefly held the job (and contributed to the Imperials' 1971 album 'Time To Get It Together') and in 1972 the role was briefly filled by Larry Gatlin (the country man who was to find fame and fortune with the Gatlin Brothers). Morales remembered Larry's brief sojourn in The Imperials. "We were with the Jimmy Dean show and Greg Gordon who was with us was late on two of the shows in Las Vegas, so Jimmy said, 'I don't want him on the stage anymore with me.' So Greg had to leave. I had met Larry when I did a rodeo in Houston and we went across the street to eat a steak and he was waiting tables. They had a family group and they'd sing occasionally a little bit but I met him and he gave me an album and I listened to it and I always kept that number in my head. So I called him and said, 'Could you come out' and he said, 'Are you kidding; I'll be on the next plane'. So he came out and worked real hard and learned the show. But shortly after that he met Dotty West and signed a writing contract with her. From then on his career just took off. We're still great friends, I still have his personal phone number."
In 1972 the Imperials took a bold step when they became Southern gospel's first multi-racial group when they asked black vocalist Sherman Andrus to join their ranks. Said Morales, "I think there were some negative reactions from Imperials fans but we ignored them." Armond remembered how Sherman came to the group's attention. "I was living in California and Bob Benson called me and said 'I've got an idea about putting a black man in your group. What do you think?' Sherman was selling insurance for travellers and I called him over to the house. He was with Andrae Crouch And The Disciples previous to that but at this time he was not. I asked him if he'd be interested in working with the Imperials and he said he would. So we called our record label and we flew to Nashville and tried out. We decided to give it a shot. He was willing to face the consequences if it was good or bad. We were booked to go overseas to South Africa but when they saw the latest picture of the group they cancelled the concert. Another time, we were driving from Los Angeles to Nashville, following each other in our cars. I checked into a hotel in Texas somewhere and they took my reservation but wouldn't allow Sherman to come in. I thought that was shocking because I knew the hotel was empty. It made me really, really upset and I apologised to him for what this nation had become."
The albums Andrus, Blackwood, Murray, Moscheo and Morales recorded together, 'Imperials' (1972), 'Live' (1973) and 'Follow The Man With The Music' (1974), continued the Imperials' experimentations with pop and R&B rhythms and in 1975 hitmaking producer Gary S Paxton took the Imperials into the studio to record their most confident contemporary album so far. In his Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Christian Music Mark Allan Powell wrote that the title track on 'No Shortage' "balances Southern gospel harmonies and modern funk perfectly." 'No Shortage' earned the Imperials a Grammy Award and the Imperials were the first gospel act ever to perform at the Grammy Awards ceremony. After 1976's 'Just Because' album, Sherman Andrus and Terry Blackwood left the Imperials to find their own niche in the burgeoning contemporary Christian market. Andrus Blackwood & Co went on to have a series of successful albums for Greentree Records and their soul-influenced sound earned them number one Christian radio hits like "Jesus is So Wonderful" in 1981, "Soldier Of The Light" (1981) and "Step Out Of The Night" (1983).
The ever changing Imperials countered the loss of Andrus and Blackwood by bringing into their ranks another hugely talented lead singer Russ Taff. When Russ was 15 he moved with his family to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he met a lifetime musical buddy, James Hollihan Jr. The two of them formed the Christian group Sounds Of Joy, who sang covers of songs by Jesus music artists like Love Song and Larry Norman. They recorded three albums, including one produced by Gary S Paxton. Then Taff joined The Imperials and remained lead singer for that group (with Hollihan as guitarist) throughout what was to be a golden period for The Imperials. Trimmed down to four members - Taff, Morales, Murray and baritone singer David Will and with a new record deal with Dayspring/Word Records the group's albums 'Sail On' (1977), 'Live' (1978 - recorded at Baylor University) and 'Heed The Call' (1979) were produced by Chris Christian and were omnipresent on the growing contemporary Christian radio. There were two number one Christian radio hits on 'Heed The Call', the proto praise and worship song "Praise The Lord" penned by Brown Bannister and Mike Hudson, and the Mark Farrow composition "Oh Buddha". The latter went on to win a Dove Award.
Recently Armond Morales spoke about "Oh Buddha" and its lyric which spelt out that faith in Buddha, Hari Krishna or the prophet Mohammed wouldn't get you into Heaven. In these politically correct days did the Classic Imperials still perform the song? Morales responded emphatically, "Yes, we do. Every faction or group or anybody that has a belief has a right to state what they feel. We still feel the same as we did when we recorded that. Why wouldn't we? Why should we be afraid of repercussions or something? It's a statement we believe is true. Some might wonder if we would sing it again because of what's going on in the world today. I say we absolutely would, even more so."
In 1979 Word released the Imperials' 'One More Song For You' featuring songs like "I'm Forgiven" which, in the words of author Mark Allan Powell, "turned the Imperials into a legitimate rock and roll band in the vein of such groups as Hall & Oates." 'One More Song For You' and its followup 'Priority' were produced by hitmaking studio maestro Michael Omartian. Morales remembered the session well. "Michael is a wonderful human being. It was like working with the cream of the cream. He'd worked for Warner Brothers, produced all these great albums and his talent was going to be on our album with the best musicians in Hollywood. So it was an honour. I think he created the modern Imperials sound. As well as putting the tracks together he wrote the vocals as well. He and his wife Stormie. She's a great lyricist and with his music and the timing, it was a great fit. Everything in life is about timing and that timing was really good for us."
By 1980 the group were the best selling act in the still growing CCM market. Did Morales find it strange for a group who had once had a traditional Southern gospel audience to find themselves frontrunners in the new youth-orientated market? "No, because at that time we were drawing our own crowd. We were drawing the crowds that enjoyed what we did. I started promoting ourselves after a time so I would hire somebody like Sandi Patti, Amy Grant or Mylon LeFevre & Broken Heart as an opening act. I could see the plan was working."