Tony Cummings charts the long and fascinating career of THE CLASSIC IMPERIALS
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In 1981 Russ Taff left the Imperials. Morales admitted, "It was disheartening for me. He was such an amazing singer. But he felt like it was time for him to move. He had a manager that offered him a good future for his life. I felt bad and I couldn't think of who I would get to replace Russ. I knew it had to be somebody different. Paul Smith, who is part of our group now, was promoting concerts at Baylor University in Texas and he gave me an album while he was there. I liked it. Then I thought, why don't we go opposite sound, get an entirely different timbre of voice? Because everyone's going to think of Russ if I get somebody to try and bring in a voice a bit like Russ's. They're going to say, 'Oh, he's close but not quite'. So we changed direction on sound at that point and we did some pretty good music."
Even without the rasping blue eyed soul voice of Taff the group continued to hit on Christian radio. The Smith-led Imperials' 'Stand By The Power' (1982), produced by Bill Schnee, brought the group number one hits with "Because Of Who You Are" (written by Bob Farrell and Billy Smiley) and "Wait Upon The Lord" (co-written by Paul Smith himself). Much less successful was the double album experiment 'Side By Side' where Paul Smith, Armond Morales, Jim Murray and David Will were each given five MOR-orientated songs to sing solo. But after that slight misfire the Imperials were back targeting the youthful contemporary market with 1985's 'Let The Wind Blow'. Produced by Brown Bannister, who had previously worked on the Chris Christian-produced Imperials albums as an engineer, 'Let The Winds Blow' landed the group two more hits - the title track written by singer/songwriter David Martin and a bouncy Hall & Oates style number "In The Promised Land" penned by Britain's Chris Eaton.
In 1986 Paul Smith left the group, like several of his predecessors, to pursue a solo career. At least Smith's departure was not unexpected. Explained Armond, "Even when he came with us Paul had that plan. And he told the group what it was before it started. He said, 'This is my plan, this is where I'm at, this is when I want to go, here's the space I'll give you'. We've all said this about Paul: he's the most professional, easygoing Christian we've ever worked with. What he says is what he does, he's a great vocal arranger, he's got great integrity, he's a great friend. I remember listening to the changes at that time with 'Let The Wind Blow' and 'Stand By The Power'. Every time the Imperials made a member change you kept thinking well, that's the end of the Imperials, and they'd come out with something and you'd go, well, maybe not."
Around the time of Smith's departure Jim Murray also left the Imperials. But in a nicely ironic note The Imperials' 1987 album - featuring Armond Morales and David Will and new joint lead vocalists Ron Henby and Jimmie Lee Sloas - was title 'This Year's Model'.
Jimmie Lee Sloas was not only a gritty voiced singer but also an accomplished bass player who had played sessions for numerous acts while Ron Henby was a talented singer and songwriter. Critic Mark Allan Powell wrote about the new lineup and their new Brown Bannister produced album. "An abrupt shift marked 'This Year's Model', which features a heavy R&B sound, propelled by Jimmie Lee Sloas's gruff vocals. While 'Wings Of Love' is predictable radio fluff, 'Power Of God' is probably the band's most authentic rock song and one of their finest tracks."
Despite Powell's disparaging remarks, the song "Wings Of Love" (written by Paul Smith) made number one on the Christian radio charts. The following year 'Free The Fire', produced by Bill Schnee, also produced a chart topping hit when the title track - a Michael and Stormie Omartian song - gaining the top spot. In 1989 the Imperials' revolving door was turning again when Sloas left (later co-fronting rock band Dogs Of Peace) and the group brought in David Robertson to share the lead mic with Ron Henby. The group's 'Love's Still Changing Hearts' (1990) was produced by Morris 'Butch' Stewart and though it produced a couple of smallish Christian radio hits it wasn't the sales blockbuster like some of its predecessors. David Robertson left for a solo career and another lead tenor, Jonathan Hildreth, joined the Imperials.
But it was another personnel change a few months later which most surprised the CCM industry when the Imperials announced that this decades-long bastion of male harmony singing had brought a female into its ranks. The new group member was Armond's sister, Pam Morales. In 1991 Pam spoke to CCM magazine about her inclusion as the new lineup were readying their 'Big God' album. "I wasn't sure exactly how my voice was going to fit in. At first, I was just singing the tenor parts that had been established in the songs on previous albums. Our new album was a test to see how I would fit on new material. Some of the arrangers were afraid that I was going to sound too girly, and I was a little worried about that too. In my lower range I sound like a man sometimes, so we tried to keep a strong sound but also take advantage of some of the high parts I can do. People still are startled to see a woman walk on stage as one of the Imperials, but we've gotten a lot of compliments on the sound and the strength of the performance."
Pam actually sang lead on the song "What Can I Do With This Love?" on 'Big God' but the Ken Mansfield produced set failed to get the airplay or the hits of earlier albums. That was rectified in 1993 when the title track - written by Michael Peterson - of the 'Stir It Up' album made number one on Christian radio. As it turned out it proved to b the Imperials' last chart topper. Jonathan Hildreth left the group and as Jonathan Pierce joined The Gaither Vocal Band before becoming a solo artist. The Imperials continued to tour - and change personnel - but where their slick pop sound had once seemed perfectly in step with Christian youth culture tastes CCM radio was becoming more rock orientated and CCM airplay was by now a thing of the past. By 1995 the group re-established their following with the Southern gospel audience and the group - Jeff Walker (lead, baritone), Steven Ferguson (tenor), David Will and Armond Morales - released the album 'Til He Comes' through Impact/Homeland. By 1996 Steve Shapiro had taken over the lead mic and the group had formed their own independent label, Big God Records. Another Big God release, 1998's 'Songs For Christmas', saw another lead singer Barry Weeks in the group. In 1999 and 2000 more changes in the group saw Armond's son Jason Morales join as baritone singer and by the time of the release of 'I Was Made For This' the group had in it another lead singer, Richie Crook.
By 2003 the group lost its last original member when Armond Morales left the Imperials. The latest Imperials were Shannon Smith (lead), Jeremie Hudson (tenor), Jason Morales (baritone) and Ian Owens (bass). It was a lineup which was to make legal waves. When Armond Morales spoke to Christianity Today magazine he commented that the latest Imperials lineup was "pressuring me to get out of the group, even though I was the owner. . . They thought they could do things better and didn't need an old guy."
Armond decided to relocate to Hawaii where he intended to form a new group, the Classic Imperials. Before he left he signed an assignment of trademark asserting that the name The Imperials was now owned by the latest Imperials entity - Smith, Hudson, Jason Morales and Owens. Signing such an agreement was to prove to have disastrous consequences. In Hawaii things did not go well for the Classic Imperials. The company they worked for went bankrupt. So in 2006 the group moved to Tennessee. At first the existence of both an Imperials and a Classic Imperials didn't seem to bother either group. In an interview in Southern Gospel news, Jason Morales said, "We are honoured to carry on this legacy and it's always a big honour to be on stage with them."
In 2006 New Haven Records released a couple of Imperials compilations of oldies in their Gospel Legacy Series. And more intriguingly, Word rescued from their archives an Imperials set released as 'The Lost Album'. Explained Armond Morales, "It was actually the first album we recorded with Russ Taff. I thought it was a good album but the record label didn't think it was the right album for that point in time. I don't even know why they thought that because the songs were great and the producer Gary S Paxton has a commercial ear. He's a man who can write songs with hooks which is really important. You can have a great story song but if there isn't a line in there or a music hook that grabs you, that you keep remembering as you're walking out the room and still singing it, forget it."
But the release of 'The Lost Album' was overshadowed by an embarrassing legal squabble. Two major bones of legal contention resulted in a field day for lawyers. The young Imperials lawyers claimed that having two groups were causing confusion in the gospel marketplace. But then, in a piece of music biz irony, as the lawyers squabbled it came to light that the trademark to the Imperials name wasn't owned by any of the gospel group members! Clarence Collins, one of the original members of Little Anthony & The Imperials, had registered the trademark. Solicitors' letters and threats of law suits came thick and fast. Summarised Rick Evans, "At the end of the day, when it all came down to it, Clarence Collins was the one with the rights to the name. Armond had used the name for 42 years with permission from Little Anthony & The Imperials and then after a certain amount of time with that permission it became common law that Armond had the right to use the name. Then the young guys started going after Little Anthony and then Armond got involved and then we all got involved. We decided as a group very early that one, we were not going to respond to all the claims and counter claims, and two, we were going to stay on the side of Little Anthony & The Imperials. They were the original group; they were there before us. They were in the '50s and we came in the '60s. Armond felt that was the right thing to do."
In 2006 and 2007 the young Imperials released two Southern gospel orientated albums, 'The Imperials' and 'Back To The Roots' for Lamon Records, the latter producing a couple of radio hits with "We've Got A Great Big Wonderful God" and "All That Matters To The Lord". They also won the Southern Gospel News Awards Album Of The Year award.
In the spring of 2010 the uneasy situation of Imperials and a Classic Imperials both playing concerts was finally laid to rest when the younger group ceased to exist. Looking back over the whole legal debacle Armond Morales commented, "The situation hurt me and it hurt my dear wife. And in the final analysis the only people who gained anything from the situation were the lawyers."
It was left to Paul Smith to have the final comment about the Imperials' extraordinary musical legacy. "People have referred to the group as pioneers in the sense that the music's pushed in directions that many others didn't and in that regard the group's been successful for all these years. Though that diligence continues, we're not as much concerned with our role in the history of Christian music or contemporary music in general. We were more concerned about putting [the 'Still Standing] project together for the impact it would have on people. Past or present, changing lives is still what the Imperials are all about."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.