It's every Elvis Tribute Artist’s biggest fantasy to sing with Elvis’ original backup singers, “The Jordanaires.” They sang on Elvis’ very first recordings in Sam Phillips’ little studio at Sun Records, and once “That’s Alright Mama” was released, there was no looking back. So important were they to Elvis’ early years that he once thanked them, “for making his entire career possible.” And perhaps he was correct, for they were responsible for helping the careers of the most famous recording artists in the world, legendary names like Ricky Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette, Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline, Don McLean, and Johnny Cash. But it was their long association with Elvis that would take their fame to the next level.
In the seventies, Elvis sang with The Imperials or The Stamps Quartet with the late, great J.D. Sumner, in all of his live performances. During Elvis’ Vegas Years, there was also The Sweet Inspirations, featuring Cissy Houston, who was Whitney Houston’s mother. Yet it was Elvis’ early connection with the Jordanaires that helped them become the single greatest Nashville recording group of all time. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever realize that someday I would actually be recording an entire album with these same men.
As crazy as it seemed, I was completely obsessed with singing with the Jordanaires. But was it any crazier than wanting to be the first Asian Elvis? Having nothing to lose, I asked Denese to try and contact them for a possible meeting. Happily, she knew someone named Art Thomas, a wonderful gentleman from Symrna, Tennessee, who actually had connections to Elvis’ famous quartet. He contacted their manager without delay, inquiring if they would be interested in a recording date with me. Naturally, they were a little skeptical about singing with “some guy from Japan who couldn’t even speak good English,” but they were intrigued with the idea, so they asked for an audition tape, and I sent them three of my favorite songs: “Love Me Tender,” “Treat Me Nice,” and one gospel number, “Take My Hand Precious Lord.” Thomas went along with my “ Yoshi Suzuki” ruse, exactly as I requested him to do. I got a big kick out of shocking the heck out of people, first starting out as a clueless tourist, then miraculously morphing into the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. I learned that no matter how big or famous people are, laughter is always the best way to break the ice, and I could always count on my Asian Elvis routine to get me in the door. But would it work this time?
After Denese had sent the Jordanaires my audition tape, we sat back… and waited. I could hardly believe it when they actually called back, agreeing to record with me in Nashville. All I had to do is come up with their ten thousand dollar fee for two hours of work. It was my entire life savings, but what price can you put on a dream? But Denese and I didn’t even have enough time to celebrate. I had only a few days to get everything together before they went on tour, and we flew out to Nashville only five days later. The night before the session, I got only two hours of sleep, so nervous was I of actually having to sing with my lifelong idols. When most people get butterflies in their stomach, I had giant elephants stomping around my insides, I couldn’t stop my hands from trembling and my knees from knocking. I was terrified. I had hired a bare bones trio of Nashville musicians who had never even met each other, and a recording engineer that the studio supplied for the day.
The Jordanaires showed up right on time, and instantly made me feel comfortable, at least as comfortable as anyone could be under the circumstances. They were incredibly friendly and supportive, never letting their immense fame get to their heads. They were just regular guys simply doing their job—trying to make this nervous Asian kid sound halfway decent. I could hardly believe how talented these fabulous singers actually were. Even the long time leader of the group, Gordon Stoker, showed up for my session, even though I knew he was feeling poorly from his longtime struggle with diabetes. They were all there, all except one of the members who had passed on and was recently replaced, but all of the faces that were so familiar to me for the past 30-years were still as fresh and vital as they ever were.
After a brief Meet and Greet, I had little time to waste. I was on the clock, and we had only two hours to record an entire album of songs. After only one run through with the band, then one with the Jordanaires to warm up their voices, it was “show time.” Nashville musicians are so good, that they can play anything. They all read music well, and the Jordanaires had been singing these same songs with Elvis since I was only 7-years old… they already had it down. But me?? That was another story. I hadn’t slept all night, and my voice felt like a worn out piece of sandpaper.
Along with the Jordanaires, D.J. Fontana, Elvis' original drummer, unexpectedly showed up for the date, asking me if I’d care to have him join us. “IS THAT A TRICK QUESTION??” I replied, hardly believing my good fortune. Denese laughed out loud when J.D., listening to my audition tape through the studio monitors, blurted out, “Now that’s Elvis!,” not realizing that he was actually listening to me. I guess I fooled them pretty good.
Even with my parched throat and bloodshot eyes, I had only two takes to get it right, and I knew I wouldn’t sound my best, but this was with the Jordanaires, and by God, I was going to do my best. Just listening to their amazing voices coming though my headsets literally sent chills up my spine, so mesmerized was I with the unmistakable sound of their glorious harmonies. The thrill of simply being in the same room with Elvis’ guys felt totally surreal. I could hardly believe that I was actually singing with my lifelong heroes. I got along especially well with their bass singer, Ray Walker, who told me that “nowadays” he enjoyed singing with his church choir on Sunday mornings, all of the Jordanaires being lifelong, powerful men of God.
Although they still enjoyed touring, their stalwart leader, Gordon Stoker, died in 2013, after finally losing his battle with diabetes. But the golden voices of The Jordanaires still live on, their unforgettable sound forever a part of Elvis Presley's legacy of worldwide hits. The contribution of these performers to Elvis’ accomplishments and “The Nashville Sound” is truly without measure, and getting to work with these men, if only for a just few precious hours, was a dream come true. A moment in time that I shall never, ever forget.
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