on The King:
the Statesmen Quartet influenced Elvis"
a regular basis EIN examines a new release or issue in the Elvis
world. In this edition we shine our spotlight on: Influences On
A Legend #4 – The Statesmen Quartet
Elvis related during his ‘68 Comeback Special "Rock and roll
is basically just gospel music, or gospel music mixed with
rhythm and blues".
the Blackwood Brothers were a seminal influence on the young
Elvis Presley, another white gospel group would prove to be
almost as important in his musical development. They were
the Statesmen Quartet with their charismatic lead singer Jake
Statesmen Quartet, later known simply as the Statesmen were originally
formed in 1948 by Hovie Lister. Apart from Lister, who played piano,
and Hess, its other members were Tommy Thompson (bass), Ed Hill
(baritone), R D Rozell (tenor) and Budd Bunton (original lead singer).
Hopkins was one of the first to identify the Jake Hess influence.
In his biography, 'Elvis', Hopkins included a telling interview
with singer and friend of Elvis, Johnny Rivers:
of his idols when he was young was a man named Jake Hess, who was
lead singer for the Statesmen Quartet. If you’ll listen to some
of their recordings, you’ll hear some of the style that is now Elvis
Presley’s style, especially in his ballad singing style...I think
he idolised Jake. Jake and the Statesmen and the Blackwoods."
from Johnny Rivers, James Blackwood of the Blackwood Brothers has
also been cited as saying Elvis borrowed his ballad/gospel style
from Hess. And Joe Esposito, in Good Rockin’ Tonight, comments that
Elvis regarded Jake Hess as the finest gospel singer ever.
from appeal of the four part harmony exhibited by the Statesmen
there is little doubt that Elvis was also drawn to them by the dramatic,
powerful vocal style of Jake Hess, even though Hess’s deep bass
voice was out of Elvis’s range.
popular music observers have made the comparison between the Hess
and Presley big ballad styles. Charles Wolfe in his essay ‘Presley
and the Gospel Tradition’ notes that Hess was adept at using "the
background quartet to highlight and even propel his singing" in
a way Elvis would later do with the Jordanaires (1956-67), the Imperials
(1969-71) and J D Sumner and the Stamps Quartet (1972-77).
Hess was a member of the Imperials when they started backing Elvis
in 1969, although he would leave the group before they parted company
with Elvis in 1971 over a pay dispute. Wolfe perceptively comments
that ‘one could almost mistake Hess and the early Statesmen for
one of the doo-wop groups of the early years of rock and roll’.
goes on to discuss how origins for the style possibly lay in black
gospel music, _where singing with the emphasis on interplay between
a lead voice that does the main lyric in front of responding voices
is referred to as ‘Dr Watts Style’.
like other prominent white gospel singers of the time, including
J. D. Sumner and Jim Wetherington, Hess’s vocal delivery involved
an exaggerated vibrato which was instantly recognizable. He was
also noted for distinctively syllabifying the words in a song: "When
Ai-eh yam disc-ouraged".
Sumner agrees that Elvis was particularly interested with the group-lead
mechanics. "He remembered how I used to sing and he said he wanted
some of those old endings I used to do - some of those 56 endings
is what he called them. I used to go Doooooooooo and slur down to
a low note."
James Blackwood, Jake Hess was far from conservative. Affectionately
referred to as an eccentric he is in fact the virtual opposite to
any of the Blackwoods. He would punch out his words, syllable by
syllable, and he would play it up with his audience, colouring his
notes ‘real dark’.
unlike the more conservative Blackwood Brothers, the Statesmen were
known to go all out in a boogie-woogie style that ‘The Killer’,
Jerry Lee Lewis would have been proud of. In his gross act of revising
the Elvis story, reviled biographer Albert Goldman noted that ‘When
the Quartet gets into one of their I-love-you-Jesus vocal valentines,
Jake sings with such refinement of tone and dynamics, such startling
attacks and swooning melismas, that he virtually reduces the whole
house to tears.’
example of the similarity in singing style of Elvis and Jake is
Elvis’s cover version of the Statesmen song He Knows Just What I
Need. Many of Elvis’s other gospel songs, particularly in his live
performances, exude the Hess influence. How Great Thou Art is a
in Elvis’s big ballads, the exaggerated vibrato, power and syllabification
of words so much a Hess trademark are very apparent. One only has
to listen to Elvis singing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling and Hurt
to realise where he has borrowed from Hess.
Elvis’s funeral Jake Hess and the Statesmen sang Sweet, Sweet Spirit
and Known Only To Him. The final comment on the Hess/Statesmen influence
should go to Charles Wolfe, on whose essay I have liberally borrowed
and to whom I am indebted:
constant concern with using gospel groups as his back-up singers,
and insisting that these groups maintain an integrity and identity
(as opposed to relegating them to an anonymous studio sound), suggests
that he was conscious of their role in the Presley sound."
Rockin’ Tonight, Joe Esposito and Elena Oumano
and the Gospel Tradition, Charles Wolfe in ‘Elvis: Images and
Fancies’, Jac L. Tharpe (ed)
His Life From A to Z, Fred L. Worth and Steve D. Tamerius
My Lord What A Time, The Statesmen Quartet, CD release by Canaan
article was prepared by Nigel Patterson and first appeared in ‘Elvis
Monthly’ as part of the author’s fourteen part series, Influences
On A Legend. ©1998, 2002
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