what Frank is listening to #203 – THE JORDANAIRES – This Land – (CBS) – 1964
Sorry lovers of squealing guitars, thumping drums, pulsating bass lines … but no instrument soothes my addled nerves more than the human voice. And I'm not talking about the the yackety-yak that passes for singing in contemporary pop or the overproduced rubbish that is modern R&B.
Doo wop, close harmony singing, traditional pop and Gregorian chants when done well are all vocal voodoo on me.
The Jordanaires were one of the most respected vocal groups of their time.
They were based in Nashville but the members were from all over the south and into the Midwest and began singing in the late 40s. The band was normally a quartet and there have been quite a few members who have passed through their ranks, though not to many. Under their own steam they sang mainly white gospel material …. Jordan aires – get it? In the studio they did backing for any number of pop or country singers.
It was however their association with Elvis Presley that brought them fame ….
Their harmonies, usually background harmonies but occasionally close harmony vocals (and sometimes even in the same song), they did for Elvis were, if not quite revolutionary certainly inventive and trend setting. Elvis, ever the unconscious visionary and self producer knew the sound he wanted and desperately wanted them and their vocal sound as his backing band. In the early day of rock this was almost "revolutionary". No one in the rock idiom, white or black, utilised a vocal backing group before Elvis. Certainly Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley were not doing anything like that. Ray Charles was R&B and many of the other acts were doo wop. Sure, Elvis loved the black R&B vocal groups, doo wop, black and white vocal quartets but what possessed him to bring these vocals into the rock arena, bar whatever sound he was looking for in his head, is anyone's guess.
He of course did want to be Dean Martin.
Some history : The Jordanaires began singing backup on recording sessions for Elton Britt, Red Foley, Jimmy Wakely, and Hank Snow as early as 1954. One of television’s early talent shows helped spread their appeal even further. “We had won the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scout Show by singing a black spiritual like ‘Dig a Little Deeper [in] God’s Love,’” remembered Stoker, “Black spirituals are what Elvis loved and we would sing those on the Grand Ole Opry.”
“This is what attracted Elvis to the Jordanaires sound,” Stoker continued. “He’d hear us sing those spirituals on Saturday night. Well, we were working with Eddy Arnold and we went to the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis to do a show. Elvis came back behind the stage to meet us, not to meet Eddy. He said that he’d been hearing us sing on the Grand Ole Opry and he said, ‘Man, let’s sing some of those spirituals.’ so, we got to singing with him in the room. That’s when he said, If I ever get [a] major recording contract, I want you guys to work with me.’ He was on the Sun label at that time. We didn’t think anything about it, we had been told that by a lot of people. It didn’t mean anything at all. But, when RCA signed him in January of 1956 he asked for us.”
The Jordanaires’ impact on Presley’s recordings should not be underestimated. Their smooth yet effervescent backgrounds made Elvis’s raw-boned rockabilly palatable to pop radio programmers. Further, major smashes such as “Don’t Be Cruel,” “I Was the One,” “Teddy Bear,” “Too Much,” and “Don’t” exhibited the type of group interplay usually found in doo-wop—something Presley could not have achieved at Sun Records.
On tour, The King’s delirious, screaming fans made it difficult for the group to hear the singer. As a result, Presley had the Jordanaires stand very close to him on stage. “We could also tell by the movement of his head or the movement of his body where he was in the song,” explained Stoker. “But, we would be as close to him as we could possibly be. He even wanted it that way in the studio. He always wanted us standing right behind him on those TV shows we did with him. Many times he’d step back on my toes. (Laughs.) But you couldn’t hear anything because of the screaming and hollering.”
At Presley’s request, the Jordanaires received billing on all his releases, a sign of respect that he didn’t accord band members Scotty Moore, Bill Black, or D.J. Fontana. But the publicity windfall didn’t create a rash of hit records for the quartet. “We had one or two numbers on Capitol that got into the top ten,” recalled Stoker. “’Sugaree’ got in the top ten on some stations and some numbers that got in the top 50 during the ’50s. We really wanted Capitol Records to push us . Lee Gillette, who was an official at Capitol Records said, ‘Gordon, let me tell you one thing. You guys are masters in the studio at doing background on recording sessions. If you were to get one or two hit records you’ll just fall by the wayside.’ At the time he said it, we didn’t want to hear it, but now we think back and he was so right.” http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3496200049.html
Elvis on his pop recordings isn't singing close harmony but I think he loved close harmony singing and sang much on his (subsequent) gospel recordings. I suspect he realised that on his pop records he was required to have his voice up front (thats the reason the records sold). He didn't want however to do away with the harmonies so he adopted and adapted them. Despite the fact that many angry young rockers may bemoan Elvis pop direction as "girly" they nevertheless can't dispute how influential and universal this sound would become. The results may have taken the hard edge from the rockabilly and given us rock pop but it also opened the doors to countless other rock vocal bands. Sure Brian Wilson may have loved the Four Lads but in a rock setting he was equally enthralled by the vocal backing of the Jordanaires on Elvis songs. So the line from Elvis to The Beach Boys and the Beatles is there.
But enough re Elvis.
The Jordanaires were in high demand in the studio. To date they have sung on records by over 2000 acts apparently including Elvis, Marty Robbins, Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, K. D. Lang, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ricky Nelson, Conway Twitty, Chicago, Neil Young, Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Rogers, Don McLean, Ringo Starr, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ronnie Milsap, The Judds, Julie Andrews, Johnny Cash, Connie Frances, Roy Orbison, Pat Boone, Carol Channing, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Billy Ray Cyrus and Vince Gill.
Back in the 50s and 60s they were in high demand for session work but they did get time to record under their own names. Nothing they recorded under their own steam was hugely successful but the records did showcase their talents.
This is one of those albums.
The music here really taps into the sounds of the day, and that is the mainstream smooth folk sound rather than the voice of the young angry folk movement. The album is not particularly innovative – it really is MOR folk with country pop and substantial gospel overtones. But what we have is assured music, with absolute professionalism sung with conviction and on a Sunday morning or with a glass of red at night there is a soothing quality in this music.
Part of the feeling we get from the music is our familiarity of it. Maybe not in these versions but in subsequent or earlier versions or others songs that have ripped off the melodies of the traditional tunes. The other part is a deliberate attempt by them to create a wistful, melancholy, sometimes sad but never suicidal music that ultimately is intended to massage the soul and be redemptive. After all, at heart, they are a gospel group.
The only problem I have is their gospel tunes are done in the soft folk vein and don't barnstorm as they normally would in the south or as other southern gospel quartets did. I suspect they may have been looking for broader appeal in the north and on the college campuses.
On this album they are comparable to the Sons of the Pioneers and arguably would have had a successful movie song career if they had strayed from Nashville to Hollywood.
Tracks (best in italics)
- This Land Is Your Land – Woody Guthrie – One of greatest of all American patriotic songs.And yes, it was written as a humanist Marxist response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America". I cant think of many national songs that compete with this. Though not dusty and rough hewn like the Guthrie version this is a great version sung with passion.
- All My Trials – Trad – the old slave song. Another incredibly vivid song that seems to capture the history through experience in song. A song that lends itself to multiple voices, as if they exemplified the suffering of many. Probably the most famous version to pop ears is the Elvis version of Mickey Newbury's "American Trilogy" which contains part of "All My Trials"
- Little Moses – Trad – another old country gospel folk song. The Carter Family did it in 1929 and I think it was old then …
Away by the river so clear,
The ladies were winding their way,
While Pharaoh's little daughter stepped down in the water
To bathe in the cool of the day.
Before it was dark, she opened the ark
And found the sweet infant was there.
Before it was dark, she opened the ark
And found the sweet infant was there.
And away by the waters so blue,
The infant was lonely and sad;
She took him in pity and thought him so pretty,
And it made little Moses so glad.
She called him her own, her beautiful son,
And sent for a nurse that was near.
- Didn't It Rain – Trad – another old gospel song – very well known in the South. Recorded with various lyrics by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson the Jordanaires version is sweet but maybe a little genteel.
- Michael (Row The Boat Ashore) – Trad – an old Afro American spiritual from US Civil War days. It was popularised by Pete Seeger in the 50s and became a folk music staple. I've always liked his version and Harry Belafonte's version. For more info http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Row_the_Boat_Ashore
- Much Bigger Than I – MacRae, Barton – I don't know much about this songs pedigree. A pleasant folk song with some spiritual overtones.
- Let Me Ride – Trad – a old spiritual not dissimilar from "Sweet Low Sweet Chariot"
- My Valley – Trad – an old traditional folk song. The song like many of it's ilk is about belonging and a place to call home. There is a touch of melancholia in it though and it is ever so gentle.
- Going Home – Matthews – this is an original one written by Neal Matthews of the Jordanaires. and is another song about the search for "home" which is both a place and a state of mind.
- Promised Land – Trad – not the Chuck Berry song but an old spiritual song. Suffer now and the promised land awaits…
- You Better Run – Trad – a great old gospel song, but again this is a fervent shouter and the Jordanaires are to genteel. Probably keeping in time with the quiet folk elements of the album
- Hands Of God -Kessel, Garland – a contemporary religious song written by Sid Kessel with music by country guitar legend Hank Garland. The song sounds like a theme song from a 50s film. It's very dramatic , unequivocal in lyric and emotive. Agnostics beware: the lyric itself is more "praise God" rather than spiritual. Garland himself is fascinating, based in Nashville he played on many Elvis records (and live) as well as Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and The Everly Brothers. For the guitar nerds out there Garland strongly influenced the design of the Gibson Byrdland guitar. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_Garland
This is as I have said a relaxing and soothing album. But it's gentle folk melodies and songs pulled from the past make it also a fine pastoral album. Definitely one to have on your ipod if you do a lot of cross country walking. I'm keeping this.