Jake Hess: 1927 to 2004
Jake Hess may have been the greatest little-known singer in the history of American popular music. He was inarguably among its most influential, serving as Elvis Presley’s primary and most enduring vocal model. A one-time lead singer for southern gospel legends the Statesmen Quartet, the Imperials Quartet, and the Masters Five, Hess died January 4 after suffering a heart attack in December. He was 76.
Born on Christmas Eve in 1927, Hess came of age in Haleyville, Alabama, during the Great Depression. He began his professional music career as a teenager, singing on the radio with a hillbilly outfit called Lloyd George & the Rhythm Rascals. It wasn’t long, however, before he landed the lead singer spot in the John Daniel Quartet, a southern gospel group that performed regularly on the Grand Ole Opry during the Second World War. In 1948, Hess moved to Atlanta where he became the lead singer for Hovie Lister & the Statesmen Quartet.
The coming decade would be a golden age for black and white quartets alike, an era when the Statesmen gained Nabisco sponsorship for a nationally syndicated television show and had their music released by major record companies. Between 1954, when the Statesmen moved from Capitol to RCA-Victor, and the end of 1963, when Hess left to head his own group, the Imperials, the Statesmen released 30 singles and thirteen albums for the latter label.
Hess sang lead on most of these, unloosing his tenor to sprint eagerly from this world on Stuart Hamblen’s “This Ole House” or to pray with earnest humility on “Faith Unlocks The Door”, to cite his signature performances. The guiding force of all southern gospel music is to praise the Lord with unabashed joy; Hess, energetic and instantly distinctive, was a master of this impulse. He paired the enunciation of a diction teacher — the better to ensure his lessons were comprehended by his listeners — with an emotion-filled vibrato and punchy, dynamic phrasing. His “Good News” was felt as well as understood.
Hess’ dramatic approach was borrowed nearly whole cloth by Presley, who as a teenager regularly attended the Statesmen’s “all-night sings” in Memphis. As singer Johnny Rivers told Presley biographer Jerry Hopkins, “One of Elvis’ idols when he was young was Jake Hess of the Statesmen Quartet. He was playing some of their records one day and he said, ‘Now you know where I got my style.'”
Presley frequently honored his hero, enlisting Hess and his Imperials to sing on his 1967 album How Great Thou Art and choosing the Imperials, sans Hess (who’d left the road after a 1968 heart attack even while embarking upon a brief RCA solo career), to back him when he returned to touring in ’69. When Presley died, Hess sang at his disciple’s funeral, just as he earlier performed at the funeral of Hank Williams.
In 1981, Hess teamed with former Blackwood Brothers J.D. Sumner and James Blackwood and with fellow Statesmen Hovie Lister and Rosie Roselle to form the Masters Five, a southern gospel “supergroup.” By the late ’80s, though, Hess’ persistent poor health — he’d suffered kidney trouble since before Elvis was discharged from the Army — was a greater concern than ever. In the ’90s, excepting a frail few appearances on Bill Gaither’s “Homecoming” TV specials, he retreated from the gospel spotlight.
In his heyday, however, Hess had been as vibrant a stage presence as he was a singer, springing in place or dropping to a knee, alternately beaming, pleading, or weeping with his audience. “He gives me light in my darkest hour,” he testified, eager to be heaven-bound. “Oh-oh-oh, wonderful is this uh-Lord!” For those who heard him and believed, Jake Hess was surely made in that Lord’s image.