The Imperials (1964-2010)
In 1964, Jake Hess was already well known as the lead singer for the Statesmen. Hess wanted to form a quartet that would enter the field of gospel music at the very top of the game. He retired from the Statesmen Quartet on December 7, 1963 to put all of his efforts into this all-star quartet. He contacted Marion Snider who had formerly operated a group called the Imperial Sugar Quartet, and requested permission to use the name “Imperials”. After receiving Snider’s blessing, “Jake Hess and the Imperials” was born.
Hess and former Weatherford Quartet pianist Henry Slaughter chose Sherrill Nielsen (tenor), Gary McSpadden (baritone), and Armond Morales (bass) to complete the new group. At the time, all of the members were active in other major gospel quartets.
The Imperials released five recordings simultaneously to coincide with their debut. They soon began their own newspaper, “The Imperial Times”, to herald their arrival on the gospel music scene. Some groups didn’t want to appear on programs with the Imperials though. They didn't appreciate the way the group was formed. In his book Nothin’ But Fine, Hess details their struggles on the gospel music circuit.
Influential promoters finally accepted the Imperials, though, and they began to break down musical barriers in the 1960s much as the Statesmen had done in the 1950s. In keeping with their trend-setting ways, the Imperials were soon hired to sing backup for Elvis Presley. The classic Presley recording His Hand in Mine prominently features the Imperials.
By 1967, Nielsen, Slaughter, Hess, and McSpadden had departed for various reasons. Jim Murray had replaced Nielsen at tenor in 1966, Joe Moscheo took over keyboard duties, and Terry Blackwood and Roger Wiles moved into the lead and baritone positions. Recordings such as New Dimensions, The Imperials NOW, and Love Is The Thing put the Imperials back on top in the gospel music industry.
In 1969, The Imperials recorded a new version of the theme song for Daniel Boone, a popular television series starring Fess Parker. Their version was used during the show's sixth and final season.
Roger Wiles left the group in 1970. Larry Gatlin sang with the group for about a month in early 1971 before being replaced by Greg Gordon, a son of Anna and Howard Gordon of Chuck Wagon Gang fame. During this time, the Imperials began to record music that was outside the gospel music realm. Popular songs such as “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, “Let it Be”, “My Sweet Lord”, and “A Thing Called Love” became part of their repertoire. In 1972, the Imperials began to stage a pop medley from their album Time to Get it Together. At this time, they became one of the first groups to perform in concert with recorded music tracks complimented by Moscheo’s piano.
Gordon’s tenure with the group was short-lived. In February 1972, Sherman Andrus, a former member of Andraé Crouch & The Disciples was brought in to replace Greg Gordon. The January 1973 issue Singing News reported the Imperials had disbanded but they never actually retired. A live album was released that year followed by a new studio recording in 1974 (Follow The Man With The Music).
In 1976, Terry Blackwood and Sherman Andrus left the Imperials to form the contemporary Christian group Andrus Blackwood & Company. David Will and Russ Taff replaced them, and the Imperials music took on a definite contemporary edge with one notable exception in 1979. Their novelty song "Oh Buddha" hit the top of the Southern Gospel charts and remained there for seven months.
The 1980s saw the Imperials set the standards for vocal music in the growing Christian pop market. Several former Imperials members such as David Robertson, Russ Taff, and Jonathan Pierce went on to enjoy success as solo artists. Interestingly, a number of former Imperials later pulled stints with the Gaither Vocal Band. These include Gary McSpadden, Russ Taff, Jim Murray, and Jonathan Pierce.
In 1993, the Imperials parted ways with their record label Star Song and began producing recordings on their own label. They fell out of sight on radio and the Christian press, but kept up a steady tour schedule in churches.
After 39 years traveling with the Imperials, Armond Morales retired in 2003. He passed the torch to his son Jason Morales, who continued the Imperials legacy with Jeremie Hudson (tenor), Ian Owens (bass), and Shannon Smith (lead) and publicly gave them his blessing to carry on the legacy.
The last few years of the Imperials were tainted by confusion over who had rights to use the name. The music world at large had constantly confused the Morales-led Christian Imperials with the secular group, Little Anthony And The Imperials. From 2004 to 2009, two and sometimes three Christian groups were using the name at any given time.
In 2004, Daywind Records released a CD titled The Gospel Side Of Elvis featuring performances by the Stamps Quartet and by the Imperials. It was actually a group of former Imperials (Armond Morales, Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood, Sherman Andrus and Joe Moscheo) who appeared on the CD. A couple of years later, Armond Morales returned from retirement to form the Classic Imperials with Jim Murray, Dave Will, and Rick Evans. Murray left the Classic Imperials after just a few months, and later resurfaced with another Imperials group that included Blackwood, Andrus, and Joe Moscheo.
The situation between the final version of the Imperials and the Classic Imperials was particularly awkward, since the Imperials included Armond Morales' son, Jason. In 2008, the Imperials (Hudson/Smith/Morales/Owens) filed a lawsuit against Armond Morales insisting that he stop using the Imperials' name. The suit was dropped in 2009 when the elder Morales affirmed that he did transfer the group to the remaining members. At that point, it was agreed that Armond Morales could continue billing his group as the Classic Imperials.
Perry Jones (tenor) and Scott Allen (lead) joined the Imperials replacing Jeremie Hudson and Shannon Smith in 2009. By early 2010, the group had stopped touring. Hudson and Smith returned to the gospel music scene in 2010 when they joined Three Bridges and Ian Owens replaced Tim Duncan with Ernie Haase & Signature Sound.
(John Crenshaw contributed to portions of this article.)
GMA Hall Of Fame (1998)
Due to the large number of projects recorded by the Imperials, the discography section has been divided into separate pages by decade. Please click on one of the links below to access the decade you wish to view.
1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s