CCM Classic Blog

Few names in CCM history garner the respect and notoriety as The Imperials: By Philip Mayabb

Few names in CCM history garner the respect and notoriety as The Imperials...17 Dove awards (including the very first for male group of the year in 1969). 4 Grammy awards, membership in the Gospel Music Association Hall Of Fame, and a roster of members that reads like a who's who of Christian music, and those are just some of accomplishments this group has achieved in their 55 years of ministry.  Full disclosure if your new to reading the blogs - The Imperials are my all time favorite CCM artist, and that makes my job SO much easier when we feature the Imperials on Vinyl Revival (this is the 3rd time they have been on a regular edition of VR, with another at Christmas).  In the list of names who are the biggest legends in the genre, these guys should be right up there with anybody (don't try to argue, you will not win), and this week we are not only featuring a classic Imperials LP, but this happens to be the oldest LP we have featured on VR to date (it was released in 1967), and the album is Jake Hess & The Imperials' final recording, called "To Sing Is The Thing."

A lot of fans know about the Imperials from the Russ Taff era (1977-1981) on, a few more know about the Andrus/Blackwood era (1971-1976), but sadly most fans know little to nothing about the lineups prior to 1971.  As we all know, in 1962 Jake Hess, the iconic lead singer of the Statesmen Quartet, birthed a desire to start a new group, that would stand head and shoulders above any other male quartet in gospel music (keep in mind, there was no "contemporary" music at the time...that would come several years later). Jake started looking at men who were traveling with other southern gospel groups on the quartet circuit, and slowly began to target the people he wanted for his new, premium gospel group. By late 1963, Hess had departed the Statesmen, and had built his dream quartet, by assembling baritone Gary McSpadden (Oak Ridge Boys), tenor Sherrill Nielsen (The Speer Family), bass singer Armond Morales and pianist Henry Slaughter (The Weatherford Quartet) with himself to form Jake Hess & The Imperials, and the gospel music world was set on its ear.  The Imperials did everything they could to set themselves apart from the typical gospel quartet...they would release an astonishing total of twelve albums from 1964 to 1967.  Think about this - that means they averaged a trip to Nashville's recording studios every 4 months, in an era when even the most active gospel groups released no more than two albums a year.  The group also published its own newsletter, and in one of the most shocking moves to the gospel music establishment, pioneered the use of a full studio band, with drums and electric guitars (most SG quartets used no more than a piano and a bass) for both recording sessions and live performances.  

Those innovations, along with The Imperials phenomenal sound, made them a favorite of fans, and a target for their fellow singing groups.  In Hess' autobiography "Nothin' But Fine," he discussed how some groups, including his long time employer The Statesmen, refused to perform on the same ticket with the Imperials, but that did not stop the group from forging their place in music history - first in Southern Gospel, and later in a new genre called Contemporary Christian music.  While most feel The Imperials began their transformation with 1968's "New Dimensions" LP, I actually submit that they were on their way with "To Sing Is The Thing," which was released in 1967, and I will attempt to prove that this week on Vinyl Revival.  By the time this album was recorded, Sherrill Nielsen had left, and was replaced by a tenor named Jim Murray, and when Henry Slaughter parted ways with the group, he was replaced by a young pianist named Joe Moscheo, so the lineup for "Sing" was noticeably younger than it had been in previous years, and even though they were still working with established songwriters such as Dottie Rambo and Bill & Gloria Gaither, The Imperials had began recording songs written by younger writers as well, and that fact began to give the group a more updated sound.  

That updated, "modern" sound came to the forefront when Jake Hess & The Imperials made what would be their final trip to the studio together in 1967, and "To Sing Is The Thing" would be the finished product from those sessions. Even the front cover should've indicated to the fans that The Imperials were changing...the group was photographed in a studio, surrounded by all kind of musical instruments, but if you look, you'll see those evil drums and guitars among the instruments pictured, along with xylophones, organs and other different forms of music.  In the late 60s, it was largely customary for quartet members to not only wear suits, but matching suits, and not a one of The Imperials are wearing matching suits, and Joe and Jake aren't even wearing jackets, in fact Joe's ensemble looks like something from one of the clubs in New York or L.A.  So if you read between the lines, you can see that this is going to be a different experience than The Imperials had given over the previous years.  

And then, there's the music...the album opens with "Heaven Came Down, And Glory Filled My Soul," and the introduction sounds different from anything on any other southern gospel album from 1967.  Electric guitars and bells dominate the opening bars of the song, and while the vocals are vintage Imperials, the music sounds like something you would have heard on a mainstream radio station in the late 60s, but there are several other songs on the album that are in the same mode.  For instance "Believing In Jesus," which was written by Armond Morales, sounds like the kind of music that was played in lounges all over the country, but with Godly lyrics.  It  has a jazzy feel to it, and the vocal arrangement is one that most other quartets could not have pulled off.  "To Be With God" is also more modern sounding than the music released by all of the other male quartets, again with vocals that are not only beautiful to listen to, but smooth as glass (not a surprise).  One of the songs that did surprise me was the final song on side one called "I Got It," and if you have seen any old episodes of "American Bandstand" from that era, the music in this song sounds like something the teenagers would have been be-bopping to on television.  I can only begin to imagine what some traditional gospel music fans must have thought when they heard this track for the first time, because the electric guitars were mixed in quite dominantly, and it's hard to miss their presence as you listen to the song.  I've heard songs in some of the old classic beach movies from that time that sounded just like this one, but with different lyrics...incidentally, "I've Got It" is one of my favorite tracks from the album.

Almost all of side two of "To Sing Is The Thing" carries on the updated sound, with songs like "Wilderness Song" incorporating the funky style organ that so many mainstream artists were using  on their records at the time.  "Jesus, I Believe What You Said," which came from the pen of the Gaithers, is arranged with a folk sound, which was extremely popular at the time, in fact, the music sounds like it was taken from a album by The Association, or one of those type groups.  One of the prettiest songs on the album, "The Saviour I Sing Of Today" is another song with an amazing vocal arrangement, and it is a perfect example of what Jake Hess had formed The Imperials for...a group that could perform difficult arrangements, and make them look easy.  The harmony is unreal!  

Not all of "To Sing" broke from traditional quartet style however, there are several tracks on this recording that would have played well on southern gospel radio, and one of the best in this category is "Come On And Sing," which was written by country singer Mel Tillis.  Some of the lyrics were altered a little, to fit on a gospel record, but even though the music is straight up southern gospel, the subject matter was more contemporary than what most other gospel groups were singing at the time. "The Good Book Song" sounds strikingly similar musically to what another popular gospel group, The Happy Goodman Family, was doing at the time, and the group provided their usually stellar vocals to push the message front and center.  One of the best vocal performances on the record is Hess' lead on a song called "These Hands."  While Jake Hess is and will always be a southern gospel legend, few fans of contemporary Christian music know much about him (which is a tragedy), but when you listen to this song, you'll realize that the man had a terrific set of pipes, which served him well into his 80s.  I believe that each and every one will enjoy this particular track this week.

All 12 of the songs on this album are very good, I would say there isn't a bad track on the LP.  As I stated earlier, this would be the last time that Jake Hess & The Imperials would release a new album.  About the middle of 1967, Hess began having health issues, which would force him to retire, under doctor's orders.  Around the same time, founding baritone Gary McSpadden also decided to leave, and I have heard unconfirmed reports that the new, more contemporary direction The Imperials were pursuing was a big part of McSpadden's decision to leave.  Upon retiring, Hess handed the leadership of the group off to the only remaining founder, bass singer Morales.  Before The Imperials headed to the studio the next time, a young lead singer named Terry Blackwood had been hired to replace Hess, and a young man from San Diego named Roger Wiles became the group's second baritone.  Obviously, since Hess was no longer singing with the group, they became "The Imperials," and the rest is history.  This group is one of the most loved artists in CCM history, and they will always be considered legends in the genre.  Even though most would say their legendary status was gained in the 70s (which I agree with), I feel their contemporary genesis was in the 1960s, with this particular album.  So take a listen this week, and let me know if you agree or disagree with me, but no matter how you feel about this album, Jake Hess & The Imperials definitely proved "To Sing Is The Thing."

Track list

Side 1 

1. Heaven Came Down And Glory Filled My Soul

2. Come On And Sing

3. Believing In Jesus

4. The Good Book Song

5. To Be With God

6. I Got It

Side 2

1. Wilderness Song

2. These Hands

3. Jesus, I Believe What You Said

4. The Saviour I Sing Of Today

5. He Lifted Me

6. Glory Land

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