GOGR Music History -
The Imperials

The name "Imperials" has long been synonymous with class and dignity in the gospel music world. The name "Imperial Quartet" was first used by Marion Snider and his Imperial Quartet in the mid-1940's. Prior to forming the Imperial Quartet, Snider's resume included tenures with the Rangers Quartet, the VO Stamps Original Quartet, and the Blackwood Brothers. Snider formed a new quartet that quickly attracted the ears of a radio sponsor: The Imperial Sugar Company. The new quartet became the Imperial Sugar Quartet, and began a long association with the Texas Quality Radio Network. The Imperial Sugar Quartet was very popular for nearly a decade as they performed both on the airwaves and concert stage throughout Texas and surrounding areas.

Mr. Snider was recently inducted into the SGMA Hall of Fame. Although the name "Marion Snider and the Imperial Sugar Quartet" was retired in the early 1950's, Mr. Snider continues to perform today as he reaches into his ninth decade. However, the Imperial story doesn't stop here!

The Statesmen Quartet was on top of the gospel music world in the early 1960's. In spite of their popularity, lead singer Jake Hess had aspirations to form his own group. He wanted to lead a quartet that would enter the field of gospel music at the very top of the game. Jake retired from the Statesmen Quartet December 7, 1963 to put all of his efforts into this all star quartet. He had many ideas to make the group unique. Jake realized the importance of an appropriate name for this hand-picked group. He contacted Marion Snider and requested permission to use the name "Imperials". After receiving Mr. Snyder's blessings, "Jake Hess and the Imperials" was born.

Jake Hess and former Weatherford Quartet pianist Henry Slaughter put their collective minds together and hand-picked all-star quartet. Sherrill Nielsen(tenor), Jake Hess (lead), Gary McSpadden (baritone), Armond Morales (bass), and Henry Slaughter (pianist) were chosen for this new quartet. At the time, all of the members were active in other major gospel quartets. Nielsen had recently joined the Speer Family, McSpadden was singing baritone with the Oak Ridge Boys, and Morales was the bass singer for the Weatherfords. Morales and Slaughter had spent many years on the stage together with the Weatherfords and had formed a close relationship.

Henry Slaughter had spent several months writing songs and arranging music that would fit the individual voices of this chosen quartet. When the group converged in late 1963, the arrangements had been prepared and the work began. The Imperials had a special sound integrating Slaughter's unique arrangements highlighting those four all-star voices. The Imperials began their life as a quartet as one of the premire groups in gospel music. There wasn't a weak link in the chain, neither vocally or instrumentally.

The Imperials soon developed a vast repitore. They could sing quartet classics, hymns, inspirational songs, original tunes, spirituals, and anything in between. Their program was so diverse that they could sing for two hours and never encore a song. If the audience wanted more, the Imperials simply sang another song. This became a trademark of the Imperials and something that set them apart from all other quartets in the industry. Another item that set the group apart was the establishment of a morals clause for any member of the Imperials. In short, they lived what they sang.

Promotion was important to the Imperials. The Imperials were presented with several recording contracts as news of their formation reached the recording companies. The Impeials 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. Their performances had been polished, and they were poised to take the gospel music world by storm. However, there was another storm that the Imperials didn't forsee brewing in the distance.

As noted earlier, Jake Hess and the Imperials Qt. was formed by "hand picking" members from other established groups in gospel music. This soon became quite a burden for the Imperials. There were groups that didn't want to appear with the Imperials. In his book, "Nothin' But Fine", Jake details their struggles on the gospel music circuit because of their unusual formation.

The Imperials were finally accepted by the influential promoters. They soon began to break down musical barriers in the 1960's much as the Statesmen had done in the 1950's. Instrumentation was added to their recordings and live appearances. Their youthful sound led the Imperials to previously unheard of bookings on college campuses around the country as they spread the Good News.

In keeping with their trend-setting ways, the Imperials were soon hired to sing backup for Elvis Presley. Elvis had idolized Jake, and was thrilled to sing on the same recordings with his hero. The classic Elvis recording, "His Hand in Mine", prominently features Jake Hess and the Imperials.

Sherrill Nielsen was the first Imperial to leave the group, and he was replaced by Jim Murray. Jim had sung with the Stamps Trio, Inspirationals and Orrell Quartet prior to joining the Imperials. Slaughter was the next to depart. He was replaced by Joe Moscheo. Joe previously played with the Harmoneers and Prophets. They continued the sound that made the Imperials famous.

Jake Hess began experiencing the first of many health problems in 1966. These health problems brought about his retirement from the Imperials. Gary McSpadden also retired from the group at the same time as Jake, leaving Jim Murray, Armond Morales, and Joe Moscheo to reform the group.

Change in gospel quartets in inevitable, but few groups handle the change as well as the Imperials. The year of 1967 dawned with a new group of Imperials. Roger Wiles and Terry Blackwood were hired to replace McSpadden and Hess. Some promoters were hesitant to book the "new" Imperials, but their talent soon overcame the doubters. Recordings such as "New Dimensions", "The Imperials NOW", and "Love is the Thing" put the Imperials back on top in the gospel music industry. Terry Blackwood came from the Blackwood legacy, and had sung with groups such as the Stamps Quartet and the Memphians. On the other hand, Roger Wiles wasn't as well known in the industry. He had sung with his family group, the Melodaires. If you can find some of their recordings, you can hear the early influence of the Imperials in their songs.

The "new" Imperials continued to be trend setters. They won the 1969 Dove Award for male quartet of the year. They continued toward a more contemporary focus in their music. Roger Wiles left the group in 1970 and was replaced by Greg Gordon. Gordon is the son of Anna and Howard Gordon of Chuck Wagon Gang fame. He had previously sung with the Chuck Wagon Gang, Downings, and Charity's Children and had been an instrumentalist for the Oak Ridge Boys for several years. He brought a youthful enthusiasm to the Imperials that fit their persona quite well.

During this time, the Imperials began to record music that was obviously outside the gospel music realm. Popular songs such as "Bridge Over Troubled Waters", "Let it Be", "My Sweet Lord", "Day by Day", "A Thing Called Love", "Teach Your Children", and "Joy to the World" became a part of their stage and recording repitore. Their hair grew longer and their clothes more modern, but the Message remained the same. 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 instrumental soundtracks complimented by Moscheo's piano.

Gordon's tenure with the group was short-lived. In February 1972, the Imperials shocked the conservative world of gospel music when they became the first interracial quartet in gospel music. They hired Sherman Andrus, a former member of Andrae Crouch and the Disciples, to replace Greg Gordon. The energy and stage presence of the Imperials left little doubt that their direction was moving toward Contemporary Christian music. They soon hired a band, Solid Rock, to accompany them in their live appearances.

Joe Moscheo left the road in 1975 to pursue other business interests. In the mid 1970's, Terry Blackwood and Sherman Andrus left the Imperials to form the contemporary Christian group Andrus, Blackwood and Company. They were replaced by David Will and Russ Taff. The group has continued to thrive in Contemporary Christian circles. Personnel changes continued as did their popularity in the Contemporary Christian field.

The group has continued to evolve, with original bass singer Armond Morales's son Jason continuing at the helm of this trendsetting group.

For more detailed information about the current Imperials and their history in the Contemporary Christian field, visit www.theimperials.org.

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