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 the end of 1967, 80% of the group had changed. Jim Murray replaced Nielsen at tenor in 1966 and Joe Moscheo took over keyboard duties that same year. Terry Blackwood and Roger Wiles moved into the lead and baritone positions in 1967, leaving bass singer Armond Morales as the only remaining original Imperials member. Recordings such as New Dimensions and Love Is The Thing kept the Imperials near the top of the gospel music industry. After the addition of Blackwood and Wiles, the Imperials began to include the occasional pop song on their albums. Examples include “A Thing Called Love” on their 1968 release The Imperials NOW and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” on 1969's Gospel's Alive And Well.
In 1969, television viewers began to hear The Imperials on a weekly basis after they recorded a new version of the theme song for the popular series Daniel Boone starring Fess Parker. Their version of the theme song was used during the show's sixth and final season.
In early 1971, future Country star and songwriter Larry Gatlin joined the Imperials in Las Vegas, Nevada where they were performing as part of Jimmy Dean's show. Gatlin presumed he was to be the permanent replacement for Roger Wiles who had departed in late 1970, but at the conclusion of the series of Jimmy Dean shows in Vegas, the Imperials instead hired Greg Gordon. Gordon was the son of Anna and Howard Gordon of Chuck Wagon Gang fame.
Greg 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. Also 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.
The January 1973 issue of Singing News reported the Imperials had announced they were disbanding but would "probably regroup from time to time to back up some of the renowned artists with whom they have been associated." Despite the announcement, the group continued to perform and record. A live album was released that year followed by a new studio recording in 1974 (Follow The Man With The Music).
Terry Blackwood left the group in May of 1976 followed by Sherman Andrus in October. David Will was hired after Blackwood left and Russ Taff replaced Andrus. (Blackwood and Andrus partnered again in 1977 at the request of Benson Music to form the contemporary Christian group Andrus Blackwood & Company.) With the soulful vocals of Taff and Will's crooning styles, the Imperials took on a contemporary edge from 1976 forward. One notable exception, however, came in 1979. Their "aw shucks" style novelty song "Oh Buddha" reached the top of the Singing News radio airplay chart and remained number one for an impressive 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 Russ Taff, Paul Smith, David Robertson, and Jonathan Pierce went on to enjoy success as solo artists. Interestingly, four former Imperials members later pulled stints with the Gaither Vocal Band including original member Gary McSpadden, Jim Murray, Jonathan Pierce, and Russ Taff.
In the early 1990s, the Imperials included a female singer, Pam Morales, who was bass singer Armond Morales' sister. In 1993, the Imperials parted ways with their record label Star Song and began producing recordings on their own label. Pam Morales and Jonathan Pierce left the group that year. A brief version of the Imperials in 1993 included Mark Addcock, Peter Pankratz, and Brian Comeaux along with long-time members David Will and Armond Morales, but the group soon shut down for a while.
When the Imperials regrouped, Steven Ferguson and Jeff Walker joined Will and Morales and released an album on the Impact Records label which had limited distribution compared to the Star Song label projects just a few years before. In 1997, the Imperials began releasing albums on their own label, Big God Records. The group fell out of sight on radio and in the Christian press without the support of a major record label, but they maintained a steady tour schedule in churches.
Since 1976, bass singer Armond Morales and baritone David Will had been the consistent members of the Imperials as various lead and tenor singers came and went. David Will left the group in 1999 and was replaced by Armond Morales' son Jason Morales. A few years later in 2003, Armond Morales retired after selecting Ian Owens to succeed him as the group's bass singer. Tenor singer Jeremie Hudson had replaced Steven Ferguson in 1999 and lead singer Shannon Smith had joined the group in 2002. The elder Morales publicly gave this lineup his blessing to carry on the Imperials 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 new recordings by the Stamps Quartet and the Imperials. The album featured the current members of the Stamps, but the Imperials appearing on the album were former members Armond Morales, Jim Murray, Terry Blackwood, Sherman Andrus, and Joe Moscheo. 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 ownership to his son Jason Morales as well as Owens, Smith, and Hudson. The Imperials in turn 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. Ian Owens also returned the following year, replacing bass singer Tim Duncan with Ernie Haase & Signature Sound.
(John Crenshaw contributed to portions of this article.)
Artist Of The Year (1981)
Graphic Layout And Design - No Shortage (1976)
Group Of The Year (1981, 1982, 1983)
Male Group Of The Year (1969, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980)
Pop/Contemporary Album Of The Year - No Shortage (1976); One More Song For You (1981); Priority (1982); Side By Side (1984)
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