As the lead vocalist of the pioneering Statesmen Quartet, Jake Hess was not only an instrumental force in expanding the popularity and boundaries of Southern gospel, but his outsized, dramatic style was also a crucial influence on the development of rock & roll, thanks to his standing as the favorite singer of the young Elvis Presley. William Jesse Hess was born December 24, 1927, in Limestone County, AL, the youngest of 12 children born into an impoverished sharecropping family. His father, Stovall, and some of his older brothers earned extra money performing and teaching in area singing schools, and at the age of five Jake made his debut with the family group, delivering a solo rendition of "Harmonies of Heaven."
He later studied harmony at the Stamps-Baxter School and performed in a series of vocal groups, including Louie Auten & the Tennessee Valley Boys, before signing on with Ottis Williams & the Haleyville Melody Boys in 1944. At the age of just 16, Hess joined the immensely popular John Daniel Quartet, making his recorded debut on "Just a Prayer Away." In quick succession, he then performed with Daniel's brother Troy's group; his own brothers Ollie, Butch, and Cleveland in the Hess Brothers Quartet; the beloved Sunny South Quartet (where he collaborated with another future gospel legend, bass vocalist J.D. Sumner); and then the Sunny South's chief rival, the Melody Masters Quartet.
Until this point a utility man, in 1948 Hess finally got his chance to sing lead when he was approached by pianist Hovie Lister to join his fledgling Statesmen Quartet. Lister was to prove an enormously influential figure in his own right -- the Statesmen were among the earliest Southern gospel groups to introduce piano into their music, and his soulful, ragtime-influenced style heralded a major shift away from the rigid accompaniment of the past. Though an ordained minister, Lister understood the necessity of updating gospel to appeal to postwar audiences, particularly young people, and thanks to their frequent appearances on radio shows, gospel package tours, and television, the Statesmen succeeded in capturing a new generation of listeners, among them an aspiring teen singer named Elvis Presley, who cited Hess and R&B crooner Roy Hamilton as his primary influences. In addition to recording for Capitol and RCA, the Statesmen headlined their own syndicated TV series, and in 1952 they began touring with their chief rivals, the Blackwood Brothers, playing to record crowds throughout the South. Their package tours ended in tragedy on June 30, 1954, when the Blackwoods' plane crashed, killing members R.W. Blackwood and Bill Lyles -- Hess saved the life of James Blackwood after he attempted to rescue his brother from the burning wreckage.
Hess remained with the Statesmen Quartet until late 1963, when he formed his own quartet, the Imperials. Much as the Statesmen redefined gospel with the addition of Lister's piano, the Imperials further pushed the envelope by bolstering their sound with electric guitar, bass, and drums. Signing to RCA, the group topped the Christian charts with no fewer than 14 singles, in addition to hosting their own Nashville-based syndicated TV series. In 1967 they also backed Presley on his gospel outing How Great Thou Art. But that same year, recurring kidney problems and heart trouble forced Hess to quit touring, and he reluctantly left the Imperials to join the cast of the Nashville gospel broadcast Heaven's Jubilee. Despite his precautions, Hess still suffered a heart attack, and although his prognosis for recovery was grim, he not only recovered but also returned to television a few weeks later. In time he even returned to the road, recruiting son Chris and daughter Becky to form Jake Hess & the Sound of Youth, which featured an 18-member youth choir. In 1968, he also recorded the first in a series of RCA solo albums, earning Grammy Awards over three consecutive years for the albums Beautiful Isle of Somewhere, 1969's Ain't That Beautiful Singing, and 1970's Everything Is Beautiful.
As the 1970s dawned, Hess formed the Jake Hess Sound, a stripped-down version of the Sound of Youth featuring just Becky and Chris and a rhythm section -- the group spent the remainder of the decade touring the fair circuit, including a four-year residency in California. In 1977 he also sang at Presley's funeral, much as he had performed at the burial of country legend Hank Williams 24 years earlier. Hess returned to traditional group performance in 1981 as a member of the Masters V, which reunited him with Sumner, Lister, and James and Jake Blackwood; their self-titled debut LP won a Grammy, and they continued touring until accumulating health concerns forced them off the road in 1988.
Three years later Hess formed a new edition of the Statesmen Quartet, but on doctor's orders he retired from touring for good in 1993, relocating with wife Joyce to Columbus, GA. In the years to follow he was a fixture of Bill Gaither's Homecoming gospel video series, and in 1997 was inducted into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame. He also resumed his solo recording career with LPs, including the jazz-inspired Leanin' and Terry & Jake, a collaboration with NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw. In addition, he published an autobiography, Nothin' But Fine: The Music and the Gospel According to Jake Hess. On December 14, 2003, just days after an Atlanta appearance with Gaither and his "Homecoming Friends," Hess suffered another heart attack -- he died January 4, 2004, in Opelika, AL, at the age of 76. ~ Jason Ankeny