Our History

In 1963, Jake Hess had a dream of a group he wanted to organize that would revolutionize the gospel quartet music field. He called them Jake Hesshistory_pic1 and the Imperials. He wanted a group that sang with excellence, precision, and didn’t follow the normal rules. In other words, he wanted a trend-setting group. He achieved that with that original group. He hired Sherrill Neilsen for tenor, Gary McSpadden for baritone, Armond Morales for bass, and Henry Slaughter on piano. They were everything that Jake envisioned and more. They completely changed the landscape of southern gospel music. While they still operated in that genre, they expanded their sphere of influence by going outside the normal channels of harmonies, song selection, and how they interacted with their audience.

From their first year, they created quite a stir and charted a course that would take them in directions they never thought possible. The vision of Jake Hess was far more than what he had experienced even with the famous Statesmen Quartet, of which he had shined as their lead singer. As lead for the Imperials, he made such an impact on the industry that many groups who had been singing for such a long time, took note, and began to emulate to some small degree the trends Jake began to instigate. For instance, they were the first southern gospel group to hire a band to back them on stage. That was initially met with a great deal of opposition and the group paid a heavy price for that effort. However, when those with open minds began to hear a new approach to the genre, and actually listened to the songs in this new format, they ultimately changed their minds. It is always been that those who dare to make a new statement, initially incur opposition. “We’ve never done it that way”, or “It will never work”, was replaced with “Well, sure, if you do it that way”!

As is the case in every group, circumstances changed for some individuals and changes had to occur. After only a year, Sherrill Neilsen, tenor, left the group. To fill that position, Jake hired Jim Murray. Jim had a different style from Sherrill, but it fit the group perfectly. Jim ultimately became known as one of the very finest tenors to ever sing on the gospel platform. He remained with the group for over twenty years! Henry Slaughter, pianist, left the group and Jake found Joe Moscheo to fill that slot. Joe was the first Italian to ever make his mark in southern gospel music. Not history_pic2long after that, Jake was told by his doctors that he should get off the road if he wanted to live. His heart simply couldn’t take the demands of travel. So when Jake decided to leave, Gary McSpadden also left. That left Armond, Joe, and Jim with having to replace two dynamic voices and personalities. At that time, in 1967, Terry Blackwood had just graduated from the University of Memphis and he had a deep heritage in gospel music, because his father, Doyle Blackwood, was the original founding member and original emcee of the world famous, Blackwood Brothers Quartet. He was asked to fill the position of lead singer for the group. A young man from San Diego, CA, Mr. Roger Wiles, who was making his mark in the music world in southern California, was asked to take the baritone position. This completed the transition for the new group and no one knew what the future would bring. The sound was completely different now, and yet, Jake was very pleased. The direction of the group changed once again. Elvis Presley took note of that group as he was about to launch his comeback to live performances.

In 1969, the Imperials won their first Dove Award from The Gospel Music Association as ‘Best Male Group’ of the year. The “New” Imperials went on to record several distinctly original albums for the Benson Company, and were granted their own imprint label, ‘Impact Records’. Their style had changed to what became a more contemporary approach to harmonies and song selection. They were the only male quartet to be invited to the first “Jesus” festival in Dallas, TX, a line-up consisting of mostly California musicians borne out of the Calvary Chapel ministries. There were singers in tie-died t-shirts and torn jeans and barefoot, on stage singing their original songs God hadhistory_pic3 given them, and teens came from everywhere to witness the likes of Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, and the 2nd Chapter of Acts. The Imperials made a mark then and established themselves as a group that fit right in with that crowd and yet retained their unique blend of harmonies that the teens loved. From there, Jesus Festivals sprang up all over the US, and the Imperials were an integral part of that movement.

In the spring of 1969, a call came into the Imperials office from Col. Tom Parker. Col. Parker said that Elvis would be opening in Las Vegas later that year, and Elvis wanted the Imperials to open that show with him. To go from a position of prominence on stage to singing backup was a bit of a stretch but after all, it was ELVIS PRESLEY! We took the job. The rest is history. Obviously, our gospel fans were a bit perplexed that we would do this and yet they really didn’t lose us. We continued to do our concert dates as time permitted. We simply made ourselves available to sing with Elvis when he did his concerts.

history_pic4Until the end of 1971, the Imperials worked behind the greatest performer of all time. Unfortunately, he didn’t work all the time and we needed to, so we continued to make contracts for gospel concerts. That required a signed agreement that we would be there. There came a time when Elvis called at the last minute and we had already committed to do a date somewhere else. We couldn’t back out of an agreement, so reluctantly, we left Elvis to pursue our gospel roots. We remained the best of friends and often, he would come hear us sing when he had the time.

Later, Roger Wiles left the group and was replaced with Sherman Andrus. The group had already made its mark in the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) world that had developed. God blessed the group as they ventured out into the world of CCM! The Imperials helped pave the way for many other singers with their innovative styling and music that was recognized as some of the best that gospel music has ever had to offer. Many of their songs went on to be memorable standards, universally recognized and appreciated by the fans.

It wasn’t until Elvis Presley Enterprises, ‘EPE’ decided to do a ‘reunion’ concert in 1997 at the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum to commemorate the history_pic5passing of Elvis, 20 years after his death. They called everyone who had ever been on stage with Elvis to come to Memphis for a ‘Tribute Concert’, and to introduce the ‘Big Screen’ event. The show rekindled interest in the Imperials, so to respond to the numerous demands from Elvis Fan Clubs, promoters, and the annual events that take place in Memphis each year, different members of the Imperials returned to the group to satisfy those demands. At various times, former members would come to fulfill those requests. Jim Murray, Roger Wiles, Armond Morales, Terry Blackwood, Sherman Andrus, and Joe Moscheo.

Jim Murray has since retired from the group and is Minister of Music at a huge church in Mt. Juliet, TN. Armond Morales does tours with his wife, Bonnie, in churches around the US. Roger has retired from singing entirely for health reasons. Sherman has maintained his solo ministry out of OKC, OK. Joe has recently retired from the group. Terry Blackwood continues to satisfy Elvis fans and gospel fans as best he can with two new men who bring a wealth of experience to the group. Darrell Toney, baritone, has a long history in the field of gospel music. He formed a contemporary Christian group, called The Renaissance, and they experienced a great deal of success on their own. Darrell is also an accomplished guitarist, having produced and played lead guitar on a tribute cd for the famous and legendary, Jerry Reid. Singing the tenor is a man who has a rich heritage in gospel music. For several years he sang tenor for the Stamps Qt. Now, he balances his time between the Imperials and that great doo-wop group known as the Vogues, Mr. history_pic6Royce Taylor. So, many times the Imperials will come as a trio. It’s clear that it’s difficult to find a bass that matches the quality of Armond Morales. So, to satisfy those who love to hear a great bass, Terry has enlisted the service of Mr. Gene McDonald, often seen on the Bill Gaither videos and concerts. There is not a finer bass in our field now than Gene. From time to time, if the promoter requests it, Gene will be included. We welcome the opportunity for you to hear this unique group and hope we can visit your fan club, organization, or church, in the future.

The group can be contacted through Terry on the contact tab of the website. We hope to hear from you and look forward to sharing our music with you. Blessings to all.