The group was formed when gospel legend Jake Hess decided to form his own "super-group". Hess
had been the lead singer for Hovie Lister and the Statesmen for the previous 17 years. In 1963, he began the process of forming Jake Hess and The Imperials. He formed it in a very unusual way: rather than auditioning singers, or getting together with friends of his, he "hand-picked" singers from other quartets at the time that he thought of as "the best" in their respective categories.
The baritone singer was Gary McSpadden, a young man who had subbed for Hess with The Statesmen when Hess had to be hospitalized. Reportedly, when he heard what McSpadden sounded like with The Statesmen, Hess said "When I form my group, that young man will be in it." And he was, but he had to quit The Oak Ridge Boys, with whom he was singing at the time.
The bass singer was a young Filipino named Armond Morales who at the time was singing with The Weatherfords. Pianist Henry Slaughter also came from that group. Sherrill Nielsen, of The Speer Family, was hired as tenor. Jake Hess - Armond Morales – Sherrill Nielsen – Gary McSpadden – and Henry Slaughter, each brought his part of the investment money to start the group. The first album of 1964 was with Skylight Records called Jake Hess and The Imperials.
Jake Hess formed a unique group in a couple of respects. Firstly, they had a "Morals Clause" that meant all the members had to live what they sang. Secondly, they had a large repertoire that enabled them to sing all day without repeating a song. The group signed with Benson Records and as a signing bonus the record company bought their first bus. They were very prolific, with three more albums released in their first year alone. They were "Introducing the Illustrious Imperials”,
"Fireside Hymns", and "Blends & Rhythms". In 1965, they released "Talent Times Five", "Slaughter Writes - Imperials Sing", “Happy Sounds Of The Imperials”, “He Was A Preachin’ Man”, and “Slightly Regal”, but by 1966, Sherrill Nielsen had moved on, and a young tenor singer by the name of Jim Murray became a partner in the already popular group. For the next twenty years, Jim Murray would provide the other anchor of the group's trademark sound, and has become what many believed to be the greatest Tenor singer of his time.
By this time, the group had become a household name in Christian homes across the country. They performed many concerts with Hess's old group, the Statesmen, and others as well. They were famous for thinking "outside the box" and adding songs to their repertoire and performing in venues other than where southern gospel groups usually would. They released the album "The Happy Sounds of Jake Hess & the
the Imperials" before they had another change-over. Henry Slaughter left the group later that year, to be replaced by a young man named Joe Moscheo. (You can see him in the bottom right of the picture below.) Four more albums were produced between 1966 and 1967: "He Was a Preachin' Man", "The Imperials Sing Inspirational Classics", "The Imperials Sing Their Favorite Hymns" and "To Sing is the Thing".
Jake Hess again began to experience health issues. He was plagued by them all his life, and by the time he passed away in January 2004 he had suffered three heart attacks. Gary McSpadden and Jake Hess left the group at the same time in mid 1966 leaving Armond Morales, Jim Murray and Joe Moscheo as partners. Armond, Jim, and Joe, reconstructed the group and began the search for new members. For a new lead singer, Armond hired Terry Blackwood (bottom left in the picture below), the son of gospel
hired as baritone. When they released their 1966 album, the first without Jake, entitled "New Dimensions", they unveiled a new sound that wasn't entirely bound by the constraints of southern gospel. The almost modern-sounding album still contained the tight harmonies the group had become famous for. The beginning of 1968 the album “Now” was released and is considered an early classic. Terry Blackwood's dynamic lead vocals made him into one of the greatest lead singers in gospel music; a title which many still attribute to him today.
From 1968 to 1974 the group sang back-up for Jimmy Dean on his road shows along with Elvis Presley from 1969-1971. The group became incredibly well-known. They released a 1969 album entitled "Love is the Thing", and followed that in 1970 with a live album called "Gospel's Alive and Well". By the time that album had been released, Roger Wiles had left the group and Greg Gordon (top middle below) replaced him.
Greg was younger, and had a modern-style sound to his voice. The group began to noticeably change to a younger modern style themselves. Their hair got longer, their outfits flashier and their sound began to sharpen to a more contemporary flavor. They even released an album of modern-day pop hits called "Time to Get it Together", wherein they found the religious truth in songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water, Teach Your Children and Let It Be, among others. It was the only album Gordon recorded with the group. He left in 1971 and the group performed several concerts with country legend Larry Gatlin filling in before finally
hiring Sherman Andrus (second from right below), formerly of Andre Crouch and the Disciples. This made them the first interracial Christian group America had ever seen. Andrus and Blackwood both sang "lead" for this version of the group as they became less and less hardwired into "parts". The Andrus/Blackwood era became the most popular combination, to that point, as they began to set the pace for other styles of music. There are many fans that still hold to the belief that this was the best version of the group. They released 5 albums: "The Imperials" (1972), "Live" (1973), "Follow the Man with the Music" (1974), "No Shortage" (1975) and "Just Because" (1976). The only change in the lineup during this time was Joe Moscheo, who left shortly after completing "Follow the Man with the Music". He sold his share of the group to Armond and Jim and was never replaced.
In early 1976, just shortly after the release of "Just Because", Terry left due to the death of his father, needing to be home with his family. Dave Will (far right below) was hired as the new baritone, beginning a 23-year stint with the group, making him the longest-lasting group member other than Armond himself. Sherman left the group in late 1976 being replaced by Russ Taff (second from right below) becoming the new lead singer. His dynamic, distinctive voice became the voice of the group. At this point the group began to leave their
trademark tight harmonies and became less a "quartet" and more of a four-man vocal band.
In the twelve year contract with The Benson Company they produced 22 albums. The next twelve years the group signed with Word Records and recorded 13 albums.
The stage was now set for this extraordinary combination of singers to take their place in the anthology of The Imperials. Armond and Jim now joined by Dave, and Russ, would embark on a quest that would land them in the center of a growing Christian Music Industry. They broke down all of the musical barriers and helped lead the Contemporary Christian Music industry toward record breaking “record” sales, combined with a strong and enduring concert schedule. This combination has the distinct banner as one of the best Christian groups of all time. No one could predict the impact these four men would have on the Christian Music industry, on churches, and on
the Body of Christ. The albums released by this lineup include "Sail On" (1977), "Imperials Live" (1978), "Heed the Call" (1979), "One More Song for You" (1979), “Priority” (1980) and finally, “Christmas With The Imperials” (1980). "Heed the Call", "One More Song for You" and "Priority" each are considered modern classics from the group and contain many of the group's hit singles. In 1981, Russ Taff left to pursue his solo career, and his time with the group produced many of Gospel music’s favorite songs, which are forever locked in the history of this organization. His replacement was Paul Smith (second from right below). Smith provided the group with an opportunity to get back to a four part vocal sound, and, although he had the edge of Taff, the group took a more direct approach to vocal harmony and purposeful ministry. He debuted with the group on the 1982 album "Stand By the Power".
In 1983, the group released an experimental album called "Side By Side", which featured a double album with each member singing on their own side. Returning to their roots with the 1984 album "The Imperials Sing the Classics", which featured a return to the four-part harmony that made the group famous. A return to the rock style of the "modern" Imperials was prevalent on their 1985 release "Let the Wind Blow", which was the last recording for both Smith and Murray in 1985. Paul Smith left The Imperials in 1985. The below picture features
his replacement Danny Ward (second from right below), who unfortunately wasn’t with The Imperials long enough to record.
By mid 1986, Murray had sold his share of the group to Armond Morales and left the group to pursue a solo career. Jim Murray was replaced by Ron Hemby (second from right in the picture below). This group was just getting off the ground when Ward left, and was replaced by Jimmie Lee (second from left below).
It was at this point that the group took a drastic turn into contemporary music. Leaving all their musical roots, Word produced two projects led by the voices of Hemby and Lee that launched the group deeper into the rock and alternative Christian music categories. At this time they did what no group had done before. They had crossed all lines of traditional music and established themselves as the leader of change. Their look and sound became more identified with those in the hard rock category. The 1987 album "This Year's Model" featured
high energy guitars and a strong rhythm to the likes of Petra or Whiteheart. The album was met with a skeptical audience, and although it had a difficult time the marketplace, it's place in history finished with critical acclaim. This recording remains a favorite of many fans around the world and still has a relevant message both lyrically and musically. They answered with a second release by this group, 1988's "Free the Fire", which was more easy-listening. Lee left shortly after completing that recording for a solo career, and David Robertson (second from right below) replaced him. Robertson was only with the group long enough to record one album, 1990's "Love's Still Changing Hearts", with six of the songs in the top ten play list.
In 1990 both Hemby and Robertson left. It seemed like the end of an era. For the next twelve years Armond Morales kept the group on a low profile, moving to a more church based platform. There were many formations of the group during this time, even a short season when Armond hired his own sister Pam to sing the tenor part.
In late 2003, Armond Morales announced he was retiring. After nearly four decades of guiding the group through numerous ups and downs, Armond Morales left the road.
With Armond Morales now living in Hawaii, it would seem that his nearly 40 year history had concluded…
But God had a different idea.
In a surprise return to the states, Armond Morales (original member and former owner, Grammy and Dove award winner, and inductee into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame), Jim Murray (long term tenor, former owner, Grammy and Dove award winner, and inductee into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame), and Dave Will (longest member, Grammy and Dove award winner, and inductee into the Gospel Music Hall Of Fame) left retirement to reform as The Classic Imperials.
These three legends of Gospel music were then joined by Rick Evans, formally with the Dennis Agaianian Band, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, Promise Keepers, and Greg Laurie (Harvest Crusades). This new group was welcomed back by Imperial fans everywhere as they were once again blending their voices together to honor the Lord in song.
With Jim Murray’s resignation by the end of 2006, The Classic Imperials joined talents with Gospel music Icon Robbie Hiner (35 years with Dr. Jerry Fallwell). Robbie temporarily filled the tenor position, until the end of 2008 when the group was rejoined by Grammy Award Winner Paul Smith to form the current roster of Classic Imperials.
The Current Group now includes Ron Hemby, Michael Schlee, Rick Evans, and Paul Smith. The famous foursome is working on new music and are eager to continue the legacy of excellence set by our predecessors.