Jake Hess (1927-2004) of Limestone County was a noted and prolific southern gospel singer from his youth through his death in 2004. A four-time Grammy winner, Hess produced over his career 10 solo albums and 49 albums with various gospel groups. Hess was known for the popular gospel songs "Who Am I?," "Wouldn't Take Nothin' for My Journey Now," and "Brighten the Corner Where You Are." His innovations in gospel instrumentation formed the foundation of the modern Contemporary Christian music movement. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1987 and his group, The Imperials, was inducted in 1998. He was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995.
Hess, born on December 24, 1927, was the last of 12 children born to William Stovall Hess and Lydia Bessie Camp who were sharecroppers in the Mt. Pisgah community in Limestone County. His parents did not officially name him, so the attending physician entered his name as "Man Child" Hess in official documents. Called "W.J." by his parents, and nicknamed Jake by his first band leader, Hess would eventually change his official name to W. Jake Hess. Taught shape note singing by his father, Hess began his musical career at the age of five when invited to perform with his brothers in the Hess Brothers Quartet. Hess's first formal group, however, was Louie Auten and the Tennessee Valley Boys. At age 14, he joined the Haleyville Melody Boys, and he left home at age 16 to join the John Daniel Quartet, one of the most popular gospel groups of the 1940s. His recording debut was on the John Daniel Quartet song, "Just a Prayer Away." Hess earned his high school degree by correspondence while on tour with the quartet.
After singing with several other gospel groups, Hess in 1948 became a founding member of The Statesmen Quartet. The Statesmen became famous for adding touches of several other musical genres, principally ragtime and jazz, as well as introducing piano to traditional southern gospel . These innovations helped broaden the popular appeal of southern gospel and find an audience that spanned generations and broadened the music's appeal to include African American audiences. Such was his fame that Hess sang at the funeral of Hank Williams in 1953. Also in the early 1950s, a teenage Elvis Presley attended Statesmen Quartet concerts in Memphis and joined in the city's All-Night Gospel Singings at Ellis Auditorium. Presley later cited Hess as a major vocal influence on his career, and Hess would sing at Presley's funeral in 1978.
Jake Hess married Joyce McWaters on October 5, 1952, and the couple had three children whom they raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Hess remained with The Statesmen until 1963. He formed his own group, The Imperials, in early 1964 and immediately began to pioneer a new sound for gospel music. Much as the Statesmen changed the sound of gospel music with the addition of piano, The Imperials further expanded the genre with their use of drums, bass, and electric guitars. This innovation again broadened and popularized religious music and also aided in setting the stage for the emerging Contemporary Christian music scene. Although the incorporation of instruments associated with rock and roll music was not immediately accepted by Hess's peers, The Imperials steadily gained popularity with the public and went on to have 14 Number 1 gospel singles throughout the 1960s. The group also backed Elvis Presley on a number of his gospel recordings, including his 1967 LP How Great Thou Art, which featured the Number 1 hit "Crying in the Chapel."
When poor health forced him to leave The Imperials in the late 1960s, Hess began work as a solo performer and became the host of several popular gospel television shows in Nashville. Around that time he also formed the group Jake Hess & the Sound of Youth, which featured an 18-member youth choir that included son Chris and daughter Becky. Despite leaving the grueling road schedule of the Imperials, Hess suffered a heart attack while preparing for his daily television show. He remained committed to his career, however, and was only kept from the television show for several weeks.
As a solo performer, Hess won three consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Sacred Performance for the albums Beautiful Isle of Somewhere (1968), Ain't That Beautiful Singing (1969), and Everything Is Beautiful (1970). During the 1970s, Hess again toured with a group, The Jake Hess Sound, a smaller version of Jake Hess & the Sound of Youth. In 1981, Hess and other southern gospel luminaries, including Hovie Lister of The Statesmen, formed The Masters V. Their self-titled debut album won the 1981 Grammy award for Best Gospel Performance, Traditional. Hess remained with The Masters V through 1987. In 1991, he reformed the Statesmen Quartet, but health problems forced him to retire two years later. Upon his retirement from the Statesman Quartet, Jake and Joyce moved from Nashville to Columbus, Georgia, to be near their daughter and away from the temptation of performing. Hess could not stay out of the spotlight and came out of retirement to perform through the late 1990s and early 2000s with gospel and Contemporary Christian notable Bill Gaither in his Homecoming Performances, a series of concerts, albums, and videos featuring various gospel stars sitting around a piano while singing songs in a casual style.
Hess published his autobiography, Nothin' but Fine: The Music and the Gospel According to Jake Hess, in 1995. He suffered a second heart attack in December 2003 and died in Opelika, Lee County, on January 4, 2004, at the age of 76. He was buried in the Buck Family Cemetery in Marion County, Georgia, alongside his wife, who had predeceased him in 2000.
Carpenter, Bill. Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia. San Francisco: Backbeat Press, 2005.
Hess, Jake. Nothin' but Fine: The Music and the Gospel According to Jake Hess. Columbus, Ga.: Buckland Press, 1995.
McNeil, W.K, ed. Encyclopedia of American Gospel Music. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Published April 10, 2013
Last updated August 5, 2013