Less than a month after the death of gospel queen Vestal Goodman, the music community is mourning the passing of another legend.
Jake Hess, described by Elvis Presley as his “favorite gospel singer,” died Jan. 4 in Opelika, Ala., aged 76. Hess, who suffered from numerous health problems, had a heart attack Dec. 14.
“The gospel music industry has lost a great pioneer who embodied character, professional excellence and graciousness,” Bill Gaither says. “I have lost my best friend ... This man defined genuine humility and truly lived to bring honor and credit to others. You just do not replace a man like Jake.”
W.J. Hess was born Christmas Eve 1927, the last of 12 children born to sharecroppers Stovall and Lydia Hess in Mt. Pisgah, Ala. At 16, he left home to join the John Daniel Quartet.
Thus began a 60-year career, during which Hess became one of the most influential men in gospel music. A four-time Grammy Award winner, Hess was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1987 and a year later received a Life Achievement Award from performing rights organization SESAC. He was also a member of the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
A storied careerIn 1948, Hess and Hovie Lister launched the Statesmen Quartet. For the next 15 years, the group’s high-energy performances and stunning vocal blend made it one of Southern gospel’s most popular ensembles. It recorded for RCA Victor and launched a syndicated TV show.
In 1963, Hess broke ground again by hand-picking a group of men to form the Imperials. The outfit was very progressive for its time, using drums, electric guitar and bass.
Hess and the Imperials sang on Presley’s Grammy-winning gospel albums. Hess sang at Presley’s 1977 funeral and also sang at the service for Hank Williams in 1953.
Hess left the Imperials in 1967 because of heart problems. Not wanting to give up singing, he returned to the road performing with his children Becky and Chris as Jake Hess & the Sound of Youth. He also recorded solo projects for RCA before joining with Lister, J.D. Sumner, Rosie Rozell and James Blackwood to form the Masters V.
In 1991, he and Lister briefly re-formed the Statesmen, before health problems forced Hess to take time off. For the past decade, he has been an integral part of Gaither’s successful series of “Homecoming” concerts, CDs and videos. He had been performing in December with Gaither and others on the Homecoming Christmas Tour.
In addition to his aforementioned children, Hess is survived by his son Jake Jr., 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.