Before getting too far down the road from Nashville and a good Part Two to last week’s REBA Kennedy Center Honors recap, it just seemed right to remember the other McAlester-born member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame — Culley Holt.
Culley Holt was born in McAlester on July 2, 1925 and in 1948 was living in Springfield, Missouri, when along with brothers Bill and Monty Matthews, Bob Hubbard and Bob Money became the original members of The Jordanaires. The year after their formation they made their debut on The Grand Ole Opry, where they showcased their hillbilly doo-wop hybrid. Culley sang bass.
A young Elvis Presley heard The Jordanaires perform in October 1954 with country singer Eddy Arnold at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. He met the guys in the group and told them he loved their sound, and that he hoped they could work together. The Jordanaires moved toward a smoother, polished sound that epitomized what came to be known as “The Nashville Sound.” Unfortunately, in December of 1954 before Elvis and The Jordanaires work together was really taking off, Culley Holt became ill and with his departure, the last original member of the group was gone. But Holt would again cross paths with the King of Rock and Roll in November of 1961.
The Jordanaires are best remembered today for their contributions as the frequently employed backing vocal group for Elvis Presley. They also backed Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Horton, Ferlin Husky, Tammy Wynette, Jim Reeves, Kenny Rogers, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dolly Parton, Red Foley, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Steve & Eydie, Ringo Starr, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Cash, Connie Francis, Julie Andrews, Ween and others. They also released a series of pop vocal-gospel records for many years, through many line-up changes.
The recording sessions of which The Jordanaires are included would fill pages. From Elvis Presley’s 1960 “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” to Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” The group appeared on all of Cline’s Decca sessions from her first in November 1952 to her last in February 1960. The Jordanaires graced Grammy-winning recordings in five decades as well as national television and radio ads such as Coca Cola’s “We’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” campaign. Their voices have been heard on hundreds of millions of records sold worldwide.
The Jordanaires were Goodwill Ambassadors of the state of Tennessee, received special awards from RCA for contributions to Elvis Presley’s recordings, Nashville Music Association Masters Award, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences award for having sung on more top-ten recordings than any other group, Members of world famous Grand Ole Opry for 15 years, Inducted 1998 into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, Inducted 2000 into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Inducted 2001 into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
After a recording session in the mid-1960’s Elvis Presley said to The Jordanaires, “Fellas I really believe if there hadn’t been a you, there would not have been a me.” The passing in 2013 of longtime Jordanairess leader Gordon Stoker, who owned the group’s name, marked the end of the quartet’s remarkable and distinguished career.
Following Holt’s almost ten years as a member of The Jordanaires, he continued to perform and write music. In 1952 the group had recorded an original Culley Holt composition, “Gonna Walk Those Golden Stairs,” copyrighted as “I’ll Walk Dem Golden Stairs (When I Die).” And Holt too finally got to work with Elvis when in 1960 he recorded the song as “I’m Gonna Walk Dem Golden Stairs.” Elvis’ version can be heard on, “His Hand in Mine; Amazing Grace.”
Not much information is to be found about Culley Holt’s life between his 1925 birth in McAlester and joining The Jordanaires in 1948 in Central Missouri. Following his death in 1980 at only 54 years old he was buried in Crawford County; Missouri and his grave marker is a military stone denoting service in the U.S. Army. Holt was married with two children according to his now late wife’s obituary during the early 2000s. It would also seem there are several grandchildren including a grandson with his grandfather’s namesake. His parents were both born in Oklahoma in the 1890’s, his mother Viola Belle Williamson Holt at Poteau, and his father Rev. Grover Deleport Holt in Payne County, . Culley appears to have been an only child. His paternal grandparents, John D. Holt and Sara A. Nichols Holt, and several of his aunts and uncles and their families are buried in the Chambers Cemetery south of McAlester.
Oh, and before the fact checkers and Googlers get busy, a couple of things. The Jordanaires were inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1949 during Culley Holt’s tenure with the group. The Country Music Hall of Fame induction is a little more complicated. Though all of the past members of The Jordanaires are discussed prominently on the Country Music Hall of Fame website, including original member Culley Holt, it seems that when the group was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2001, only four of the “longer tenured” members were listed with only narrative reference to others. The Jordanaires’ plaque hangs in the Hall Fame Rotunda not far from a similar plaque from the Sons of the Pioneers, who were inducted as “The Original Sons of the Pioneers.” Go figure!