The son of “a sharecropper who was a shape-note singing-school teacher,” Hess was born in Mt. Pisgah, near Athens, in Limestone County, Alabama. His parents were Stovall and Lydia Hess. He was the youngest of 12 children.
Hess’s entry on the Encyclopedia of Alabama’s website says of his name: “His parents did not officially name him, so the attending physician entered his name as ‘Man Child’ Hess in official documents.”
When he registered with the draft board in Lincoln, Nebraska, he gave his name as “William Jesse Hess.” In 1997, when Hess was preparing to get a passport to travel overseas, he discovered that his birth certificate actually read Manchild Hess. His son, Jake Jr., named his recording company Manchild Records in honor of his father.
Hess’ career started at the age of 16, when he joined the popular John Daniel Quartet in 1943, making his recorded debut on “Just a Prayer Away”. (He had previously sung with Louie Auten and the Tennessee Valley Boys.) After that, he sang with three of his brothers as the Hess Brothers Quartet. He also sang with the Sunny South Quartet and their rival, the Melody Masters Quartet. In the latter part of his life, Hess sang with The Old Friends Quartet which was featured on the Bill Gaither Homecoming videos.
Hess sang lead with the Statesmen Quartet from 1948 until 1963. Their recordings included projects long-term with RCA Victor. In 1977-1978 Hess reunited with the surviving members of The Statesmen Quartet, Hovie Lister, Doy Ott, and Rosie Rozell to record three projects, including “Songs Elvis Loved”. The reunited Statesmen had sung at Elvis’ funeral. In the fall of 1980, Hess, Lister, Rozell, assembled a new group with James Blackwood and J.D. Sumner, as a result the southern gospel group the Masters V was born. They toured from 1981 until 1988 when illnesses prompted several of the members to retire from full-time singing.
Upon leaving the Statesmen Quartet at the end of 1963, Hess formed his “dream” group, the Imperials. Although They were not immediately accepted by his peers because of their innovative use of electric guitars and drums, they went on to become pioneers in Contemporary Christian Music, and would eventually be inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. They backed Elvis Presley from 1966 to 1971. Elvis has been quoted as noting Hess as his favorite singer. Hess left the Imperials in 1967 due to health problems.
The Jake Hess Sound
Hess also sang with his children, Becky and Chris, in a group he named “The Jake Hess Sound”. In the late 1970s Hess and his son Chris were featured singers on the television broadcasts of evangelist Dr. Gene Scott.
With Elvis Presley
Hess sang backup on several albums that were recorded by Elvis Presley.
Jake Hess was a noted soloist in his own right. He had won several Grammy Awards on RCA Victor as a solo artist. His last 12 years, he appeared on the Bill Gaither Homecomingconcerts and videos. These videos featured Hess from noted concerts in the U.S. at the Kennedy Center, the Ryman Auditorium, and Hawaiian islands and Europe.
Hess had The Jake Hess Show on WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee and performed in the Old Time Singing Convention.
Hess and Joyce McWaters were married on October 5, 1952. They had three children.
Jake Hess, Jr. has become a well-known southern gospel songwriter, in addition to being married to Judy Martin of The Martins. In 1989 Jake’s nephew Steve Hess & Eugene Baker (Hess & Baker, Skylite/Sing) were in Nashville to record several segments on Bobby Jones Gospel (BET Network). Jake accompanied them to the studio and liked what he heard. While visiting with Jake in Brentwood, Jake asked if they would be interested in forming with him a new version of Jake Hess & Friends. The group would ultimately consist of Jake, Steve, Eugene & Chris, Jake’s son. They started rehearsals in Jake’s family room and started touring later in the year. There were several dates in Missouri and Florida, but Jake determined that the travelling was going to be more demanding than he anticipated, so by 1990 the tours were put on hold with the possibility of doing something with television.
Jake Hess III continues the family’s musical heritage by singing in the highly acclaimed The Voices of Lee part of Lee University in Cleveland, TN.
In 1995, Hess’s autobiography, Nothin’ but Fine: The Music and the Gospel According to Jake Hess, was published by Buckland Press.
Hess died January 4, 2004, in Opelika, Alabama after suffering a heart attack December 14, 2003, just days after a performance in Atlanta, Georgia.
He was survived by a daughter, two sons, 10 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and a sister.