Jake Hess was born W. J. Hess in Mt. Pisgah, Alabama on Christmas Eve 1927. He was the youngest of twelve children born to Stovall and Lydia Hess. He wasn't given names to go with the initials until he registered for the military draft as an adult in Lincoln, Nebraska, when they dubbed him William Jesse. It was John Daniel, a fellow gospel singer, who started calling him Jake.
Jake Hess' family were sharecroppers and they moved a great deal from farm to farm, always taking their old pump organ with them. Jake's father and older brothers sang and taught in singing schools, so it was natural when Jake also started singing. His first solo was at age five. He said his father had taught him that singing was talking on key and the most important part of singing gospel music was the words. He studied harmony at the Stamps-Baxter school and organized vocal groups in Alabama.
By 1948 he was making a living with his singing as part of The Melody Masters. It was then that Hovie Lister began the Statesmen and asked Jake Hess to sing lead with the group. Jake married a fellow singer, Joyce McWaters, in October 1952 and the couple had three children - daughter Becky (named after Sam Phillips' wife Becky because Sam had encourage Jake as a youth) and sons Chris and Jake, Jr.
When Elvis was growing up in Tupelo, Missisippi Jake Hess became an influence on him. Elvis would ask Jake many questions after a concert about his style and how he got started. Jake was known for his energy and his facial expressions when singing, his precise enunciation and phrasing. Later when his hair receded, Jake also became known for his trademark hairpieces. Another member of the Statesmen, James 'Big Chief' Wetherington, with his own unique swaggering leg movements on stage, is also credited with influencing Elvis's performance moves.
Jake Hess formed the group The Imperials and Elvis included them along with The Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham as vocalists on his classic 'How Great Thou Art' album. The Imperials had a big impact in changing the sound of gospel music by adding drums, electric guitar and bass and taking gospel music to a younger contemporary audience. Also, it was Jake Hess who sang 'Known Only to Him' at Elvis's funeral in August of 1977.
By 1967 Jake was plagued with a series of health problems that forced him to leave The Imperials and stop touring. For the rest of his life he battled cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other severe health problems. Jake came to call these problems 'isms' and he said, 'I go into these churches and auditoriums, and people say, 'Well, Jake, how are you doin'?' And if I told them all my 'isms' - which takes quite a spell - I'd have to hear all their 'isms.' So I've been saying 'nothin' but fine' about 40 years, just to conserve time, and it's become such a habit that I can't give anybody a straight answer anymore!' With the saying 'nothin' but fine' as his anthem, Jake recorded an album and wrote his autobiography using that title.
Jake's health couldn't keep him down for long. In 1981 he returned to group singing with fellow legends James Blackwood, J.D. Sumner, Hovie Lister and Rosie Rozell - performing as The Masters V. They disbanded in 1988 due to the poor health of several members. It was once written of the five '...there were enough bypasses in the group to build an expressway...' It was Bill Gaither and his 'Homecoming' shows that brought Jake out of retirement again in 1996 and he had been touring with them up until his heart attack in December.
It was J. D. Sumner who said of four-time Grammy winner Jake Hess, '...(he) took gospel music from the dirt road, paved it, and broadened it into a four-lane highway....' Jake Hess once told Ed Enoch of The Stamps Quartet that when singing he tried to envision the splinters and the cleansing drops of blood on the cross. He also said, 'A lot of people look at this as show business for God-fearing people. But I feel that God called me to sing, just like He called my two brothers to preach. I think I'm doing what God would have me do.'