Forty three years ago, on Friday, July 31, 1964, Jim Reeves was returning to Nashville from a business trip to Arkansas. His piano player and manager, Dean Manuel, went with him, since Dean was a native of Arkansas. Before he left, Jim had asked friend Bonnie Brown of the Browns if she wanted to fly with him as well (the Browns also hail from Arkansas), but she turned him down because she had a sick child to tend to.
That illness was a blessing to Jim Ed's sister. As Reeves' plane approached Nashville a typical summer thunderstorm roared through the area. Reeves, not cleared to fly on instruments, flew on through the storm in an attempt to make it to the airport. He was in contact with the control tower as he flew toward the airport. The last word he uttered was half of the word "negative."
Nearby, Marty Robbins had gone outside to collect rain water to wash his hair in. He heard a loud noise and ran inside and told his wife, "Someone's just been killed out there!"
Reeves' plane was reported missing that evening. The next day, August 1st, many of Reeves' peers in the country music world were searching the woods in southern Nashville for the plane. Mary Reeves, according to Buddy Killen in By the Seat of My Pants: My Life in Country Music, said that at first she did not make the connection between Reeves being late in returning and the announcement that a plane had gone down. "Then," she said, acknowledging that reality set in, "I started thinking about funeral arrangements."
At approximately 1 PM on Sunday, August 2, the wreckage of the plane was discovered. Reeves had apparently had the plane upside down when he nosedived into the woods. The initial impact threw him out of the plane and into the propeller, creating a grisly sight. The word went out: Gentleman Jim Reeves, international country music superstar, was dead, three weeks short of his 41st birthday.
In one of those ironies of life, Reeves had been an honorary pallbearer at Patsy Cline's memorial service 16 months earlier. When the NTSB ruling on the Cline/Copas/Hawkins plane crash was released, it ruled that pilot Randy Hughes had tried to fly in a thunderstorm without proper instrument training. "I'd never make that mistake," Reeves commented. The NTSB's ruling on the Reeves crash was the same as the results of the 1963 tragedy: pilot error.
Reeves' popularity hardly faded after his death. In fact, of his eleven #1 songs on the Billboard Country Singles chart, six of them were posthumous. His demo tapes were overdubbed (sometimes too overdubbed) and released as "new" recordings well into the 1980s. In fact, the 1994 Bear Family release Welcome to My World had two CDs filled with previously unreleased demos. (A Reeves fan website also has CDs of demo and rehearsal tapes, showing the vast amount of music the man recorded.)
In 1998, Michael Streissguth released a controversial biography on Reeves, Like a Moth to a Flame. Fans blasted the book for focusing too much on Reeves' demons and not enough on his music. A more compassionate, balanced biography on the man (by Larry Jordan) has been promised for years, but has yet to surface. His only movie, Kimberly Jim, is out on DVD, as is a wonderful tribute DVD featuring television and concert performances.
Even after 43 years, Reeves' star still shines brightly. People whose parents weren't even born when he died have discovered his music. Good music is eternal, and that is obvious with the enduring legacy of Jim Reeves.
NTSB Report on Reeves' crash