Gene King pointed to a picture on the cluttered wall of his cluttered King's Record Shop (the very one depicted on the cover of the Rosanne Cash album named in its honor). "You know who that is?" he asked, tapping the man in the white hat amid the musicians.
I squinted to see. The photo was an early 1940s picture of the Golden West Cowboys, the band fronted by Gene King's brother Pee Wee. "It's Eddy Arnold," I identified the man whose image was behind King's finger.
Calling Eddy Arnold just a country singer is like calling Billy Graham just a preacher. He was an American icon, a man whose importance to country music can be summarized in one of two simple ways.
First, he is, to date, the only person in country music history to be awarded the CMA "Entertainer of the Year" award after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1966 and won the award in 1967. That speaks volumes as to just how great his career was: in 1966, the year he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he scored two #1 hits ("I Want to Go with You" and "Somebody Like Me"), plus had two more top five hits ("The Last Word in Lonesome is Me" and "The Tips of My Fingers"). He was also scoring pop hits (four of his songs made the pop top 40, the biggest being "Make the World Go Away" in 1965). To put this in perspective, remember just what was happening in music in 1966. It can be summed up in one word: Beatlemania. While other country artists were selling tens of thousands of copies (and were quite content with it), Arnold's sales were in the millions.
In good times and bad, both in the world of country music and the world in general, Eddy Arnold's records sold, and sold very well. The tally in the obits today is 85 million. Put that in perspective: Garth Brooks sold over 100 million in an era of videos, magazines, TV shows, cable channels, and records easily available everywhere. Eddy Arnold. on the other hand, had no CMT, no record store chains selling his records (for those who don't know, Ernest Tubb launched the famous Ernest Tubb Record Shop out of frustration over the fact that fans in the 1940s had a hard time locating country records in stores), no multimedia, internet blogging to help him along. To paraphrase John Houseman in that old commercial, Eddy Arnold did it the old-fashioned way: he earned it.
The second way to put Arnold's career in perspective is courtesy of Joel Whitburn, the author of numerous Billboard chart books. The Top Country Singles book has Eddy Arnold listed as the #1 singles artist on the country chart of all time. That's right, NO ONE -- not Billy Ray, Garth, or any hat-act-come-lately -- has overtaken him. The numbers are staggering, too: a total of 145 charted songs, 26 of which went to #1. In 1948, only six songs made it to #1 for the entire year. Five of them were by Eddy Arnold (the oddball was "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)" by Jimmy Wakely): "Anytime," "Bouquet of Roses," "Texarkana Baby," "Just a Little Lovin' (Will God a Long Way)," and "A Heart Full of Love (For a Hand Full of Kisses)." He also had the last #1 song of 1947 ("I'll Hold You in My Heart [Till I Can Hold You in My Arms]"), so from November 1947 till November 1948, nobody but Eddy Arnold had a #1 song. Even the Beatles couldn't accomplish that at the height of their popularity.
I had two honored meetings with Eddy Arnold. First, I saw what may be the last time he sang on a stage, in May 2001. The Hall of Famers who were able attended the opening of the new Hall of Fame. As the ceremonies ended, Arnold started across the stage to leave and the band began playing "Anytime." Arnold stopped, went to a microphone, and began singing along. The band had to quickly change keys to accommodate Arnold's voice. It was short but magical.
The second came at last year's International Country Music Conference, when Eddy was the guest of honor for the Charles K. Wolfe Memorial Panel in a discussion of RCA's Studio B. He looked very good for an 89-year-old man, and he walked in under his own power. He regaled the crowd of 100 writers and students of country music with stories of his career and personal life. He spoke slowly, and he obviously had trouble hearing (longtime journalist Charlie Lamb, another panelist, repeated each question to Arnold after an audience member asked so Arnold could understand what was being asked). He did appear to have some problem (I've heard rumors that he had Alzheimer's), but it hardly mattered. He could have recited phone numbers and it would have been special. That may well be the last time Eddy Arnold made an "official" public appearance.
Eddy Arnold at ICMC, 2007
Apparently my first words in life were not "mommy" or "daddy." My parents both told me that, as a toddler, I would go to the record player and say, "Play 'Humpback Mule,' Daddy!" As a 2-year-old, I didn't know the title of the song was "The Richest Man in the World." Now, over 45 years later, I want to hear that song again. The lyrics would serve as a most fitting epitaph for a man who gladly shared his marvelous gift of music with the world:
But tell me,what are riches but contentment after all?
Other folks may think I'm poor but I know it's not so
'Cause when I count my blessings I'm the richest man I know
I've got a humpback mule, a plow, and a tater patch
Eggs that are gonna hatch someday
I've got my Lord above and a good girl to love me
I'm the richest man in the world.
Richard Edward Arnold
May 15, 1918 - May 8, 2008