In a year already marred by numerous music deaths, we must now mourn the death of Sonny James.
The legendary "Southern Gentleman" died today (2/22) of natural causes at Alive Hospice in Nashville, according to his official web site. He had been in retirement for years following a long career that took him from his home in Alabama to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
James Loden was born May 1, 1928 in Hackleburg, Alabama, a small town not too far from the Mississippi border and Muscle Shoals. He began playing mandolin as a child, and later took up the fiddle and the guitar.
The fiddle became his key to music: he won fiddle competitions and became a session musician after his tour of duty in the army in Korea. He played sessions with country (Slim Whitman, Charline Arthur) and bluegrass (Jim & Jesse) acts before Capitol's A&R man, Ken Nelson, decided to record him as a singer.
Dubbing him "Sonny James," Nelson sat at the helm of his earliest recordings in 1952. Nelson was also at the boards when James recorded one of the most classic songs in country music history: "Young Love."
In his first autobiography Whisperin' Bill, Bill Anderson commented that his fellow country singers speculated on what caused James' rise to superstardom in the 60s, where he amassed an unbelievable streak of hits. He said he felt James' songs bucked the trend of stereotypical "sad country songs," because his songs were mostly upbeat and positive. Whatever the reason was, his music clicked with audiences. Beginning in 1964, with "You're the Only World I Know," James had 25 consecutive singles that peaked in the top three on the Billboard charts, with all but four of them hitting #1. The list includes some of the biggest hits of the 1960s: "You're the Only World I Know," "True Love's a Blessing" (one of the "flops" that "only" made it to #3), "It's the Little Things," "Heaven Says Hello," and "That's Why I Love You Like I Do."
Several of James' biggest hits were covers of pop hits, including "Only the Lonely" (originally by Roy Orbison), "Empty Arms" (a Teresa Brewer hit), "Since I Met You Baby" (one of Ivory Joe Hunter's biggest hits), "Born to Be With You" (by the Chordettes originally), and two songs that were originally hits for the Seekers, "A World of Our Own" and "I'll Never Find Another You." No one listening to the Sonny James versions would have ever guessed those songs originated in pop.
After his star faded (after his streak of #1 hits ended in 1972 he only had one other song, "Is It Wrong (For Loving You)," to top the charts) he continued to record and tour until he hung up his guitar to enjoy time with his family and his favorite pastime, fishing.
In 2006 the "Southern Gentleman" was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame for his long and distinguished career that even saw him top the pop charts in 1956 with "Young Love."
James' survivors include his wife of 58 years and a legion of fans who remember him with loving respects.
Farewell to the Southern Gentleman, who was 87.