Monday, February 22, 2016

Sonny James

From Juli Thanki of the Nashville Tennessean: 

"Country singer Sonny James, whose music went from rural Alabama to the moon, died Monday afternoon, according to a family representative. He was 87.

Born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1928, in Hackleburg, Alabama, Sonny began performing as a child with his family. At age 3, he received his first mandolin, which was handmade by his farther from a molasses bucket. The child would learn to play the guitar and fiddle, as well, and win fiddle championships as a teen. The Loden family played on radio stations and in schoolhouses around the South, and during their travels, Mr. James ended up meeting a young musician named Chet Atkins. The two crossed paths once again in Music City. 

In September 1950, Mr. James' Alabama National Guard unit was sent to Korea. While he was stationed there, he began seriously writing songs. After leaving the service, he went to Nashville to pursue a career in music. He met up with Atkins, who introduced him to Ken Nelson of Capital Records. Nelson suggested that he adopt the stage name Sonny James, which was easier for DJs and fans to remember. The singer would soon get the nickname 'the Southern Gentleman'; as a soft spoken and humble man with impeccable manners, Mr. James lived up to that description on stage and off. 

Mr. James recorded his first songs for Capital in summer 1952. Shortly after those sessions, he put his fiddle skills to use when he joined Jim and Jesse McReynolds in the studio and the bluegrass duo made its first Capital recordings. 'He was a great singer, fiddler and guitar player,' said Jesse McReynolds, who said that he and his brother later worked with several fiddlers who tried to match Mr. James' unique way of playing on those records, but they 'never could quite get it.' In early 1953, he released his debut single, 'That's Me Without You' which would hit No. 9 on the charts. The music he released over the next three years was, for the most part, unsuccessful, but in late 1956 he recorded his breakthrough hit, the dreamy ballad 'Young Love.' The sweet earnest single spent nine weeks atop the country charts and crossed over to pop radio in early 1957. With its polished production and crooning vocals, 'Young Love' would help open the door for the Nashville sound of the late 1950s and 1960s. 

During the 1950s, Mr. James was a regular on the country music television program 'Ozark Jubilee.' In 1961 he became the first country recording artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also appeared in multiple films, including 'Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar,' 'Nashville Rebel,' 'Las Vegas Hillbillies' and Hillbillies in a Haunted House.,' and guested on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' multiple times. 

In 1962, he was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, and five years later, he would begin an unprecedented streak of chart dominance. From 1967-71, he notched 16 straight No. 1 country singles on the Billboard charts, beginning with 'Need You' and ending with 'Here Comes Honey Again.' Many of those-such as 'Born to Be with You' and 'Only the Lonely'-were covers of pop hits. Others, including 'Since I Met You Baby' and 'It's Just a Matter of Time,' were countrified covers of classic R&B songs previously recorded by artists such as Brook Benton and Etta James, a nod to his diverse musical tastes. 

The 1970s  found Mr. James pursuing several different projects. In 1971 he made a cassette tape for the three-man Apollo 14 crew to listen to during their moon mission. Mr. James also stepped out from behind the microphone to produce Marie Osmond's 1973 debut album, 'Paper Roses,' and two subsequent records. In 1977, inspired by previous visits to Tennessee State Prison, recorded an album there, 'In Prison, In Person,' on which he was backed by a band of inmates. 

In August 1983, he released his last single, 'A Free Roamin' Mind.' That year he retired from performing. An avid fisherman, Mr. James spent much of his retirement on the lake, briefly returning to the spotlight in 2006, when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. 'I've just more or less went about my career,' he said on the day of the Hall of Fame induction announcement. 'To me the friends I've made over the years actually meant as much to me as the Hall of Fame. I'm very appreciative, and I value what the Hall of Fame is doing for so many artists.'

Sonny James is survived by his wife Doris, whom he married in 1957."

Sonny James was probably one of the most respected and well liked entertainers in the history of country music. As the article mentioned, Sonny joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1962, with the actual date being October 27. It generally is pretty easy to find when a member actually joined the Opry, but it is often a little harder to find when they left. It looks like 1965 might have been his last Opry shows. 

Prayers and thoughts to the family of Sonny James, who lived up to his nickname as the "Southern Gentleman." 


  1. Byron, he was the first country singer I ever heard. I got to interview two of the Southern Gentlemen, and they said he was the greatest guy imaginable--exactly as he seemed. He had a good, long run in music and in life, and at least we get to keep the music and the memories.

  2. I remember like yesterday attending a big package show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum decades ago. My father thereafter referred to Sonny James as "the guy who plays a fiddle behind his head."
    And I remember the Southern Gentleman band member who took out a huge bass drum on certain songs and made it very clear to all attending the concert when they were supposed to clap along.
    Sonny James was a SHOWMAN, and a great guy according to all accounts.

  3. On the Tuesday Night Opry tonight, Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers did a great tribute to Sonny James, singing "Young Love." They really nailed it. Bill Cody also added a few words, noting that Sonny was a former Opry member.

    1. Larry and his brothers did an outstanding job singing "Young Love." I have always loved that song.

      I saw him in concert "decades ago" also. But not until I read @Nat Hill IV's comment, did I remember that yes, he did play the fiddle behind his back. Totally forgot that, thanks for the reminder, Nat. :-)

      Eddie Stubbs played quite a few Sonny James songs last night. Hard to believe he retired from the music in the late 80's. And Eddie did say that Sonny James joined the Opry in 1962 but left "a few years later."

      My condolences to the family and friends of Sonny James and to the country music community.


  4. In 1973, I had tickets to package show in Asheville,NC which included Loretta Lynn, Mel Tillis, Charlie Pride, and Alex Houston & Elmer. Loretta canceled due to illness and what a stroke of luck, her replacement was Sonny James. I had seen Loretta previously, and this was the only time I ever got to attend a Sonny James show. What an awesome performer!

  5. Fred, Bismarck:

    Died long in years, an accomplished, well-loved man. What more could anyone ask for? When someone like Sonny dies, I always think of Grandpa Jones' song, "Fallen Leaves."

  6. "Young Love " is my favorite song ever, not knowing it was "country" at the time. It is still a beautiful, emotional song and so simple with just an acoustical guitar ( Sonny ), bass , and a brushed drum. And what a terrific singer !!! God rest Sonny James - a true person of peace ---
    Dashmann of Flushing , Michigan

  7. Sonny James was genuine, authentic, and classic. His Christian faith was not for show. A friend of mine related to me that he had been told by someone who personally knew him, that when he would attend a church service (which he did consistently), he never introduced himself as "Sonny James," but by his real name, "James Loden." Yet when he was recognized by a fan or admirer, he was always friendly and polite. In the early 70's, when my father was a typewriter repairman in Nashville, he had two occasions to go to Sonny James' residence. On one occasion, Sonny was home by himself. He was making a hamburger for his lunch, and he asked my father if he would like one. A interesting tidbit from this occasion was that Sonny did not have any hamburger buns. Thus he had his hamburger on two pieces of white bread.

    1. From Anonymous in Kingman: I always had the feeling that he was a true Christian gentleman. I wonder if any of today's "new" country performers would offer to make lunch for a repair technician?? We'll never the likes of Sonny James ever again.