Rodeo Country Breaking News: Sonny James dead at 87

(Photo: Jimmy Ellis / The Tennessean)

 Juli Thanki, 3:01 p.m. CST February 22, 2016


Sonny James, 1928-2016

Country singer Sonny James, whose music went from rural Alabama to the moon, died Monday according to a post on his official website. He was 87.

As Kix Brooks said in 2006, the year Mr. James was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the singer was “an artist who really dominated his time in history.” His smooth 1956 recording of “Young Love” prefigured the rise of the Nashville Sound, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he released 16 consecutive chart-topping singles.

Born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1928 in Hackleburg, Ala., “Sonny” began performing as a child with his family. At age three, he received his first mandolin, which was handmade by his father from a molasses bucket. The child would soon 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, who also would go on to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The two men later crossed paths once again in Music City.

In September of 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 Capitol 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. "He was the ultimate gentleman," said his longtime friend Gary Robble, whose vocal quartet The Southern Gentlemen recorded and toured with Mr. James from 1964-71. "He knew a lot of people, but when you were talking to him, the only person he knew was you."

Mr. James recorded his first songs for Capitol in the summer of 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 Capitol recordings.

In early 1953, Mr. James 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, Mr. James 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, Mr. James 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 like Brook Benton and Etta James, a nod to his diverse musical tastes. In 1967, Mr. James co-hosted the first CMA Awards alongside Bobbie Gentry.

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 mission. Upon their return to Earth the astronauts gave Mr. James an American flag that they had brought with them on their moon flight. Mr. James also stepped out from behind the microphone to produce Marie Osmond’s 1973 debut album, “Paper Roses," and her two subsequent records. In 1977, Mr. James, inspired by previous visits to Tennessee State Prison, recorded an album, called “In Prison, In Person,” there on which he was backed by a band of inmates.

In August of 1983, Mr. James 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 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."

Mr. James leaves behind his wife Doris, whom he married in 1957. Funeral arrangements are  not known at this time.

Sonny James, Country Hall of Famer & Steady Hitmaker, Dies at 87

2/22/2016 by Chuck Dauphin

Sonny James, the country singer known as "The Southern Gentleman," died Monday (Feb. 22) at age 87, according to his website.

James helped personify a lighter musical style of country in the mid 1950s, continuing his career through the early 1980s. He was also one of the first artists in the format to consistently see his records cross over to the pop charts. His streak of 16 consecutive No. 1 hits on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart from 1967 through 1971 established a success level that went unsurpassed for close to two decades, helping him to eventually gain membership into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

Gone But Not Forgotten: Music Stars In Memoriam 2016

Born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1929, in Hackleburg, Ala., the singer began performing with his family on a weekly radio show on WMSD-AM in Muscle Shoals. That exposure led to paying gigs for the family across the South, as well as additional radio shows in Birmingham and Memphis. His professional career took a brief detour when he was sent to Korea as part of the Alabama Army National Guard in 1950, but he returned to the States a year later.

Word of his talent had spread over the years to Nashville, and through the suggestion of former roommate Chet Atkins, James was signed to Capitol by Ken Nelson. The executive was a fan of his voice, but thought that his last name might spur confusion with other musicians of the period and suggested a name change to Sonny James.

"Short Cut," his first single for the label, failed to chart. But his sophomore release, "That's Me Without You," found favor with disc jockeys, peaking at No. 9 on the Most Played by Jockeys country chart (a predecessor to Hot Country Songs). The next few years were hit-and-miss, but in 1957, James struck gold with the teen anthem "Young Love." Entering various country charts around Christmas 1956, the song quickly became his first No. 1 on a country songs chart, also topping the all-genre Most Played by Jockeys list. Follow-up releases included "You're the Reason I'm in Love" and the similarly themed "First Date, First Kiss, First Love," both top 10s on country surveys in 1957.

James continued to release singles for Capitol (as well as a short stint with RCA) over the next few years, but it wouldn't be until the mid-1960s that he would find a regular home on the airwaves. "You're the Only World I Know" became his first No. 1 on Hot Country Songs (which had launched in 1958) in the winter months of 1965, and James quickly began to rival Buck Owens as the biggest artist on the Capitol roster.

In 1967, James registered his fourth Hot Country Songs No. 1 with "Need You." From that point through 1971's "Here Comes Honey Again," he would notch 16 Hot Country Songs No. 1s in a row -- a mark that would stand until Alabama surpassed him in 1985. Many of his hits were covers of major pop songs of the day, including "Only the Lonely," "Running Bear" and "Take Good Care of Her."

After a two-decade run at Capitol, James was lured to Columbia by Clive Davis in 1972. His first release for the label, "When the Snow Is on the Roses," hit the top of Hot Country Songs, as did 1974's "Is It Wrong (For Loving You)." He would stay on the roster through 1979, releasing two of his most legendary albums for the label: 1976's 200 Years of Country Music and 1977's In Person, In Prison, recorded at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville, with several of the prisoners playing the instruments themselves.

James released his final Hot Country Songs charted single, "A Free Roamin' Mind," in the summer of 1983, which peaked at No. 58. A devoted family man, he then retired from the spotlight, with only a handful of public appearances since. He turned up at Alabama's celebration for breaking his consecutive No. 1 streak with "Forty Hour Week," and his 2006 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside George Strait and Harold Bradley. James also served as the host of the first-ever CMA Awards in 1967 and produced Marie Osmond's 1973 song "Paper Roses," which hit No. 1 on Hot Country Songs and reached No. 5 on the Hot 100.

According to his website, funeral arrangements are pending.