Country radio’s movers and shakers gathered at Nashville’s Renaissance Hotel Thursday night (June 27) to honor seven of their own and to pay special tribute to Sonny James , the infinitely versatile artist who provided radio with hit songs for 30 years. The event was the Country Radio Broadcasters’ annual Country Music DJ Hall of Fame banquet.
In addition to James, who was cited for career achievement, the honorees were Lee Arnold, J. D. Cannon, Billy Cole, Joe Hoppel and the late Buck Wayne, all of whom were inducted into the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame; Doug Mayes and the late Jack Cresse, who were added to the Country Radio Hall of Fame; and Erica Farber, publisher of the trade magazine Radio & Records, who won the CRB’s annual president’s award.
The evening’s high point came when recording artists Jeff Carson, Steve Holy, Elizabeth Cook and Kaci Brown performed a sampling of James’ enormous catalog of hits. Mike Curb, owner of Curb Records and James’ long-time friend and musical associate, summarized the singer’s remarkable career and presented him his award.
Carson covered “You’re the Only World I Know” (1964) and “It’s Just a Matter of Time” (1970); Cook sang “The Minute You’re Gone” (1963) and “Young Love” (1956); Holy contributed “Bright Lights, Big City” (1971) and “Since I Met You Baby” (1969); and Brown performed “Paper Roses,” the 1973 No. 1 hit James produced for Marie Osmond. Brown also read Osmond’s letter of congratulation to James, in which she thanked him for his part in her “career of 40 years [even though] I am only 18.”
Curb told how James — whose real name is James Hugh Loden — began working as part of the Loden Family country act when he was only four years old. After the Lodens quit performing together, Curb continued, James roomed briefly with Chet Atkins, who introduced him to producer Ken Nelson at Capitol Records. (James recorded for Capitol from 1953 to 1973.) Curb noted that James’ “Young Love” was the first country song to cross over and become a pop “teen hit.”
Beginning in 1967, Curb said, James specialized in recording country versions of songs from other formats. This approach led to his having 16 No. 1 hits in a row (a record that would not be broken until Alabama scored 17 consecutive No. 1’s in 1985). “Sonny not only knew how to work with radio,” Curb said, “he loved radio.” Praising James as a producer, arranger and artist, Curb proclaimed that he deserved to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. The audience roared its agreement. James last charted in 1983 with “A Free Roamin’ Mind.”
“The one thing I miss,” James told the crowd after it gave him a long standing ovation, “is those reunions we used to have [with radio people]. … To borrow a line from my dear friend Mac Wiseman , ‘Tis sweet to be remembered.’”
It was an evening filled with quotable remarks and warm memories.
When WSM-AM disc jockey Bill Cody was introduced to host the show, he exclaimed proudly, “AM radio! Because real men and women don’t work on FM.” He said he came from Cross Plains, Tenn., a town so small that its official slogan is, “We may not have what you want, but you can park free to look for it.”
“I’m like the 90-year-old couple that got married and spent their honeymoon getting out of the car,” said Mayes, as he eased into a lengthy, but historically fascinating, acceptance speech. “If you all are in a hurry, let me know; but I’m retired.” A musician as well as a radio and TV broadcaster, Mayes got his start filling in as a bass player for the Fruit Jar Drinkers, an early Grand Ole Opry act. He later played bass for Bill Monroe.
Hoppel, who has been the “morning man” on WCMS, Hampton Roads, Va., for 47 years, gave his definition of ideal employment: “Find a job you like well enough that you’d do it for nothing and get good enough at it to make a comfortable living.”
After accepting his award, Cole spoke to his wife in the audience, “If I had my way, honey, your name would be on here with me.”
Curb marveled at the rousing performance Brown gave, noting that she was only 13. “I can think of other 13-year-old girls,” he mused, grinning broadly, in an obvious reference to LeAnn Rimes . Rimes signed with Curb Records when she was 13 and later sued, unsuccessfully, to quit the label. “By the way,” he added, “LeAnn is doing fine, just fine.”
Cannon recounted some of his memorable moments with country stars, noting that Tammy Wynette had kissed him on the cheek, the Dixie Chicks had serenaded him and Brenda Lee had sat on his lap. But topping all these encounters, he said, was when “I took a whiz next to Dick Clark at FarmAid.”
Arnold joked that when he was notified he had been elected to the Hall of Fame, “My first reaction was, ‘Can I have the cash instead.’ My second reaction was that if they went alphabetically, I’d have been in there years ago.” Calling himself “one of the last of the Hebrew hillbillies,” Arnold recalled when a country station he was working for in New York told him to add gospel songs to the playlist but to be sensitive to the city’s large Jewish population. “They said, ‘Play any gospel song that you want as long as it doesn’t have the word “Jesus” in it.’” Arnold concluded with the assertion, “Country music is my life. It was, it is, it always will be.”