It’s a long way from a farm in West Tennessee to Carnegie Hall, but singer Eddy Arnold has traveled that road and with great success.
His has been an exemplary career second to none in the country music field. Since his first recordings for Bluebird and RCA Victor in the 1940s, Arnold has sold more than 85 million records and netted 145 Billboard chart singles. An astounding 38 of those cuts also charted in the pop field. His network radio show in the 1940s took country music into millions of homes from coast to coast, thus expanding country’s audience beyond the boundaries of the rural Southeast.
People who “don’t even like country music” have found it in their hearts to like Eddy Arnold. His easy-going demeanor and choice of well-written material have appealed to a great many folks. Today, Arnold remains one of country’s most beloved performers. He’s also a highly astute businessman who has amassed a sizable fortune worth several millions of dollars.
country.com recently had the opportunity to visit with the legendary singer at his office just south of Nashville. The wood-paneled walls are lined with framed photos, industry awards and countless mementos of a most remarkable career. Cassette tapes and magazines obscure the top of his massive desk.
The day of the interview Arnold was seated on the sofa amidst several stacks of 8 x 10 glossy photos awaiting his signature. Arnold’s long-time assistant, Roberta, types away in the next room and fields phone calls. Now, nearing 80, Arnold still drives to the office almost daily to oversee business.
The soft-spoken gentlemen admits that slowing down is on his mind these days, but judging by his recent schedule, one wonders just when he plans to do so. Arnold recently completed a five-day, sold out run in Las Vegas. And he also contributed extensively to the two biographies of his life published earlier this year.
He’s been at work in the recording studio as well. He recently sang with fellow country artists Steve Wariner and Jean Shepard for Bill Anderson’s forthcoming project, and he’s recorded a new Christmas album for Curb Records entitled Christmas Time. This past August, Arnold spent several days at the TNN Studios taping his Christmas special, Christmas Time with Eddy Arnold. The program airs Wednesday, December 10th at 8:00 p.m., Eastern on TNN, and Arnold’s guests include LeAnn Rimes and Faith Hill.
During the course of his fifty-plus year career, Arnold has witnessed many changes in country music and has wrought some of those changes himself. Let’s revisit the career of country’s most successful recording artist.
Born May 15, 1918, Arnold grew up about 100 miles southwest of Nashville near Henderson, Tennessee. Times were difficult for the Arnold family as they tried to eek out a meager living on the family farm. Just as the Great Depression hit, Arnold, then age 11, was faced with the death of his father. Arnold was soon forced to quit school in order to help support his family. Any aspirations he had about leaving the farm were quickly dashed. Says Arnold, “I figured I’d do hard labor all my life.”
But Arnold did eventually manage to get off the farm. He had been playing the guitar since the age of ten. Initially it was for local square dances but eventually he landed a spot on a Jackson, Tennessee radio station. From there he went to St. Louis and eventually on to WMPS Radio in Memphis. By the outbreak of World War II, Arnold was working with fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Pee Wee King, then a popular Grand Ole Opry figure.
Joined by comedienne Minnie Pearl, King and his Golden West Cowboys set out on the Camel Caravan. Organized by Opry sponsor the R. J. Reynolds Company, the troupe toured military bases in the U.S. and Panama. Says Arnold of his tenure with King, “I was the master of ceremonies for his group and I’d do a song. I was learning my trade. Of course, I wasn’t a name there at all.
“I got a lot of good experience with Pee Wee. He was a good showman. I could tell he knew how to entertain a crowd. That was very important. I’ve always been very observant of people who were good showmen.” Even today, when Arnold performs, he tries to pace his show so that he can hold his audience’s interest. Of his recent Las Vegas shows Arnold says, “I’ll do a song like ‘That Good Old Mountain Dew’ with my banjo player. It gets the crowd going. I do a couple of things like that to get the audience up.”
During his tenure with King, Arnold landed a recording contract with RCA. But his career was put on hold due to a strike with the musician’s union. Recalls Arnold, “There had been a recording strike. It seems to me it lasted about two years. I’d been under contract for that long but I hadn’t been able to make a recording. I thought the world was passing me by. But as quick as that strike was over, I got a call from New York to go in the studio.”
Recalls Arnold of those December 1944 sessions, “The first two sessions I did at the radio station (WSM). I had no producer, just me and a couple of musicians around two microphones with the engineer. We did four songs. One song was ‘Mommy Please Stay Home with Me.’”
That song failed to chart but a pair of follow-up singles for the RCA Victor label, “Each Minute Seems a Million Years” and “All Alone In This World Without You,” each managed to catch fire, and ultimately cracked Billboard’s Top Ten chart.
“I released two or three songs before I got a hit. In 1946 I did a song called ‘That’s How Much I Love You.’ It didn’t become a big hit. But it showed life,” says Arnold. The song was a near hit, though, reaching Number Two on the charts, where it stayed for four weeks.
In 1947 Arnold was on the air with his own daily 15 minute radio show for the Ralston Purina Company. “That really helped to launch me. Being on a network, I was all over the country and it gave me exposure to a lot of people. I got fan mail from people who bought chicken feed and they had no chickens,” laughs Arnold. That same year he also scored three No. 1 singles including “I’ll Hold You In My Heart (‘Til I Can Hold You in My Arms).” That song could easily be regarded as Arnold’s career song. In addition to topping the country charts (where it remained for 21 weeks), the song also marked Arnold’s pop chart debut, proving that it wasn’t just country folks buying his records.
The rest of the decade was extremely fruitful for Arnold. In all he netted 21 Top Ten singles and nine No. 1 songs including, “Anytime,” “Bouquet of Roses” and “Don’t Rob Another’ Man’s Castle.” As his chart success and popularity grew, so too, did Arnold’s fortunes. “I started off with a very low royalty. I was unproven. But as quick as I started selling records, Steve Sholes and RCA raised my royalty. At the time I started, country artists were sort of second-class citizens as opposed to the pop artists. But they had to get over that with me. At that time (Col. Tom) Parker (who would later handle the career of Elvis Presley) was my manager and he negotiated those contracts pretty good. I finally got the same royalty as the pop artists were getting.”
Throughout the next decade and a half, Arnold proved to be a consistent presence on both the pop and country charts. In the mid-1950s, Arnold’s career was largely unaffected by the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. He toured the U.S. and abroad extensively and appeared on a number of network variety shows including The Spike Jones Show and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. Arnold also hosted his own network television show, Eddy Arnold Time, which debuted on NBC but later moved over to ABC.
By the dawn of the 60s, Arnold added a new dimension to his career and expanded his audience even further. With more polished recordings that often featured large orchestras, Arnold’s stock once again began to rise.
Beginning with 1965’s “What’s He Doing In My World,” Arnold began another lengthy tenure at the top which included appearances at such high-brow institutions as Washington’s Constitution Hall, Symphony Hall in Boston, and Carnegie Hall. “When I performed at Carnegie Hall it was unbelievable. They (the people) were hanging off the walls and applauding. Doing those kinds of things was really unexpected. We did tremendous business in those places. Doing Carnegie Hall in New York really brought on the TV show,” says Arnold. (That show was the popular Kraft Music Hall, which aired on NBC.)
In 1966 Arnold was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and was named the CMA’s first-ever Entertainer of the Year in 1967. He left RCA in 1972. Recording for MGM, Arnold netted nine chart singles for the label before returning to RCA mid-decade. Throughout the latter half of the 70s and into the 80s, Arnold was ever-present on the country charts, thus making him one of only a handful of artists to chart in four consecutive decades. In 1984 the Academy of Country Music honored him with their Pioneer Award, and in 1993 RCA released a retrospective CD set, Last of the Love Song Singers: Then & Now.
When reflecting on his career, Arnold is hard-put to single out any one personal milestone. There have been so many. Arnold prefers to look at his career in the larger scheme of things. “All these years I have wanted country music to be respected by the average person. So many times, the public wouldn’t really respect the music. But we all hung in and kept trying to make it respectable. It has that respect now and that’s the thing that I’m the proudest of. It has the respect of the whole music industry and that’s what I wanted.”
Arnold’s contributions to country music cannot be overstated. His ability to blur the hard line between country and pop music set the scene for countless performers who followed.