40 Years After His Death, Jim Reeves Remains a Superstar

Dead at 39, Singer Never Lived to Enjoy Most of His Hits

He’d come close several times, but Jim Reeves hadn’t had a No. 1 single in nearly four years — not since “He’ll Have to Go” soared to the top in early 1960 and stayed there for 14 weeks. Now it was time for another try.

On July 11, 1964, Reeves entered the Billboard singles charts again via “I Guess I’m Crazy.” It was one of those sensitive-lover ballads at which Reeves excelled — and it too was destined for a long stay at No. 1. But the singer wouldn’t live to see it happen.

Nashville’s tightly knit music community was still adjusting to the deaths of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins in a plane crash 17 months earlier when Reeves climbed into his single-engine Beechcraft the afternoon of July 31, 1964, for a flight back to Music City. Riding with him was his long-time pianist and road manager, Dean Manuel. The two were returning from Arkansas where Reeves had gone to inspect some potential investment property.

Reeves had invited Maxine Brown, of the singing group the Browns, to fly with him from Nashville to Little Rock, where her family lived, and she had accepted. Then, the night before the trip, her daughter became ill and she cancelled. Brown had flown with Reeves before and had been a close friend since their days together on the Louisiana Hayride.

“Jim had owned his [plane] for some time,” Brown relates in her forthcoming book, Looking Back to See, “but he hadn’t quite mastered flying it, especially in bad weather. His plane didn’t have the proper instruments, either, but a little thing like that never stopped Jim Reeves. He liked to fly by the seat of his pants.”

It was raining hard late that afternoon when Reeves’ plane appeared on the radar at Nashville’s Berry Field airport. Then, just minutes before its scheduled touchdown, the aircraft disappeared from the screen. It took nearly two days for the more than 700 volunteer searchers to find the wreckage in a wooded area near the Nashville suburb of Brentwood. Many of Reeves’ friends and associates took part in the search, among them his producer, Chet Atkins, and fellow entertainers Eddy Arnold, Stonewall Jackson and Ernest Tubb.

An Associated Press story that ran on Aug. 2, the day of the discovery, reported that the plane was “demolished” and that the singer had been identified from a driver’s license found in the debris. Reeves was 39. After a memorial service in Nashville, his remains were taken to Carthage, Texas, for burial. No doubt fueled by the notoriety surrounding Reeves’ death, “I Guess I’m Crazy” soon accelerated to No. 1, where it remained for seven weeks.

Oddly enough, Reeves would have more No. 1’s after his death than before — by a ratio of six to five. And thanks to the collection of demo, promotional and unreleased recordings he had squirreled away as “insurance” for his wife, Mary, his songs would continue to appear on the charts every single year for the next 20 years.

James Travis Reeves was born Aug. 20, 1923 in Galloway, Texas, close to the Louisiana border. He early aspired to play baseball for a living and was showing some promise as a minor leaguer when, in 1947, an injury permanently sidelined him. Five years later, he followed another burgeoning interest — music — and signed to a small but feisty independent label, Abbott Records. That alliance quickly yielded two No. 1 hits, “Mexican Joe” in 1953 and “Bimbo” in 1954. Reeves joined the Louisiana Hayride, a weekly radio show in the Grand Ole Opry tradition, in 1953 in Shreveport.

Possessed of a rich, mellow voice and the distinct articulation of a radio announcer (which he once was), Reeves sounded more like a pop crooner than a conventional country singer. His career would stand as proof that country music doesn’t always have to be emotionally or sonically hard-edged and filled with rural imagery to succeed. His delivery was as cool and urbane as jazz. No wonder, then, that 23 of his singles crossed over to the pop charts, with “He’ll Have to Go” reaching all the way to No. 2.

Although Reeves’ early hits were lighthearted novelty numbers, he shifted gradually to slower, more romantic tunes, particularly after he moved to RCA Records in 1955. That same year, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. His biggest hit — “He’ll Have to Go” — was remarkable not only for its longevity but for its calm, civilized tone. Speaking to his straying sweetheart on the phone, the singer neither rages nor threatens as most heartbroken hillbillies would. He simply suggests, “You can tell your friend there with you he’ll have to go.”

At the height of his popularity, Reeves cultivated such foreign markets as England, Germany, Holland, Australia, India and South Africa — all places where his records continue to be popular. He even recorded a few songs in the Afrikaans language for fans in South Africa, and he made a movie, Kimberley Jim, there in the early ’60s.

Reeves was an accomplished songwriter as well, penning such hits for himself as “Am I Losing You,” “Is It Really Over,” “I’m Getting’ Better” and “Yonder Comes a Sucker.” He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967.

Following his death, RCA “sweetened” Reeves’ surviving recordings as necessary to meet the changing demands of radio. The label went so far in the late ’70s as to pair his voice with that of newcomer Deborah Allen to create three duet singles, all of which went Top 10. Then, in the early 1980s, Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley — Reeves’ and Patsy Cline’s producers, respectively — used new studio technologies to unite the two singers in ghostly duets they never sang together in life. One of these — “Have You Ever Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue)” — made the Top 5. Reeves scored his last chart single, “The Image of Me,” in 1984.

Reeves’ widow, Mary, died in 1999, leaving a still-disputed estate that currently generates more than $400,000 a year in royalties.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.