Sonny James — the mellow-voiced singer, guitarist and producer known as “the Southern Gentleman” — died Monday (Feb. 22) at age 87, according to his official website.
A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, James was that rarest of artists, one who moved fluidly for years between country and pop music with equal authenticity and acceptance.
Born into a performing family in Hackleburg, Alabama, on May 1, 1928, James Hugh Loden began learning the guitar when he was 3 and moved on to become a skillful fiddle player in his teens.
Working with his four sisters as the Loden Family, James became a familiar voice and figure on such high-profile live radio shows as the Louisiana Hayride and the Big D Jamboree.
After serving in the Army for 15 months during the Korean War (some of that time spent entertaining the troops), James made friends with fellow guitarist Chet Atkins, who, in turn, introduced him to Ken Nelson, the head of artist & repertoire for Capitol Records.
Nelson signed James to a recording contract in 1952 that ultimately would yield the label 21 No. 1 country singles over the next 20 years — as well as the No. 1 pop single, “Young Love.” Seventeen other of James’ singles also went pop, albeit at significantly lower level than they reached in country.
James held the country music record for having the most No. 1 singles in a row — 16 — until the group Alabama, scored its 17th consecutive No. 1 in 1985 with “Forty-Hour Week (For a Livin’).” When the group officially celebrated its victory, “the Southern Gentleman” was there to offer his congratulations personally
James’ first single for Capitol, “That’s Me Without You,” entered the charts in February 1953 and peaked at an encouraging No. 9. But it would be three more years before he finally reached the top with “Young Love.”
Although James’ recording of the Ric Cartey-Carole Joyner tune arrived on the pop chart two weeks earlier than the one cut by movie star Tab Hunter, Hunter’ version soon eclipsed James’ and went on to remain the top pop single for six weeks, compared to James’ one week.
On the country charts, however, James’ “Young Love” perched at the top for nine weeks.
Speaking on James’ behalf when the singer won the Country Radio Broadcasters’ career achievement award in 2002, record executive Mike Curb credited James’ version of “Young Love” as being the first “teen hit” to cross over from country to pop.
James’ broad appeal, which extended into the 1970s, won him appearances on the major TV variety programs of the day, including those hosted by The Jimmy Dean Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Bob Hope Show. He was also featured in some decidedly “B-movies,” among them Hillbillies in a Haunted House and Las Vegas Hillbillies.
Many of James most popular singles were covers of contemporary pop hits. From the Seekers, he reconfigured “I’ll Never Find Another You” and “A World of Our Own,” from Roy Orbison “Only the Lonely,” from Johnny Preston “Running Bear,” from the Chordettes “Born to Be With You,” from Ivory Joe Hunter “Since I Met You Baby,” from Brook Benton “It’s Just a Matter Of Time,” and “Endlessly,” from Petula Clark “My Love,” from Gene Pitney “Only Love Can Break a Heart” and from Al Martino “I Love You More and More Every Day.”
His last single that chart pop came in 1971 with “Bright Lights, Big City,” a song made famous by bluesman Jimmy Reed.
James made his mark as a producer, as well, helming Marie Osmond’s .1973 single, “Paper Roses,” which crowned the country charts for two weeks and rose to No. 5 pop.
His country popularity continued through the ‘70s with such No. 1 and Top 5 singles as “Here Comes Honey Again,” “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do,” “When the Snow Is on the Roses,” “Is It Wrong for Loving You,” “White Silver Sands” (a cover of Don Rondo’s 1957 pop hit) and “A Mi Eposa Con Amor (To My Wife With Love).”
His last charted country song, “A Free Roamin’ Mind,” came in 1983.
A formidable musician, James toured extensively while accompanying himself on guitar with the Southern Gentlemen, his band that featured only vocalists and a bass guitar player. In 1975, he released The Guitars of Sonny James, an instrumental album that included “Eres Tu (Touch the Wind),” which peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard country airplay chart.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.