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Sonny James (1928 – 2016)
Country Music Hall of Fame member Sonny James, who was born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1928 in Hackleburg, Ala. (95 miles northwest of Birmingham), passed away Monday. He was 87.
The boy who would grow up to be known as “The Southern Gentleman” was raised on a 300-acre farm.
“Mr. James epitomized the moniker ‘Southern Gentleman’,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA Chief Executive Officer. “He had an incredible string of hit records, but he was equally admired for his character and charm. He will be missed by his family, the industry, and fans around the world.”
Between 1960 and 1979, James’ singles spent an incredible 57 weeks in the No. 1 position — more than any other Country artist. Both of his parents were musicians, and his older sister Thelma was a singer and guitarist. With such a musical household, the family regularly performed together on Saturday nights at the homes of friends, incorporating young James at age 3 by teaching him to sing and play a homemade mandolin made from a molasses bucket.
In 1933, the Loden Family began performing on the radio each Saturday on WMSD/Muscle Shoals, Ala. The family also won a Mid-South Champion Band contest, with the top prize being a two week performance stint on WAPI/Birmingham, Ala. Kate Smith, who was the headlining artist for the contest, held the young Loden backstage, giving him a silver dollar while telling him he would have a bright future in the entertainment business. These proved to be wise words from one entertainment legend to a young child who would grow up to become one himself.
The Loden Family (who by now had added young Ruby Palmer on vocals and bass) performed around the South, building a reputation in the region. They became regular performers on KLCN/Blytheville, Ark., before moving on to stations in Greenwood and Columbus, Miss. After a stint at WJDX/Jackson, Miss., they moved to WNOX/Knoxville, Tenn. in the mid-1940s to perform on the daily “Midday Merry-Go-Round” and Saturday night “Tennessee Barn Dance” radio shows. At WNOX, the Loden Family was part of a talent roster that at various times included Chet Atkins, Archie Campbell, Bill and Cliff Carlisle, Lost John Miller (and his banjo player Earl Scruggs), and Johnny Wright. In 1946, the Loden Family moved to WPTF/Raleigh, N.C. (where James roomed with Atkins); in 1949 they moved briefly to WSGN/Birmingham, Ala. before heading to WMPS/Memphis, Tenn.
Loden joined the National Guard and finished high school before briefly performing with a friend on WHBQ/Memphis, Tenn. In Sept. 1950, he was called up to become a member of the First National Guard troops sent to Korea for the Korean Conflict. While there, Loden began seriously writing songs while playing both the guitar and fiddle. After two years overseas, Loden returned home and moved to Nashville where he looked up his former roommate Atkins who had become an established recording artist and session musician.
Atkins later secured an audition for Loden with Capitol Records’ producer Ken Nelson, leading to a recording contract, a new stage name of Sonny James (based on Loden’s teenage nickname) and a new tagline – “The Southern Gentleman.”
In 1953, his single “That’s Me Without You” hit No. 9 on the Billboard Country chart. James began appearing on important radio shows including “The Louisiana Hayride” and “The Saturday Night Shindig” before joining “The Big ‘D’ Jamboree” on KRLD/Dallas. He also began hosting the first 30 minute slot on every third episode of the influential “Ozark Jubilee” television show. The other rotating hosts for that segment were Webb Pierce and Porter Wagoner, with Red Foley hosting the final hour each week, putting James in great company.
James continued having hits with “She Done Give Her Heart to Me,” “For Rent (One Empty Heart),” “Twenty Feet of Muddy Water,” and “The Cat Came Back” among others. The combination of his vocals and guitar playing created a distinct sound. In 1956 he released “Young Love,” which became his biggest hit and signature song. The song spent nine weeks at No. 1 during 1956-57 and crossed over to top the pop charts. For the next several years, James charted songs including “First Date, First Kiss, First Love” on both the Country and pop charts.
James joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1962. Two years later, he hit No. 1 on the Country charts with “You’re the Only World I Know.” This began his domination of the Country charts for the next eight years, with 20 of his next 25 singles reaching No.1. During the five years between 1967 and 1971, he had 16 consecutive No. 1 singles. Among his hits were “Take Good Care of Her,” “I’ll Never Find Another You,” “A World of Our Own,” “Born to Be With You,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “My Love,” “Running Bear,” “It’s the Little Things,” and “Only the Lonely” among others. Backed by his band, the Southern Gentlemen, James toured the U.S. and overseas, as well as making frequent television appearances on national shows such as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Bob Hope Show,” and “The Andy Williams Show.” He also appeared in movies such as “Las Vegas Hillbillies,” “Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar,” and “Nashville Rebel.”
In 1967, James and Bobbie Gentry co-hosted the first CMA Awards, setting the bar for all future hosts of Country Music’s Biggest NightTM. James received five CMA nominations throughout his career including Entertainer (1967); Male Vocalist (1967, 1969); and Album of the Year (1967 for The Best of Sonny James; 1976 for 200 Years of Country Music).
Honors and awards were plentiful. In 1961, he became the first Country Music artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Billboard named him the No. 1 Country Artist of 1969. On Jan. 31, 1971, the Apollo 14 moon flight (commanded by astronaut Alan Shepard) took a program James recorded exclusively for them into space — a first for a Country artist. In appreciation, the crew presented him with a flag they had carried to the moon. In 1977, Record World Magazine named him Country Music’s Male Artist of the Decade.
James changed record labels from Capitol to Columbia Records in 1972; towards the end of the decade he moved again to Monument Records. He remained a strong force in Country Music through 1983, scoring hits with “Only Love Can Break a Heart,” “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do,” “When the Snow is On the Roses,” “Is it Wrong (For Loving You),” “A Mi Esposa con Amor (To My Wife with Love),” “A Little Bit South of Saskatoon,” “Little Band of Gold,” and “What in the World’s Come Over You” among others. A man of many talents, James expanded his career by producing other artists and entering music publishing in the early ’70s. He produced three albums for Marie Osmond, including her hit single “Paper Roses.” He also continued to perform concerts, appear on national television shows such as “Hee Haw” and participate regularly in Fan Fair, now CMA Music Festival. In 1983, James retired from performing to raise cattle in Alabama.