Keeping track of the many accomplishments of Sonny James throughout his lifetime can be a daunting task. Working as a musician for about 84 of his 87 years (there wasn't much he could do until age three), he developed a natural process that came easily to one so immersed in music. He was a quick and eager learner, becoming accomplished as a guitarist, flexible fiddle player, radio and television personality, a songwriter, producer, arranger and singer of folk, country, pop and rock and roll who also adapted some of his favorite rhythm and blues songs to fit his style. And he was very polite; many have said his nickname, "The Southern Gentleman," contained the ring of truth.

Hackleburg, in the northeastern part of Alabama, marks his beginning in 1928. His birth certificate read James Hugh Loden, but family members used simple nicknames and his was "Sonny." Music was a priority, the best way to have fun. Archie Loden ("Pop") was proficient with a guitar, fiddle or banjo. Della Loden ("Mom") played guitar and sang. Thelma Lee Loden ("Sis"), five years older than Sonny, played guitar and had a rambunctious personality that would serve her well as an entertainer. Saturday nights were a time for gathering with friends to sing and play past midnight; even at the age of four, Sonny impressed with his knack for playing violin. In 1933 The Loden Family did a series of weekend shows at WMSD, about 35 miles north in Sheffield, soon afterwards working their way south to Birmingham and a stint at WAPI, which had a signal with a much larger reach throughout Alabama and westward into Mississippi.

Before long, the Loden Family took to the road with a fifth member, adopted child Ruby Palmer, a yodeling bass player who complemented Sis. They would set up in different towns, enroll the kids in school, and perform at various auditoriums, theaters and schoolhouses until a better offer would lead them to a new place. Every performance featured humorous banter and covered a variety of musical styles within a country and western framework (vintage songs, more recent hits and instrumental interludes); everyone had their moments in the spotlight and within a couple of years they had built a reputation throughout the southern states. Sis and Sonny attended a dozen or more schools over the next decade and he enjoyed participating in school sports. There was no shortage of opportunities to do their act live on the radio; at one point they performed on KLCN in Blytheville, at the northeastern corner of Arkansas, and appeared often with child act Doyle and Teddy Wilburn (who as adults, in the 1950s, gained fame as The Wilburn Brothers).

After a couple of years in Blytheville, they moved to Jackson, Mississippi and WJDX. Soon the family settled into a steady schedule of singing, playing and cutting up for larger, packed houses. During World War II there was an extended stay at WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee; accordionist Buddy Baines joined them for a time. After the war, they headed to WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina and made the acquaintance of up-and-coming guitar great Chet Atkins. By that time, teenager James had become the main draw and the act was billed as Sonny Loden and the Southerners. Radio employment in the later '40s included WSGN in Birmingham and WMPS in Memphis. Sis, who'd supplied the bulk of comedy for the act, left a gap in 1949 when she and Ruby each got engaged, quit the group and married their future hubbies in a double ceremony in West Memphis, Arkansas. Pop and Mom decided they'd had their fun with the entertainment business, so they returned to Hackleburg and started a small clothing store, leaving Sonny to his own devices.

During a career that lasted more than 15 years, the Loden Family never made a single recording (which was the case with many regional acts in the '30s and '40s); their story is truly the stuff of legends and will need to be passed down throughout generations. Sonny returned home with his parents and joined the National Guard, but didn't give up on the dream of one day becoming a recording artist. In the summer of 1950 he joined The Ranch Boys, fronted by Memphis-based country singer Freddie Burns, doing a daily show on WHBQ that reached millions of listeners on the Mutual Radio Network. But before he could take advantage of this exposure, he was called into active duty with the National Guard and sent to war-torn Korea as part of the 252nd Truck Company of Hamilton, Alabama. He was allowed to take a guitar and fiddle with him and began writing songs in what little spare time he had. Returning before the 1952 holiday season, he moved to Nashville to resume his music career. Old friend Chet Atkins, an RCA Victor recording artist since 1947 and a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, set up a meeting with Ken Nelson, a Los Angeles-based producer for Capitol Records...who signed Sonny to a contract on the spot.

Nelson suggested he come up with a professional name that would be easier for people to remember, so he took his first and made it his last. Then Sonny James - a singer with two first names! - proceeded to make his initial recordings. In addition, Nelson came up with "The Southern Gentleman" as a nickname to help promote him. His first single, "Shortcut," a midtempo number featuring Jerry Byrd on steel guitar, received airplay in a few southern cities; Sonny was opening for a Slim Whitman tour in the summer of '52 when he got the thrill of hearing himself on the radio for the first time. Its follow-up, a cover of "That's Me Without You" (a ballad released on Dot Records the previous year by Baton Rouge-based singer Lou Millet), reached the top ten on Billboard's C&W Most Played by Jockeys chart in February 1952, his first time on a national survey, though a version by faster-rising star Webb Pierce became a bigger hit.

Sonny, a lifelong non-drinker and non-smoker, had an aversion to playing the honky tonk bars that traded on those vices. His rise in the music business moved a little slower as a result of avoiding such venues, the regular haunts of many country music fans who would spread the word about performers they'd seen. He moved to Dallas and recorded several songs, some written while in Korea, and Capitol executives were satisfied with his gradual progress. "For Rent (One Empty Heart)," cowritten by James and Jack Morrow, drew a parallel between living quarters and affairs of the heart ('a long-term lease can be arranged...') and became his first bona fide hit on the best seller charts in early 1956, leading to bigger things. For a few months he was a familiar face on national TV after landing a spot on Ozark Jubilee, a Saturday evening series on ABC. The 90-minute show had two segments: the first half hour starred James, Pierce and Porter Wagoner as rotating hosts. Red Foley hosted the final hour of every installment. Once every three weeks, Sonny commuted by train more than 400 miles from Dallas to Springfield, Missouri, where the show was broadcast. It was his most high-profile exposure to that point.

With a hit single and increased visibility, he scored more hits in '56. Major Bill Smith of the Air Force penned "Twenty Feet of Muddy Water" (' took off my ring and you threw it away...I'm going search for that precious little band of gold!''). Sonny's original "The Cat Came Back" told a grisly tale about an 'ol' yella cat' with at least nine lives and owners who weren't so lucky. These songs possessed a whimsical kind of blues approach, but the next release went in a teenage rock and roll direction, becoming a career highlight despite facing stiff competition from another version by an actor/singer/"overnight sensation." In one of the few such instances in music history, both artists benefited, as did the song's originators.

"Young Love" was recorded by Ric Cartey with the Jiva-Tones and issued on the Stars, Inc. label in the fall of 1956. Cartey, an Atlanta-born rock and roller, had written the song with his high school sweetheart, Carole Joyner. Sonny's cover was recorded soon afterwards, appearing on the C&W charts the final week of the year and pop charts at the start of January '57, taking just three weeks to reach the top ten; another cover by Tab Hunter joined him in the winner's circle the following week as Sonny spent three frames at number two (behind Guy Mitchell's "Singing the Blues" and Elvis Presley's "Too Much") before movie star Tab made a leap-frog move on his way to number one. Sonny tallied seven weeks atop the country chart while Tab led the pop list for six. Combined with another version by The Crew-Cuts, the song spent eight straight weeks at the top of Billboard's Honor Roll of Hits throughout February and March. Everyone involved enjoyed the fruits of the year's first major hit song (even songwriters Ric and Carole).

The success of "Young Love," Sonny's most pop-sounding effort yet, expanded the possibilites for country acts willing to alter their sound. Ken Nelson urged Capitol's Ferlin Husky to update "Gone," a song he'd done years earlier, with a pop arrangement and it too was a major crossover hit a month or two later; gradually the sound of C&W changed, despite sharp criticism from many core fans. For Sonny James, it encouraged him to dabble further into rock and roll and the teenage themes making inroads via the new trend led by Presley's explosive popularity. "First Date, First Kiss, First Love," the first of these, was a top ten country and top 40 pop hit. "Uh-Huh--mm," playing around with a vocal tic noticeable in several Elvis songs, was a hotter production that made minor waves in early '58. Sonny continued moving in this direction in '58 and '59 with "You Got That Touch," an uptempo rockabilly tune he'd written with Richard Hollingsworth. "Talk of the School," composed by Bobbie Carroll (Tommy Sands' similarly-themed song "Teen-Age Doll" was also hers), featured Capitol vocal quartet The Eligibles (and bore a similarity to Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool"). These efforts may have satisfied Sonny as an artist but fell far short of the high bar set with "Young Love." He left Capitol in 1960 to take a different path towards establishing his still-uncertain style.

NRC, a small label based in Atlanta, released a mildly successful single, "Jenny Lou." By 1961 James had signed with RCA Victor; Atkins produced his cover of Jerry Lordan's "Apache" (an instrumental hit in the U.K. by The Shadows and in the U.S. by Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann) and Sonny's was the most notable vocal version using lyrics added by R&B ballad singer Johnny Flamingo. Around this time, Sonny was presented with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame...a little premature, if only in light of what came later. In 1962 he began performing regularly at the Grand Ole Opry. Of a few singles on Dot, "A Mile and a Quarter" ('...of treacherous water keeps men in Alcatraz') was the most conspicuous, but each effort failed to jump-start his sluggish recording career. In 1963, he made a move few have done, or even had an opportunity to do: he returned to the record company that had made him a star.

Capitol's top artist, Nat "King" Cole, attempted something different in 1962 with "Ramblin' Rose," a country/pop production that became a major hit, his first million seller in more than four years. Sonny James spent some time in Hollywood's tower studio, taking direction from Cole to get a sense of what made his latest recordings so special (as both were natives of Alabama, they hit it off very well). Recording in Nashville with producer Marvin Hughes, Sonny started his second round with "The Minute You're Gone," a ballad written by Jimmy Gately. It became his first top ten country hit in more than six years. Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's wanderin' song "Baltimore" matched the feat.

He met a group that had called themselves The Parsons; members Milo Liggett, Lin Bown, Duane West and Gary Robble were performing at the Grand Ole Opry in 1964 as The Chordsmen and Sonny was so impressed he made them an offer to tour and record with him as The Southern Gentlemen. In early '65, NARAS finally took notice; "You're the Only World I Know," which Sonny had written with former Ozark Jubilee staffer Bob Tubert, received Grammy nominations in three categories: Best Country and Western Single, C&W Song (shared with Tubert) and C&W Vocal Performance, an honor despite Roger Miller's ulitmate victory (he won 'em all). But it was a triumph for Sonny too; the song became his first country chart-topper since "Young Love."

He'd finally gained momentum in the country arena. Tubert's "I'll Keep Holding On" and "Behind the Tear" (penned by Ned Miller and his wife Sue) were major country hits in '65. A remake of "Take Good Care of Her," a five-year-old pop hit for Adam Wade, hit number one in '66. From 1965 to '67 he appeared in a handful of low-budget films starting with an entry in the Bowery Boys series, Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar. Other films, each with performances by leading country stars (Dottie West, Del Reeves, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Ferlin Husky, Bill Anderson, Connie Smith, The Wilburn Brothers...and the list goes on...) included Nashville Rebel, Las Vegas Hillbillys and Hillbillys in a Haunted House. Here's my six-word review: bad movies, poor spelling, good music. Everyone who was anyone in mid-'60s country appeared in these films. In 1967, Sonny made a more high-profile appearance, as he and Bobbie Gentry co-hosted the first televised Country Music Association awards show (widely known ever since as the CMAs).

A streak of 16 consecutive number one country singles on the Billboard charts (from 1967 to 1971) became a calling card of sorts for Sonny James. The unprecedented run kicked off with "Need You" and others were Arlie Duff's "It's the Little Things" and Cindy Walker's "Heaven Says Hello," though most selections adhered to a formula (remakes of previous hits) that was well-timed and effective. These include a pair of songs made famous by The Seekers ("I'll Never Find Another You" and "A World of Our Own"), two Brook Benton originals ("It's Just a Matter of Time" and "Endlessly") and two from Ivory Joe Hunter ("Since I Met You, Baby" and "Empty Arms"). Other nostalgic tunes done in bright, well-produced Sonny style include "Born to Be With You" (The Chordettes), "Only the Lonely" (Roy Orbison), "Running Bear" (Johnny Preston), "My Love" (Petula Clark) and Jimmy Reed's blues classic "Bright Lights, Big City." Sonny slipped a couple of his own tunes, composed with Carol Smith, into the mix: "Don't Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Here Comes Honey Again." 16 in a row! This degree of uninterrupted dominance hasn't happened since.

In 1973, he made his mark as a producer and arranger with Marie Osmond, who began a solo career separate from her Osmonds siblings just before her 14th birthday. Marie had expressed a desire to be a country singer and Curb Records owner Mike Curb gave James the assignment. "Paper Roses" (a remake of Anita Bryant's 1960 hit) went to number one country and made the pop top ten; Sonny and Marie worked together in the studio for the next two years. His own string of hits continued as he'd left Capitol in '72 and signed with Columbia, regularly making the country top 20 with interpretations of songs new and old. The Southern Gentlemen continued backing him until the early 1980s, undergoing several lineup changes through the years. While "Young Love" remains Sonny James' most recognizable song, it was just the first of what ultimately totaled 23 number one country hits and more than 70 hit songs.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Young Love Jenny Lou The Minute You're Gone Baltimore I'll Keep Holding On (Just For Your Love) Behind the Tear True Love's a Blessing It's the Little Things Born to Be With You