Sonny James released his last single (“A Free Roamin’ Mind”) in 1983, and retired from performing that same year. But he’d long since established a Country Music Hall of Fame legacy, which was remembered when he died yesterday at 87.
“Sonny James was a country giant in so many ways,” said music historian John Alexander. “He was one of the innovators who scored a No. 1 pop hit with a country classic, ‘Young Love,’ in 1956, one year before Tab Hunter’s pop cover. His string of Capitol hits is so impressive, but even after he switched labels to Columbia in 1972, he continued to release some of his finest recordings: ‘When the Snow is on the Roses’ is a classic ballad, and ‘A Little Bit South of Saskatoon’ is pure country fun.”
Yet in light of his accomplishments, Alexander feels that James was one of the most underrated country artists.
“He charted Top 10 country hits from 1956-1977,” said Alexander. “When Sonny James covered a pop hit, such as The Seekers ‘I’ll Never Find Another You,’ he just made it his own. And the gentle, unassuming Hall of Famer certainly lived up to his name: He was a true ‘Southern Gentleman’ in every respect.”
Hailing from Hackleburg, Ala., James was nicknamed the Southern Gentleman for his politeness. His band was called the Southern Gentlemen.
“He had that same smoothness–probably acquired by listening to the great pop vocalists–that enabled Eddy Arnold and Tennessee Ernie Ford to transcend the country format without ever demeaning it,” noted veteran Nashville journalist/author Edward Morris. “I last saw him at the post office, and I was reduced to worshipful babbling.”
“A big loss,” tweeted James’ fellow Country Music Hall of Famers the Oak Ridge Boys, while Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Duane Eddy tweeted, “Rest in peace, Sonny James. A true Southern Gentleman, one of my favorite Country singers.”
And Marie Osmond tweeted, “Country Music Hall of Famer, producer & lifelong friend #SonnyJames U will be missed! #RIP.” James had produced her first three albums and first single “Paper Roses,” which topped the country charts less than a month before her 14th birthday—making her the youngest solo artist to do so.
Osmond had been brought to James by songwriter-producer Mike Curb, who also signed her to his Curb Records label.
“Sonny James opened the doors of Nashville to me,” Curb said on James’ website. “He was the first person to invite me into a recording session at [historic Nashville studio] the Quonset Hut in 1964, and it started a friendship that lasted our whole lifetime. When I became Billboard Producer of the Year in the early 1970s, I realized that I needed to find someone better than me to produce Marie Osmond. I called Sonny who produced ‘Paper Roses’ which went all the way to No. 1. I also got to witness Sonny’s first No. 1 country record ‘You’re the Only World I Know.’ More important than all of that was a lifetime of friendship with Sonny and Doris; even seeing him the last two days of his life will have eternal meaning for me.”