Born James Hugh Loden, 1 May 1929, Hackleburg, Alabama
Pop/country singer / songwriter / guitarist. Nicknamed the Southern Gentleman.
Sonny James has had one of the most successful careers in country music. He holds the record of having the most consecutive # 1 country hits (16, between 1967 and 1971). Jimmy Loden (his real name) was born into a family of professional entertainers. He made his stage debut at the age of four, performing with the Loden Family, which included his parents, two sisters and a stepsister. By the time he was a teenager, he had mastered both the guitar and the violin, winning several fiddle championships. Later James gained additional experience with solo appearances on such shows as the Louisiana Hayride and the Big D Jamboree. Following his time in Korea for Uncle Sam, he signed a recording contract with Capitol in 1952 and was renamed Sonny James by his producer, Ken Nelson. His second Capitol single, "That's Me Without You", went to # 9 on the country charts and there were a few other minor hits like "For Rent" and "The Cat Came Back" (also a surprise # 30 pop hit in the UK), but the first seventeen Capitol singles gave no hint of what was to come and outside the South, few people had heard of him.
On Tuesday, 30th October 1956, Sonny entered Bradley Studio in Nashville to record a song that would forever be synonymous with the name Sonny James. Ken Nelson had given him a number written by Ric Cartey and Carole Joyner, originally recorded by Cartey for the Stars label as a B-side. It was a primitive record and Sonny had his doubts about it, but Ken Nelson encouraged him to make his own arrangement of "Young Love". James invested quite some time retooling the ballad, adding stylistic touches that compensated for lines that weren't long enough to fit the melody ("I-hi know-ho, I-hi-hi found mine.") . Released on December 10, 1956, "Young Love" became a worldwide hit, topping the country charts for nine weeks and the pop charts for one week, before a similar sounding cover by actor Tab Hunter on Dot took over the top spot (for 6 weeks).
"Young Love" was the first country teen crossover hit and an early example of the Nashville Sound (no steel guitar, no fiddle, no banjo, but an electric guitar and a chorus). Its massive success made Capitol decide to steer Sonny towards the wider and more lucrative teenage pop market. Most of his 1957-59 recordings were up-tempo teen-oriented songs, but with a few exceptions like "First Date, First Kiss, First Love" (# 25 pop, # 9 country) they were too "pop" to appeal to fans of either rock 'n' roll or country music and didn't sell well. Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for this period, with records like "Dream Big" (written by Paul Hampton and Burt Bacharach), "Pure Love" (co-written by Johnny Burnette, also recorded by Curtis Lee) and "Talk Of the School" (a clone of "Poor Little Fool").
It was October 1959 before James rerecorded "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know" in an attempt to bring his flagging country career back on track. While this song went to # 80 on the pop charts, he had already decided to leave Capitol for a smaller company where he would have more control over the direction of his career, tired as he was of the pressure to conform to the rules of "pop" hit-making.
His first move was to Bill Lowery's NRC label in Atlanta and his first single for the label, "Jenny Lou", was a moderate success (# 22 country, # 67 pop). But subsesequent singles on NRC (1960), RCA (1961) and Dot (1962) went nowhere (apart from a vocal version of "Apache" on RCA that peaked at # 87 pop) and Sonny returned to Capitol Records in 1963. "The Minute You're Gone" was a promising start of his second career at the label (# 9 country ; in the UK this was a # 1 for Cliff Richard in 1965). The following year saw the beginning of one of the most remarkable feats in chart history. Of the 25 singles Sonny James released between October 1964 and July 1972 (all on Capitol except the last one), twenty-one hit # 1 on the country charts, three reached # 2 and one "stalled" at # 3. According to Billboard statistics, he spent more time in the # 1 chart position between 1960 and 1979 than any other country artist - a total of 57 weeks. Most of these hits were remakes of previous pop hits, like "Born To Be With You", "Only the Lonely", "Running Bear", "It's Just A Matter Of Time" and "Since I Met You Baby". Quite a few of them also made the lower regions of the pop charts, though James never had a Top 40 pop hit after "First Date, First Kiss, First Love".
Sonny appeared in four low-budget films in 1966-67 : "Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar", "Nashville Rebel" , "Las Vegas Hillbillies" and "Hillbillys In A Haunted House".
He switched to Columbia in 1972 and continued to score Top 10 hits with other artists' songs, but "only" two number ones. In 1973 he produced the # 5 pop hit "Paper Roses" by Marie Osmond on MGM. Later he recorded for Monument (1979), Dimension (1981-83) and Dot MCA (1985-86) before retiring from the music business in the late 1980s. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2006. Now in his eighties, Sonny continues to live in Nashville, Tennessee.
More info :
Sessionography / discography (by Frank Frantik) :
Acknowledgements : Dave Samuelson, Rog Peyton, Don Roy, Lee Cotten, Joel Whitburn.
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