My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Country Heritage: Sonny James

“Let’s give a big Sarasota welcome to Capitol recording artist Sonny James and his Southern Gentlemen.”

Record labels do not have the aura that they had during the period of the 1940s–1970s, when artists were associated by the public with their record labels, and the record labels often put together tours of their artists. If you listen to live record radio programs of the period (or even live record albums), invariably the announcer would say something like this in introducing the artist “… and make welcome Capitol recording artist …”

The Big Four labels through the “Classic Period” of country music history (roughly 1950-1980) were, in order, Columbia/Epic, RCA, MCA/Decca and Capitol. Capitol was the smallest of the labels of the Big Four, with a shallower roster of artists, but during the period 1963-1972 Capitol had three artists who dominated in #1 records – Sonny James with 21 #1s, Buck Owens with 19 #1s and Merle Haggard with 13 #1s (according to Billboard). Yes, I know that all three artists had Billboard #1 records outside this decade, which ends when Sonny James left Capitol to sign with Columbia.

Sonny James is largely forgotten today, since when he retired, he really meant it. The raw numbers compiled by Billboard disguise the level of his success – Joel Whitburn has him as the #12 artist of the 1960s and the #10 artist of the 1970s but as of year-end 1997, Whitburn had Sonny James as #18 all-time. As of 2008, Whitburn still has him ranked at #22 all-time. Sonny James ranks ahead of many famous performers including Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers, Porter Wagoner, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams and Garth Brooks.

Born May 1, 1929 in the agricultural town of Hackleberg, Alabama, James Hugh Loden grew up in a musical family, singing with older sisters in the Loden Family group. While still a teen, Loden hosted his own radio show in Birmingham, Alabama. By the time James Loden entered the National Guard at the end of the 1940s, he was a seasoned professional entertainer. Although he had already finished his tour with the National Guard, the outbreak of hostilities in Korea resulted in Loden being recalled to active duty in September 1950, where he remained for the better part of two years.

Along the way James Loden had become friends with Chet Atkins who introduced Loden to Ken Nelson, famed record producer for Capitol Records. It was Ken Nelson who tagged James Loden with the Sonny James sobriquet, although apparently “Sonny” sometimes had been used as a nickname for Loden.

Ken Nelson started releasing singles on Sonny James in 1953. Some of the singles charted (others didn’t), starting with Sonny’s version of a song that Webb Pierce covered, “That’s Me Without You”, which reached #9 in 1953. Sonny would chart four more records through 1956, the biggest being “For Rent (One Empty Heart)” which reached #7 in early 1956. Sonny James was making inroads on television as well, appearing on the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and on the nationally televised Ozark Jubilee hosting the first thirty minutes on a rotating basis with Porter Wagoner and Webb Pierce (Red Foley hosted the final hour of the show).

Sonny’s career song “Young Love” came to Sonny’s attention in 1956 through the recording of one of the co-writers, Ric Cartey. Ric’s record went nowhere but Sonny’s cover shot quickly up the charts reaching #1 for nine weeks in 1957 and reaching #1 on the Pop Charts as well, although Sonny’s recording was eclipsed on the Pop Charts by a note-for-note cover by actor Tab Hunter. Sonny feels that the opportunity for Tab’s cover to succeed came because Capitol could not keep up with the demand for the record.

Despite the success of “Young Love” (the flip side “You’re The Reason I’m In Love” reached #6) Sonny’s career did not kick into overdrive, as subsequent singles failed to maintain the momentum. By 1960 Sonny was off Capitol and recorded for NRC, RCA and Dot without notable success. From early 1958 until July 1963, Sonny charted only one single, that on the NRC label, “Jenny Lou”, which just missed the top twenty.

Reconnecting with producer Ken Nelson at Capitol in 1963, Sonny’s chart success resumed with some top ten singles. Then in January 1965 Sonny kicked off a run of singles that ran from 1965-1972 in which every single made it to the top three on Billboard’s country charts, a total of 25 in all, including a run in which sixteen consecutive singles made it to #1, a record later eclipsed by Alabama and tied by Earl Thomas Conley (the previous record holder had been Buck Owens with fifteen straight #1s). In reality, the string is more impressive than it sounds. After “You’re The Only World I Know” reached #1 for 4 weeks and “I’ll Keep Holding On” stalled out at #2, the next twenty-three singles would make it to #1 on at least one of the three major charts in use at the time (Billboard, Cashbox, Record World).

Sonny’s run of chart-toppers was the perfect blend of a smooth singer with a country sound that did away with fiddle and steel guitar but did not go to the extremes of Countypolitan and Nashville Sound recordings, being (mostly) easily replicated in live performance, and often featuring Sonny’s own excellent guitar playing. The songs were a mix of old Pop, Rock & Roll and R&B covers (13 songs) and original material (12 songs). While the earlier Sonny James hits did feature steel guitar (and he did keep a steel guitar player in his band) most of the later hits featured a guitar-organ, initially played on his stage show by band member Harland Powell.

How successful was the Sonny James during the 1960s and 1970s? Consider this:

1) According to Billboard for the decades of the 1960s and 1970s (1960-1979) Sonny’s recordings spent more time in the Number One chart position than any other artist in country music – a total of 57 weeks.

2) Also, according to Billboard, Sonny was the fifth ranking county artist for the two decade period, ranking behind only (in order) George Jones, Buck Owens, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.

3) Sonny made more appearances on the Ed Sullivan show than any other country act. For those too young to remember, Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show was “Must-See TV” introducing acts such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley to the American public and Sullivan was one of the first to prominently feature R&B, Motown and country acts on national television.

Clive Davis, President of Columbia Records, was a big fan of Sonny James, and lured him to Columbia where he scored his last #1 of the twenty-five song streak with “When The Snow Is On The Roses”. Sonny would score #1 and a handful of top ten records in his six years with Columbia before moving on to other labels. During his Columbia years Sonny seemed to become less interested in hit records and began recording theme-centered albums. In the chart below, the songs during 1972-1973 that charted at 30 or worse were older material released as singles by Capitol after Sonny left the label.

Below is a list of Sonny’s singles with chart information (Billboard unless otherwise indicated)

Year

Single

Peak chart positions

 

 

US Country

US Pop

Canadian Country

 

Comments

 

1952

“Short Cut”

 
“That’s Me Without You”

9

1953

“Somebody Else’s Heartache”

“Poor Boy Rich Lovin'”

“My Greatest Thrill”

1954

“That’s How I Need You”

“The People Next to Me”

“She Done Give Her Heart to Me”

14

“I Forgot to Remember Santa Claus”

1955

“Lovin’ Season”

“Ain’t Gonna Take No Chance”

“Till the Last Leaf Shall Fall”

 
“Let’s Go Bunny Huggin'”

 
“Pigtails and Ribbons”

1956

“For Rent (One Empty Heart)”

7

 
“Twenty Feet of Muddy Water”

11

 
“The Cat Came Back”

12

#30UK

 
Young Love

1

1

#1 Cashbox

#11UK

 

1957

“First Date, First Kiss, First Love”

9

25

Lovesick Blues

15

“Mighty Lovable Man”

“Uh-Huh-mm”

8

92

1958

“Kathleen”

#30 Cashbox

“Are You Mine”

“You Got That Touch”

94

 
“Let Me Be the One to Love You”

1959

“Dream Big”

“Talk of the School”

85

“Pure Love”

107

“Who’s Next in Line”

I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know

80

 

1960

“Jenny Lou”

22

67

#18 Cashbox

 
“Wandering”

“Bimbo”

“Apache”

87

  1961 “Innocent Angel”

 
“Young Love” (re-recording)

1962

“The Day’s Not Over Yet”

“Just Another Lie”

“On the Longest Day”

1963

The Minute You’re Gone

9

95

#8 Cashbox

 
“Going Through the Motions (Of Living)”

17

#10 Cashbox

1964

“Baltimore”

6

134

#8 Cashbox

 
“Sugar Lump” /

“Ask Marie”

27

19

#10 Cashbox

You’re the Only World I Know

1

91

#1 Cashbox

1965

“I’ll Keep Holding On (Just to Your Love)”

2

116

#3 Cashbox

 
Behind the Tear

1

113

 
“True Love’s a Blessing”

3

#1 Record World

 #2 Cashbox

 

1966

Take Good Care of Her

1

#1 Cashbox

“Room in Your Heart”

2

#1 Cashbox

 
“Barefoot Santa Claus”

 

1967

Need You

1

#1 Cashbox

 
I’ll Never Find Another You

1

97

#1 Cashbox

 
It’s the Little Things

1

#1 Cashbox

 

1968

A World of Our Own

1

118

#1 Cashbox

 
Heaven Says Hello

1

26

#1 Cashbox

 
Born to Be with You

1

81

9

#1 Cashbox

 

1969

Only the Lonely

1

92

1

#1 Cashbox

 
Running Bear

1

94

1

#1 Cashbox

 
Since I Met You Baby[A]

1

65

3

#1 Cashbox

It’s Just a Matter of Time

1

87

4

#1 Cashbox

 

1970

My Love

1

125

3

#1 Cashbox

 
Don’t Keep Me Hangin’ On

1

17

#1 Cashbox

Endlessly

1

108

10

#1 Cashbox

 

1971

Empty Arms

1

93

1

#1 Cashbox

Bright Lights, Big City

1

91

4

#1 Cashbox

 
Here Comes Honey Again

1

4

#1 Cashbox

 
Only Love Can Break a Heart

2

2

#1 Cashbox

 

1972

That’s Why I Love You Like I Do

1

1

#1 Cashbox

 
When the Snow Is on the Roses

1

103

1

#1 Cashbox

 
“Traces”

30

42

#30 Cashbox

 
“White Silver Sands”

5

2

#3 Cashbox

 
  “Downfall of Me”

32

48

#37 Cashbox

 

1973

“I Love You More and More Everyday”

4

3

#2 Cashbox

 
“Reach Out Your Hand and Touch Me”

61

71

 
“If She Just Helps Me Get Over You”

15

11

#20 Cashbox

 
“Heaven on Earth”

66

58

#63 Cashbox

 
“Surprise, Surprise”

49

67

#66 Cashbox

 

1974

Is It Wrong (For Loving You)

1

75

#5 Cashbox

 
“A Mi Esposa Con Amor (To My Wife with Love)”

4

3

#3 Cashbox

 
“All the Way Together”

 

1975

“A Little Bit South ofSaskatoon”

6

9

#4 Cashbox

 
“Little Band of Gold”

5

4

#4 Cashbox

“Maria Elena”

#68 Cashbox

 
“What in the World’s Come Over You”

10

3

#5 Cashbox

 
“Eres Tu (Touch the Wind)” / Apache

67

Instrumental

#58 Cashbox

 

1976

“Prisoner’s Song”

14

3

#11 Cashbox

 
“When Something Is Wrong with My Baby”

6

5

#4 Cashbox

 
“Come On In”

8

10

#8 Cashbox

 

1977

“You’re Free to Go”

9

21

#10 Cashbox

 
In the Jailhouse Now” (with HisTennessee State Prison Band)

15

30

#18 Cashbox

 
“Abilene” (with HisTennesseeState Prison Band)

24

16

#23 Cashbox

1978

“This Is the Love”

16

37

#19 Cashbox

 
“Caribbean”

18

20

#19 Cashbox

“Building Memories”

30

39

#33 Cashbox

 

1979

“Hold What You’ve Got”

36

60

#33 Cashbox

 
“Lorelei”

62

#52 Cashbox

1981

“Innocent Lies” (and His Southern Gentleman)

19

40

#29 Cashbox

 

1982

“A Placein the Sun”(and His Southern Gentleman)

60

#56 Cashbox

“I’m Looking Over the Rainbow” (and Silver)

66

“The Fool in Me” (and Silver)

33

#81 Cashbox

1983

“Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” (and Silver)

58

“—” denotes releases that did not chart or chart did not exist at the time.

 

Sonny James was the second class inducted in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987. The first class in 1985 was Nat King Cole, Hank Williams and Buddy Killen. Sonny’s class included Sam Phillips and W.C. Handy. Sony was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, an honor long overdue.

Although Sonny had a long string of hits that projected well into the 1970s, his very biggest hits came before the Country Music Association was formed, so no CMA awards came his way although he received many BMI, Billboard and Cashbox awards. Record World named him artist of the decade for the 1960s. Sonny James and Bobbie Gentry did co-host the very first CMA Awards telecast in 1967.

DISCOGRAPHY

VINYL

While Sonny wrote some of his hits (“You’re The Only World I Know”, “Don’t Keep Me Hanging On” , “Here Comes Honey Again”), mostly he relied on other songwriters for material. Most of Sonny’s Capitol albums from 1965 onward followed the format of the time – one or two hit singles, a couple of pop or country covers and a bunch of miscellaneous songs. While I always enjoyed Sonny’s singing, I regard the filler on his albums as being generally weaker than on albums by Haggard or Owens so I tended during my student (and less affluent) days to wait for the hit collections and purchased those. I’ve gone back since and picked up some of his albums. Capitol released thirty-one Sonny James albums from 1957-1973. This total includes a Christmas album, a religious album, four hits collections and a live album. The pick of the litter from the Capitol albums would be the following:

You’re The Only World I Know – this 1964 album kicked off the steady hit maker stage of Sonny’s career and goes back and picks up several of Sonny’s earlier hits (a total of six charted hits) plus outstanding covers of Buddy Holly’s “I Guess It Doesn’t Matter Anymore”, Jack Scott’s “Burning Bridges” and Mac Wiseman’s “Love Letters In The Sand”.

BMI’s #1 Country Hits – This 1970 album, from which no singles were drawn, saluted BMI songwriters (Sonny wrote for BMI) and included covers of classic songs such as “Born To Lose” , “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, “Tennessee Waltz”, “I Walk The Line” and, of course “Young Love” . This album reached #6 on the Country album chart, despite the lack of singles.

If you like Sonny’s singing, you’ll like (but not necessarily love) all of his Capitol albums. Sonny James albums on the Hilltop label will be reissues of Capitol material.

My favorite Capitol albums come from his post-Capitol period.

Columbia released fourteen Sonny James albums from 1973-1978. While some of these albums followed the usual hits, covers, filler formula there are some interesting exceptions:

Greatest Country Hits of 1972 – This January 1973 release salutes ten of the big hits from 1972 including Sonny’s own “When The Snow Is On The Roses” plus ten other hits from 1972.

The Guitars of Sonny James (1975) – I always thought Sonny was a top-flight picker. This album of instrumentals proves it without a doubt – “Marie Elena” , “Eres Tu”, “Apache”, “Vaya Con Dios”, “Third Man Theme” and more.

200 Years of Country Music – Sonny’s Bicentennial salute goes way back in the history of recording country music, picking songs from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. This is my favorite Sonny James album, although

In Prison, In Person (1977) would be my favorite album except it only runs about 22 minutes. A live set recorded in the Tennessee State Prison, with inmates serving as his rather funky band. Contains the most energetic versions of “In The Jailhouse Now”, “Abilene” and “Pistol Packing Mama” you ever are likely to hear.

After leaving Columbia, Sonny recorded at least one album for Monument and at least one minor label album.

I haven’t really spoken of Sonny’s recordings between the two Capitol periods but there is at least one RCA album and one Dot album that were released. Some of these recording you may find packaged with another artist, with Sonny getting one side of the album and the other artist (David Houston, Dave Dudley or Jimmie Skinner) getting the other half of the album

CD and DIGITAL

The German label Bear Family has a six CD set available titled Young Love Complete 1952-1962 which covers his early records, his brief burst for Capitol in 1956-1957, and the interim period between his two Capitol tenures. While I have no doubt that this is really an excellent set, it misses all of Sonny’s major hits except “Young Love”. This set is available at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is another from Bear Family – the more manageable Sonny Rocks – a single disc sampler that includes thirty-three Sonny James tracks (from the boxed set above) plus a bonus track of Ric Cartey singing “Young Love”. This probably is all the early Sonny James you will need or want.

Sonny James: The Capitol Collectors Series – this set was issued in 1990 and was the first decent Sonny James CD available at the time. Containing 20 tracks, it is a representative sample of Sonny’s Capitol output.

The other noteworthy CD currently available is Sonny James: The Legend Begins which covers his very earliest years.

All of the above are available at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. There are other collections available on labels such as Gusto – Sonny didn’t do a lot of re-recording of his old hits so I suspect the Gusto/TeeVee are original Capitol recordings. Collectors Choice Music has a CD available pairing Sonny James and Roy Orbison – they don’t perform together; the disc simply pulls together the RCA recordings for Orbison (1958-1959) and James (1961-1962).

Sonny’s Columbia recordings currently appear to be unavailable but two stellar collections were available recently and may be found with a little looking around.

200 Years of Country Music / In Prison, In Person - released on the British label Westside in 2001, this pulls together Sonny’s two most interesting Columbia albums

Sonny James: The Complete Columbia & Monument Hits – this Collector’s Choice release from 2002 contains twenty-two tracks.

4 responses to “Country Heritage: Sonny James

  1. Razor X September 20, 2011 at 11:46 am

    This is an artist I really need to investigate more. His only song that I really know well is “Young Love.” Didn’t he also produce some of Marie Osmond’s early records, including “Paper Roses”?

  2. Pingback: The Little Willies Return; Own the Night Tops Charts; New Dale Watson Video - Engine 145

  3. Terry Dillard September 24, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Razor X, he DID produce Marie Osmond’s first album.

    It should be noted that if you’re looking at EVERY single that an artist released, Sonny’s record of 16 stands alone at the top of the heap. Alabama achieved their “streak” even though the single “Christmas in Dixie” did not reach number 1, since the gentleman keeping track of these things decided that if a “seasonal” song didn’t reach #1, it wouldn’t be counted against the streak, whereas if it DID reach #1, it WOULD be counted in the streak. The same holds true for Earl Thomas Conley — he only “tied” Sonny’s streak if you don’t count the single he released with one of the Pointer Sisters — again, if an artist did a duet and the single didn’t make #1 it wasn’t counted against them, whereas if it DID reach #1, it would be counted. So, without “accounting” tricks, Sonny stands alone and unbeaten as the artist with the most consecutive #1 singles.

  4. Paul W Dennis September 24, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Personally I don’t think Christmas or Gospel records should count in a streak (whether or not they reach #1) and I’m undecided about duets. I definitely don’t think a single such as Charley Pride’s 1979 “Dallas Cowboys” souvenir record released, I think, only in Texas, should count in a streak

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 124 other followers

%d bloggers like this: