Sonny James, whose first Number One single, 1957’s “Young Love,” topped both the pop and country charts, and was followed by more than 20 Number One country hits, died Monday, February 22nd, of natural causes at Nashville’s Alive Hospice, according to a statement on his official website. A member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, James was 87.
James was born James Hugh Loden in the small farming community of Hackleburg, Alabama, and played music with his parents and older sister Thelma. The young James, who first learned to play music on a homemade instrument fashioned from a molasses bucket, eventually earned a spot performing with his family on a Muscle Shoals radio show. The family soon became a local, then regional favorite, performing throughout the South, and appearing regularly on radio shows in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Raleigh, North Carolina.
While he was still in high school, James joined the National Guard and went on to work in the family store in Hackleburg. His music career was temporarily derailed when he and his fellow Guardsmen were among the first Guard troops to arrive in Korea at the outset of the Korean conflict late in 1950.
By 1952, James was back in Alabama but soon left for Nashville and reconnected with a former roommate, musician-producer Chet Atkins. In spite of Atkins’ leadership at RCA Records, he referred James to Ken Nelson, who was producing acts for Capitol Records in Los Angeles at the time. James’ alliance with Capitol, which began with a Top Ten single in 1953, “That’s Me Without You,” would lead to an unbroken streak of 16 chart-topping releases from 1967 to 1971. The singer also joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, the year he scored his second Number One (after the hugely successful “Young Love”) “You’re the Only World I Know.” Other hits during that time included “It’s Just a Matter of Time,” “Empty Arms” and “Since I Met You Baby,” all of which had originally been hits for R&B acts, making James the first — and most successful country act — to cover such material during the turbulent Civil Rights era. During his early years with Capitol, James also played fiddle on sessions for one of the label’s bluegrass acts, Jim & Jesse.
In the early Seventies, James produced three LPs for teenager Marie Osmond, whose debut country hit, “Paper Roses,” was a Number One country (and Top Five pop) song in 1973. By the mid-Seventies, James had moved to Columbia Records and released his final Number One, “Is It Wrong (For Loving You).”
James, who was nicknamed the Southern Gentleman, also appeared in a handful of country-music-themed films, including Nashville Rebel, Las Vegas Hillbillies and Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 by Kix Brooks and was the first country artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.