Fifty years ago this Thursday a small private plane crashed in a thunderstorm outside Nashville in Tennessee. On board as the pilot was a musical icon who created a velvet-toned sound that struck a chord with many millions of people across the world.
The death of ‘Gentleman’ Jim Reeves on July 31, 1964, with his manager Dean Manuel, was a tragedy that rocked country music, but so great was the Texan’s global appeal that he notched up 17 posthumous Top 10 hits, including five No 1 records, and a cleverly engineered 1981 duet with another deceased superstar Patsy Cline, who also died in a plane crash, 16 months before in 1963.
Jim Travis Reeves, born on August 20, 1924 at Carthage, Panola County in the thicket region of East Texas, rose from humble roots to become one of the smoothest, most universally popular singers of the late 1950s and 1960s, becoming a musical icon.
Jim played baseball at minor level, but, after moving into radio announcing, he dabbled in singing and in 1953 had an unexpected No 1 success with the song Mexican Joe on Abbott Records label. His KWKH radio bosses in Shrieveport, Louisiana quickly installed him on the bill of the famed Lousiana Hayride, broadcast from the station and which featured country luminaries such as Slim Whitman, Red Sovine, Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Webb Pierce and a young man called Elvis Presley.
After two years and several hits later, Reeves landed a contract with RCA Records and his first hit on that label was Yonder Comes a Sucker. With a move to Nashville, acclaimed producer Chet Atkins persuaded Jim to lower his voice to blend in with what became the Nashville Sound.
Jim was one of the first country singers to effectively craft a solidly mainstream pop style, which became unabashedly romantic, with backing choruses washing gently over his soft baritone vocals. Results were two of Jim’s most enduring songs Four Walls and He’ll Have to Go, which had simple sentimental lyrics. He’ll Have to Go was a huge hit especially for young folk happily clustered around jukeboxes across the US and the UK.
Europe, South Africa and Australasia beckoned for Jim with late 1950s-early 1960s tours - which included Northern Ireland in 1963 - and he built up a following that made him country music’s most successful international recording star.
By the time of his death, Jim, who unknown to most people wore a hair piece, was enjoying his 33rd Top Ten hit and, in the UK, his popularity was phenomenal, with top chart ratings long after his death and regular slots on BBC Top of the Pops.
He’ll Have To Go was typical of the direction Jim’s music was heading. He began appearing in formal wear rather than glitzy spangled cowboy suits of Nashville contemporaries. He pursued bookings on the US night and supper club circuits. A fussy individual with an insistance that guitars and pianos had to be properly tuned, he reasoned that a pop star, even a country singer, should appear in venues catering to his audience - adults who wanted smooth, easy-listening music.
* Outside Jim’s home town of Carthage is his grave, with a 12-foot statue of the singer. In 1967, his pet dog Cheyenne, was buried just behind him, following in his master’s footsteps. Jim’s grave draws thousands of visitors from around the world who treasure his music and memory.