Sonny James—singer, songwriter, producer, Country Music Hall of Famer and star of both the country and pop realm—passed away on Monday, February 22nd. He was 86-years-old.
Over his career, Sonny James amassed 23 #1 songs, including a legendary streak where he received 16 consecutive #1’s between April of 1967 and September of 1971. James was a pioneer in crossing over from the country realm to pop, and his career was decorated with many firsts for a country artist. James was the first ever country music artist to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1957. He was the first country artist to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1961. Along with Bobbi Gentry, he was the first every host of the CMA Awards in 1967. And Sonny James was also made a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1962, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Sonny James was born Hackleburg, Alabama on May 1st, 1929 where his parents operated a 300-acre farm. From an early age, Sonny learned how to sing and perform music, picking up the mandolin at 3-years-old and performing with his parents and other siblings in the family band The Loden Family, which later became known as Sonny Loden and the Southerners. Sonny showed great promise in music and began to be called “Sonny Boy” as the band toured around the South, eventually leasing their farm and spending full-time throughout the 40’s performing at radio stations and other functions.
James later joined the Alabama Army National Guard and was deployed to Asia as part of the Korean War. Upon his return he moved to Nashville and signed with Capitol Records and started working with Chet Atkins. It was during this time that Sonny dropped his last name and started performing under the title Sonny James “The Southern Gentleman.”
Sonny started off his career with a bang when he recorded “Young Love” and the song shot to #1 in 1957. Though Sonny was considered a country artist, the song became a hit on the pop charts, making him one of the first country music crossover stars. In the coming years James struggled to match the success, recording for numerous companies including Dot and RCA, until he went back to his roots in country, joining the Opry in 1962, re-signing with Capitol Records, and becoming a dominant influence in the genre for the next decade. It was during this time when James amassed his 16 #1 hits that included songs like “Only The Lonely,” “It’s Just A Matter of Time,” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” James was part of the Countrypolitan movement that broadened the appeal for country beyond the rural South and West by adding strings and choruses, and he became one of the most successful artists of the era.
By the early 80’s Sonny’s career began to subside, and he began to fade from the public spotlight, officially retiring in the spring of 1984 in Nashville. When he made an appearance on the CMA Awards in 2006, introduced by Kris Kristofferson as one of the new inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame, it was Sonny’s first television appearance in 20 years.
Sonny James is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Doris.