Decades before Taylor Swift found her way from country to pop radio, Sonny James scored the first teenage love crossover hit, setting up a long-running career that would eventually earn him a slot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Sonny James hails from Alabama. His birth name, James Hugh Loden, and he grew up in a musical clan that performed as the Loden Family. In the band, he used the handle Sonny Loden, and his father quickly noticed that his son's talent meant the band could perform full-time. Now dubbed Sonny Loden and the Southerners, they played radio stations and dance halls across the south, until the marriages of his bandmate sisters set in motion the band's demise.
Sonny went back and finished high school, and after a brief military stint in Korea, he returned to professional music, signing with Capitol Records. The label suggested the stage name Sonny James, and the young singer made a name for himself on radio and television spots, while also scoring modest country hits.
His big break came with the smash hit “Young Love”, a sweet song about teenage devotion that skyrocketed to gold-selling status in 1956. It topped the country chart for nine weeks, and reached #2 on the pop chart. On the latter tally, its success was limited by Capitol's inability to meet demand for the 45. Actor Tab Hunter reaped the benefits of this, and had the #1 pop single despite radio preferring James' version.
During this period, James became known as the Southern Gentleman through his various television appearances, and he joined the Grand Ole Opry cast for a time, beginning in 1962. Throughout the early sixties, he recorded for a handful of different labels before returning to Capitol in 1963. It was with his second stint at the label that he achieved his greatest success, scoring a stunning string of hits that included sixteen consecutive #1 singles. In 1971, he earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He switched to Columbia in 1972, and for a brief period, radio played hits from his new label while also spinning records that Capitol continued to release after his departure from their roster. As with many artists from his era, the hits slowed down as the seventies came to an end, and he reached the top ten for the 43rd and final time in 1977, with the appropriately titled, “You're Free to Go.”
James retired in 1983, but made his first television appearance in more than two decades in 2006, as he accepted his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He continues to reside in Nashville, and he makes occasional public appearances for special events.
- Young Love, 1956
- You're the Only World I Know, 1964
- I'll Never Find Another You, 1967
- It's the Little Things, 1967
- Running Bear, 1969
- It's Just a Matter of Time, 1970
- Empty Arms, 1971
- The Southern Gentleman, 1957
- Sonny, 1957
- Need You, 1967
- Empty Arms, 1971
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