100 Greatest Men: #51. Sonny James

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July 1, 2012

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.

Essential Singles:

  • 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

Essential Albums:

  • The Southern Gentleman, 1957
  • Sonny, 1957
  • Need You, 1967
  • Empty Arms, 1971

Next: #50. ?

Previous: #52. Keith Whitley

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  1. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I would have Sonny well within my top thirty, but I guess I should be grateful that you listed him at all. Unlike most of the artists of his generation, when he retired, he really meant it, hanging up his guitar in 1983, which means that he has definitely been ‘out of sight – out of mind’ as far as recent generations of fans are concerned.

    Sonny was as versatile a vocalist as ever existed, capable of being a rocker, a bluesman or a crooner as the situation demanded. He also was a pretty proficient guitar picker. He wrote some songs, but that wasn’t his forte – like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or George Strait he interepreted songs – masterfully.

    During the 1960s and 1970s Sonny was as visible as any country artist country artist not hosting a syndicated television show. He made frequent visits to the ED SULLIVAN SHOW, which was a formidable factor in breaking musical acts during its time on the air, plus frequently he guested on other television shows such as THE TONIGHT SHOW, and holiday specials hosted by the likes of Bob Hope and Andy Williams.

    Sonny hosted the very first CMA Award Show in 1967 (his co-host was Bobbie Gentry).

    As far as the hit records are concerned , Sonny had enormous chart success both on the pop and country charts starting with “Young Love” which did reach #1 on both charts (Sonny’s on the DJ chart). Sonny ultimately charted 72 singles on the country charts of which 21 also charted pop (he also had a couple of singles which charted pop but not country)

    While I don’t disagee with your choices of essential singles (I would replace “It’s Just A Matter of Time” with “Don’t Keep Me Hanging On”), the best and most essential Sonny James albums came after he stopped trying for his records and just recorded music that he liked.

    The essential album would be 200 YEARS OF COUNTRY MUSIC, his 1976 release, which celebrated our nation’s Bicentennial and recreated the authentic country music styles of the era with the help of many of the original band members. The other essential album would be SONNY JAMES AT THE TENNESSEE STATE PRISON, where he is backed up by a band composed of inmates.

    After that I would suggest a good anthology of which there are several. None are complete but if you pick judiciously you can buy two CDs and arrive at Sonny’s 40 or so biggest hits, without too much duplication or buy three CDs and wind up with his 50 biggest hits.

    The top ten hits ended for Sonny James after 1977. By that time he racked up 43 top ten hits of which 23 reached #1. You will not find another fifty artists with that level of success.

  2. Ben FosterNo Gravatar says:

    Great read, Kevin. Sonny James is one artist whom I personally have had very little familiarity with, though I knew the name. It’s about time I checked him out further.

    Congrats on rounding out the first half of the countdown! It’s been a fantastic series of articles thus far, and I look forward to reading your Top 50.

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