Sonny James, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died Monday, Feb. 22, at age 86. The cause of death was not given.
Sonny scored the first of his 23 No. 1 singles in 1957 with “Young Love,” which hit the top on both the country and pop charts. Sonny reached No. 1 on the country charts in 1965 with “You’re the Only World I Know,” kicking off his most successful period. During one point in his career, from 1967 to late 1971, he had a string of 16 consecutive No. 1 country singles, including “I’ll Never Find Another You,” “Heaven Says Hello” and “Here Comes Honey Again.” That established a record tied later by Earl Thomas Conley and eventually broken by Alabama with 21 consecutive No. 1 hits.
Sonny was born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1928, in Hackleburg, Ala. After serving in the U.S. Army, Sonny made his country chart debut in 1953 with “That’s Me Without You,” which peaked at No. 9. His smooth, crooning style made him a natural fit for the so-called “Nashville Sound” of the 1960s, characterized by lush arrangements and non-traditional instrumentation. Many of his country successes were actually remakes of pop standards, including “Only the Lonely,” “Running Bear” and “It’s Just a Matter of Time.” For his easygoing way with a song and kindly personality, he was given the nickname “The Southern Gentleman.” He continued to record until the mid-1980s.
Blessed with movie-star looks, Sonny landed parts in such movies as Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar and Las Vegas Hillbillies. In 1957, he became the first country artist to appear on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show. Sonny also co-hosted the first Country Music Association awards show with Bobbie Gentry in 1967.
Sonny was welcomed as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1965. Other accolades included induction to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987. In 2006, Sonny received the highest honor of his career, election to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Sonny leaves behind his wife, Doris, whom he married in 1957. Funeral arrangements have not been announced at this time.
NASH Country Weekly sends condolences to Sonny’s family, close friends and fellow artists.
Dolly Parton, Gene Watson and other stars reflected on Sonny’s passing to NASH Country Weekly:
Dolly Parton: “Sonny James was one of country music’s greatest. He was a true gentleman and made some of the greatest country music records of all time, certainly some of my favorites. He will be remembered fondly.”
Gene Watson: “Sonny James was a good friend and one of my all-time favorite singers. I learned so much working with him and he gave me great advice when I was just starting out.”
Jeff Hanna of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: “I’ll never forget hearing that voice coming out of my big brother’s car radio in Phoenix, 1957, in a time when a handful of country artists were crossing over to pop radio. The song was ‘Young Love.’ Pure magic and deep emotion indeed.”
Crystal Gayle: “When I first started out, I was very lucky and privileged to open shows for Sonny James. He was always so kind and generous to me. Great voice, great man.”
Joe Bonsall of The Oak Ridge Boys: “Sonny was a pioneer, a star I looked up to in my formative years as someone to emulate. This is very sad to me.”
Bill Anderson: “Sonny James was a wonderful singer, songwriter and musician. More than that, though, he truly lived up to his nickname: The Southern Gentleman.”
photo courtesy Sonny James