Who was/is Sonny James ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more

Sonny James 

After more than four years as a Capitol country artist, Sonny James needed a breakout hit. Not that his career was faltering – by fall 1956, the youthful Alabama balladeer was seen regularly coast-to-coast on 'Ozark Jubilee,' ABC-TV's weekly country music showcase from Springfield, Missouri. Nor was Capitol dissatisfied with James's record sales. His first release of the year, For Rent (One Empty Heart), climbed to #12 on 'Billboard's' list of country best sellers, and its bluesy follow-up, Twenty Feet Of Muddy Water, landed a #11 placing among country disc jockeys. In fact, producer Ken Nelson brought James to Hollywood that August to record an LP – a privilege that Capitol seldom extended to its country or western artists.

But nothing from James's first thirteen sessions yielded anything close to a signature song – a career-maker like You Are My Sunshine, Walking The Floor Over You, I'm Movin' On, Lovesick Blues, or Crazy Arms. With a Nashville session penciled in for late October, James also needed to find something more in synch with a new generation of record buyers. Youths were spending millions on singles by Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. Though his close contemporary Marty Robbins flirted with rockabilly, James opted for something more suited to his warm, intimate style.

James and Dallas-area songwriter Jack Morrow, who co-wrote James's recent country hit For Rent, collaborated on a catchy love ballad that had strong potential for success. With his accompanist Harland Powell, James devised a bouncy background vocal arrangement reminiscent of the Easy Riders' counterpoint on Dean Martin's hit Memories Are Made Of This.

You're The Reason I'm In Love had the potential of meeting – if not beating – Pat Boone on his own turf, and James was sure Nelson would share his enthusiasm. The veteran producer usually trusted his artists' musical and commercial instincts. The only other thing James needed for the upcoming session was a suitable 'B'-side.

But Nelson was way ahead of him. Before James and his longtime steel player/bassist Harland Powell arrived in Nashville, Nelson met with Atlanta music publisher and talent scout Bill Lowery. Since setting up his firm in 1951, Lowery successfully placed numerous songs on Capitol, most recently Gene Vincent's chart-topping rocker, Be-Bop-A-Lula. This time the publisher pitched a rock 'n' roll act he recently released on his Stars label: Ric Cartey and the Jiv-a-Tones. Ooh-Eee, a rockabilly number penned by Lowery protégé and Capitol artist Jerry Reed, was beginning to generate some action around Atlanta. Lowery hoped Nelson would acquire the Cartey single for national distribution.

Though he politely declined Lowery's suggestion, Nelson sensed something special about its flip side, a ballad Cartey penned with his girlfriend, Carole Joyner. "That's your hit, " he told Lowery. Nelson offered to play Young Love to Sonny James when he came to Nashville.

"I went up to the Andrew Jackson Hotel and we were going over songs that we were going to do," James later recalled. "He said 'I've got this song.' I think he told me Bill had brought it to him or something."

The record Nelson played was far removed from anything James had recorded. Well-intentioned but amateurish, it was primitive even for those barnstorming early days of rock 'n' roll. "Anyway, whatever it was, Ken played it for me and I said, 'Are you sure, Ken?' or something like that. He said, 'Yeah.'"

Though Lowery wanted James to consider covering both sides of the Cartey single, Nelson told James to prepare an arrangement for Young Love. "He said, 'You can work your arrangements, your Southern Gentlemen that you want to use, singing," James remembered. "You can work Harland, and at that time I was gonna use Gordon Stoker and I think it was Neal Matthews as the only two other voices and Harland there."

Using Cartey's record as a guide, James retooled the ballad, removing extraneous chord changes and adding stylistic touches that compensated for lines that weren't long enough to fit the melody. "The song on the demo that I heard -- after all these years it's not that fresh in my mind -- but I do remember, the way that I do my voice, and I overemphasize the way that I do it, because Ken figured that I'd probably figure the way to sing it," James said. "You'll notice that it was never this way on the demo at all, but my record was, 'They say for every boy and girl there's just … and I-hi know-ho, I-hi-hi found mine.' Now, I'm over-accenting it. I'm showing you that break, it's a whole lot different. It doesn't sound the same thing.

"I worked with my guitar and I had used this repeated voicing on my earlier record, 'Till The Last Leaf Shall Fall.' If you remember how I had them singing, that's what I did when I got to the chorus of 'Young Love.' This is just one of the changes. 'Young Love (you're my love) First Love (you're my love)…' See, in other words, it's just a style that I had on 'Till The Last Leaf Shall Fall' and the style that I was singing."

Always the professional, James invested a lot of time reworking Young Love, even if it was only intended as a B-side to You're The Reason I'm In Love. However, on hearing the finished product following the session, both James and Nelson thought it would be the big country hit they had been searching for. Almost instantly it became one of the biggest hits of all time. Forty years later, this record is still being programmed around the world.



Jimmie Hugh Loden was born May 1, 1929, in Hackleburg, Alabama, a small agricultural center about ninety-five miles northwest of Birmingham. His parents, Archie and Della Burleson Loden, operated a 300-acre farm about six miles outside of town. By most standards, the Lodens generally fared better than most of their neighbors. Their farm supported three tenant families, who cooperatively used teams of horses and mules to raise enough cotton, corn and hay to see them through each season.

Along with his sister Thelma, who was born five years earlier, 'Sonny' James Loden grew up listening to music. Both of his parents were musicians. Pop Loden played guitar and fiddle but preferred the five-string banjo, while Mom played guitar in an open tuning. Thelma – whom the family always called 'Sis' learned guitar as soon as she could wrap her left hand around the fingerboard. The family owned a wind-up Victrola – Pop particularly liked Jimmie Rodgers' records – and a battery-powered radio introduced them to pop singers like Kate Smith.

James vividly retains childhood memories of Saturday nights when local musicians gathered in each others' homes to play music amid the bronze glow of Aladdin and coal-oil lamps. "I used play around on a broom," he said. "That's when Pop decided, 'Well, I'll give him something that he can at least play around on.' That's when he cut the molasses bucket in half and used the bottom of it and put a neck on it and reversed it. It became the top of a little banjo, but it was tuned like a mandolin. So then I graduated to a mandolin and long about that time – I must have been about three or something – I began singing."

By age eight, Sis Loden was a confident singer and skilled rhythm guitarist with a knack for picking up contemporary hillbilly or pop tunes. Mom's voice soared over the others, creating a harmony that paralleled with what Rose Carter later did with the Chuck Wagon Gang. When Pop added the necessary bass vocals, the Loden Family's sound began to gel....

Sonny James Young Love (6-CD)
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