Sonny James: The Southern Gentleman (1995)

originally published December 12, 1995

When you think about the all-time superstars of country music, the name Sonny James may not immediately pop into your mind. But Sonny, known as ``The Southern Gentleman,'' was a megastar, reeling off an incredible 16 No. 1 hits in a row.

No one's done that before or since -- and it's doubtful anyone ever will. 

To hear Sonny talk, with that gentle voice and modest, unassuming manner, you'd never suspect he was the Garth Brooks of his day. 

In a remarkable career spanning more than 30 years, Sonny's amazing achievements have earned him a secure place in the history of country music. 

True, Garth's sold more records than Sonny ever did; Eddy Arnold's had more hits; and Conway Twitty had more No. 1 songs. But nobody except Sonny has ever put 16 *consecutive* hits at the top of the *Billboard* country charts.

And that didn't even count his first No. 1 -- monster hit ``Young Love'' -- in 1957.

Born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1929, in Hackleburg, Ala., Sonny got his first guitar, which was handmade by his father, when he was only 3 years old. 

``It's true, and that guitar is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame,'' Sonny told COUNTRY WEEKLY, with quiet pride in his voice.

From age 4 on, Sonny sang with his sister Thelma and his parents, Della and Archie -- ``Everyone knew them as Mom and Pop'' -- in the Loden Family group. He had his own radio show when he was still a teenager.

After serving in the Korean War with his activated National Guard unit, Sonny was discharged in 1952 and went to Nashville to visit his old buddy Chet Atkins.

``I met Chet when I was a teenager,'' Sonny recalled. ``In fact, we roomed together in Raleigh, North Carolina, when we were playing at the same radio station.

``When I got out of the Army, I spent a week with Chet and his wife in Nashville. He introduced me to his friend Ken Nelson, who was with Capitol Records.

``After dinner, Chet and I began woodshedding on our guitars. We played a few songs I had written, then Chet turned to Ken and said, `What do you think, Ken?' And Ken said, `I'd like to record him.' '' That was the start of Sonny's fabulous career. Billed as the Southern Gentleman because of his tall, elegant appearance and gracious manner, Sonny racked up a total of 23 No. 1 hits between 1957's ``Young Love'' and 1974's ``Is It Wrong (For Loving You)''. 

``Young Love,'' was also a sensational crossover success, and soared to No. 1 on both the country and pop charts. 

But it wasn't until 1967 that Sonny launched his incredible streak of 16 chart-busters in a row. The No. 1s included: 

1967 -- ``Need You,'' ``I'll Never Find Another You'' and ``It's The Little Things.''

1968 -- ``A World Of Our Own,'' ``Heaven Says Hello'' and ``Born To Be With You.''

1969 -- ``Only The Lonely,'' ``Running Bear'' and ``Since I Met You, Baby.''

1970 -- ``It's Just A Matter Of Time,'' ``My Love'' ``Don't Keep Me Hangin' On'' and ``Endlessly.''

1971 -- ``Empty Arms,'' ``Bright Lights, Big City'' and ``Here Comes Honey Again.''

What was it that made Sonny so popular? The 66-year-old living legend, now retired and living with his wife, Doris, in Nashville, paused before answering. 

``I always tried to do material that fit me,'' he explained. ``We'd do a variety of material -- ballads, up-tempo and even bluesy songs -- but I stayed the same. I tried to give the fans the kind of songs they had come to expect. I think that was the reason I had such success.''

Sonny's friend, Grand Ole Opry star Jim Ed Brown, agreed: ``He knew his voice and he knew his music. He's a good man.''

In 1973, Sonny changed hats and became a producer, turning out Marie Osmond's cover of the pop oldie ``Paper Roses.'' It became Marie's first hit record, crossed over to the pop charts and virtually launched her career. 

Today, Sonny is enjoying his well-earned retirement. He spends much of his free time fishing at Center Hill Reservoir's Clear Lake, about 50 miles from Nashville. 

``I *love* fishing,'' he said. ``But I do miss seeing the fans all across the country. I still hear from them and get quite a lot of mail.''

Sonny is also pleased about his recent resurgence in popularity. He said Curb Records and Columbia had both released collections of his greatest hits. And a spokesman for Capitol said they're planning to release another album of Sonny's vintage hits next May.

 ``I'm glad Capitol is doing it,'' said Sonny, whose relationship with Capitol spanned two decades. ``It makes me feel so good to hear those songs on compact disc, to hear the clarity of the music.''

Now that he's retired, Sonny says, ``Doris and I have redirected our efforts to do the kind of things we didn't have time to do before,'' when he was so busy with his career. 

``There are a lot of things you can do for people,'' he said, modestly declining to elaborate. ``It all goes back to the way I was raised.''

Spoken like a true Southern Gentleman.


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