From the Vault: Jim Reeves: “Gentleman Jim” (1999)

Chet Atkins warned his good friend “Gentleman Jim” Reeves about being his own pilot.

“I remember cautioning him about flying those little planes,” recalled Chet. “I said, ’Have you taken any instrument instruction?’ He said, ’No.’ I said, ’Darn it, you have to be careful.’ “I told him that right after Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins got killed in a plane crash. Their pilot was a know-it-all. Pilots get too much confidence and that’s when they get into trouble.”

Thirty-five years ago—on July 31, 1964—singing legend Jim Reeves hurtled toward trouble while flying into Music City from Arkansas with his piano player and road manager, Dean Manuel. Just minutes from the Nashville airport, at the controls of a rented plane, Jim ignored warnings from the control tower and tried to punch a shortcut through a thunderhead. On the ground, according to Jim Reeves biographer Michael Streissguth, session pianist Bill Pursell watched the sky. “I looked directly at a black cloud, and I remember thinking to myself, I wouldn’t fly through that cloud if you paid me.” Blinded by sheet rain and lightning, Jim misread his instruments, experts theorize, then lost control of the four-seater and just before 5 p.m., death-spiraled into history.

One of country’s most timeless singers ran out of time just 20 days before he would have turned 41. Jim’s legacy goes beyond his 80 charted singles, including 51 Top 10s, such as the No. 1s “He’ll Have To Go,” “Four Walls,” “Distant Drums” and “I Guess I’m Crazy.” It goes beyond 33 charted albums, four of which reached No. 1. Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967, his bronze plaque reads, “The velvet voice of Gentleman Jim Reeves was an international influence. His rich voice brought millions of new fans to country music from every corner of the world.”

More than three decades after the crash, Chet can’t find words to express his grief, “It was just a terrible, terrible blow. I’ll never get over it. Over three days, we combed all those hills around Brentwood for the plane.” Eddy Arnold, Marty Robbins, Floyd Cramer, Bill Pursell and other artists—along with hundreds of volunteers—scoured the densely wooded area south of Nashville for the wreckage, which was concealed beneath a canopy of branches. The Browns—Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie—were on the road when news of the crash came over the radio. Jim Ed says, “We just pulled over to the side of the road and cried.”

“We searched and searched,” says Eddy Arnold. “My office is within a half a mile of where his plane went down. I was in a helicopter looking for him. I arrived within a half-hour of when they found him.” Dean Manuel’s body was still in the plane, but Jim had been thrown clear. A driver’s license confirmed Eddy’s identification of the body. A Nashville chapel overflowed with mourners. Chet, Eddy, Floyd and The Browns were joined by Red Foley, Skeeter Davis, Ferlin Husky, Webb Pierce, Dottie West, The Jordanaires and other performers and fans. “People were outside the chapel, down the street,” says Eddy. “People were everywhere.”

Gentleman Jim was buried where his life began—in Panola County, Texas. Fans still treat the statue at Jim’s grave—which overlooks U.S. 79 between Carthage and De Berry—like a shrine. James Travis Reeves was born Aug. 20, 1923, the last of nine children in a poor farming family. Jim was a successful high school and college baseball player who was wooed into a prolonged affair with minor league professional baseball. Then an injury forced him into pursuing his second love—music.

Beginning as an announcer on local radio stations, Jim cultivated the clear diction and rhythmic delivery that, combined with his naturally deep, resonant voice, would make him a singing sensation. In December 1952, Jim talked himself into a job as an announcer on KWKH radio, in nearby Shreveport, La. Soon, he was introducing acts on KWKH’s famous Louisiana Hayride.

Jim had cut some minor Western-flavored local hits, but in 1953 he struck gold with an upbeat, Tabasco-flavored dittie about a happy-go-lucky caballero called “Mexican Joe.” Jim’s debut on the Billboard country chart lasted 26 weeks, including nine at No. 1. By the end of 1955, “Mexican Joe” had taken Jim into the musical big leagues of Nashville with an RCA recording contract and membership in the Grand Ole Opry.

RCA hooked him up with producer Chet Atkins. Together, they built on the so-called countrypolitan style that Chet and Eddy Arnold developed to broaden country music’s appeal. Urban and overseas music lovers, who rankled at Southern accents and Western twang, warmed up to Jim’s crooning purr. Lush horn arrangements and full string sections replaced fiddles and steel guitars. Jim became the voice of what would come to be called the Nashville Sound. Eddy says, “He was a mellow, romantic, smooth singer who pronounced his words where you could understand them. He wasn’t a nasal singer.” “He was one of the greatest songstylists I’ve ever known,” says Jim Ed. “He knew how to make every word mean something. He had a lot of heart and put that feeling into his songs. “Jim had the ability to find the feelings behind the words, put himself in that position and then relay them to his listeners—almost like an actor reading play lines.”

At first, Jim had been kept away from the microphones to avoid distorted recordings, but Chet moved him into whispering distance. “They were always worried about popping P’s,” says Chet. “If you popped a P on a record, especially a 78, it would skip on jukeboxes.” But, Jim’s announcing experience helped him control his voice and work a special magic. “He got great presence by singing close in and softly,” says Chet. “It was just a wonderful sound.”

Jim maintained the “Gentleman Jim” image as carefully as his voice. He avoided the stereotypes of earlier country performers, eschewing rural clothing and props such as haybales and wagon wheels. Instead, Jim insisted on dignity and sophistication. He wore tailored suits or sport coats. But no rhinestone wagon wheels or cacti for Gentleman Jim. Jim’s patrician good looks, gracious good manners and personal generosity were also an aspect of his image.

“Jim was not only a smooth singer,” said Sarah Colley, the college-educated Nashville socialite who portrayed Minnie Pearl, “he was a smooth gentleman. Jim would have fit in anywhere and did.” “He was a charming person,” says Jim Ed. “He loved people and he had a lot of character. He worked hard to make other people successful along with him.” But you didn’t mess around with Jim in the studio. “He was very, very professional and worked much harder than most people at his craft,” says Chet. “He was a perfectionist. He was very difficult with some of the singers and background singers and some of the musicians and engineers. “He had a hell of a temper. He didn’t take anything from anybody.”

As Jim winged his way toward doom on that Friday in July, he could be proud of many accomplishments beyond hit records. Jim was one of the early artists to export country music overseas—leading to stardom in Great Britain, Europe, South Africa, Scandinavia, Ceylon, India and other countries that rivaled his American following. Chet recalls a tour to South Africa. People lined the road for miles. At the hotel, fans ripped pieces from Jim’s suit until police stepped in. Chet says, “It was as if Elvis had arrived.”

Jim launched a promising movie career in a South African film called Kimberley Jim, and he owned a successful music publishing company.

In death, Jim’s career took on a life of its own thanks to the hard work of his wife, Mary, and a collection of demo tapes he had cut for that publishing company. Mary kept his memory alive with that music and the Jim Reeves Museum.

In all, Billboard reports that 33 of Jim’s singles charted after he died, including 13 Top 10s and five No. 1s. As late as 1982, technology allowed Jim and Patsy Cline to reach No. 5 with a duet called “Have You Ever Been Lonely (Have You Ever Been Blue).” He didn’t vanish from the charts until 1984. Of Jim’s 33 albums on the Billboard chart, only three entered the chart before his death.

Jim’s legacy will continue, according to Ed Gregory of United Shows of America, which recently purchased all the rights to Jim’s estate.

“Jim’s presentation and voice are so unique that they will probably never be duplicated today,” says Gregory, who remembers courting his wife to Jim’s “Four Walls.” “His record sales today are astonishing 35 years after he died.” Labels such as Heartland, Time-Life Music, Reader’s Digest Music and more continue to carry Jim Reeves’ music.

Until it closed in May 1995, the Jim Reeves Museum still received letters from fans who didn’t know he was dead. >United Shows plans to open a museum, incorporating a large display of Jim Reeves memorabilia, honoring American cowboys and country music this fall in Nashville.

Jim’s style still influences modern singers. “Joe Diffie can do a pretty good imitation of Jim,” says Chet. “He has sung some of Jim’s hits in one or two performances I’ve seen. He’s got enough range that he can get pretty close to it.”

“Jim’s bigger in death than he was in real-life,” says Jim Ed. “His music could outlive us all."

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