James Travis Reeves (August 20, 1923 – July 31, 1964) was an American country and popular music singer-songwriter popular during the 1950s and 1960s who was well-known for being a practitioner of the new, so-called Nashville sound (a mixture of older country-style music with elements of popular music). Known as Gentleman Jim, his songs continued to score the charts for years after his death at age 40 in a private airplane crash. He is a member of both the Country Music and Texas Country Music Halls of Fame.
Jim Reeves was born in Galloway, Texas, a small rural community near Carthage. Winning an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas, he enrolled to study speech and drama, but quit after after six weeks to work in the shipyards in Houston. Soon he resumed baseball, playing in the semi-professional leagues before contracting with the St. Louis Cardinals "farm" team during 1944 as a right-handed pitcher. He played for the minor leagues for three years before severing his sciatic nerve while pitching, which ended his athletic career.
Reeves began to work as a radio announcer, and sang live between songs. During the late 1940s, he was contracted with a couple of small Texas-based recording companies, but without success. Influenced by such Western swing-music artists as Jimmie Rodgers and Moon Mullican, as well as popular singers Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold and Frank Sinatra, it was not long before he was a member of Moon Mullican's band, and made some early Mullican-style recordings like "Each Beat of my Heart" and "My Heart's Like a Welcome Mat" from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.
He eventually obtained a job as an announcer for KWKH-AM in Shreveport, Louisiana, home of the popular radio program Louisiana Hayride. According to former Hayride master of ceremonies Frank Page, one day singer Sleepy LaBeef was late for a performance for the Hayride, and Reeves was asked to substitute. (Other accounts—-including Reeves himself, in an interview on the RCA album Yours Sincerely—-name Hank Williams as the absentee.)
Initial success in the 1950s
Reeves' first successful country music songs included "I Love You" (a duet with Ginny Wright), "Mexican Joe", "Bimbo" and other songs with both Fabor Records and Abbott Records companies. He recorded only one album for Abbott, 1955's Jim Reeves Sings (Abbott 5001). Eventually he tired of the novelty category, and contracted with the RCA Victor company instead. During 1955, Reeves was signed to a 10-year recording contract by Steve Sholes, who produced some of Reeves' first recordings at RCA and signed Elvis Presley for the company that same year.
For his earliest RCA recordings, Reeves was still singing with the loud style of his first recordings, considered standard for country and western performers at that time. He decreased his volume, using a lower pitch and singing with lips nearly touching the microphone, although there were protests at RCA. During 1957, with the endorsement of his producer Chet Atkins, he used this style for his version of a demonstration song of lost love intended for a female singer. "Four Walls" not only scored #1 on the country music charts, but scored No. 11 on the popular music charts. Reeves had helped begin a new style of country music, using violins and lusher background arrangements soon known as the "Nashville sound".
Reeves became known as a crooner because of his rich light baritone voice. Songs such as "Adios Amigo", "Welcome to My World", and "Am I Losing You?" demonstrated this. His Christmas songs have been perennial favorites, including "C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S", "Blue Christmas" and "An Old Christmas Card".
He is also responsible for popularizing many Gospel songs, including "We Thank Thee", "Take My Hand, Precious Lord", "Across The Bridge", "Where We'll Never Grow Old" and many others.
Early 1960s and international fame
Reeves scored his greatest success with the Joe Allison composition "He'll Have to Go", a great success on both the popular and country music charts, which earned him a platinum record. Released during late 1959, it scored number one on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Songs chart on February 8, 1960, which it scored for 14 weeks consecutive. Country music historian Bill Malone noted that while it was in many ways a conventional country song, its arrangement and the vocal chorus "put this recording in the country pop vein". In addition, Malone lauded Reeves' vocal styling—lowered to "its natural resonant level" to project the "caressing style that became famous"—as why "many people refer to him as the singer with the velvet touch." During 1975, RCA producer Chet Atkins told an interviewer, "Jim wanted to be a tenor but I wanted him to be a baritone... After he changed his voice to that smooth deeper sound, he was immensely popular."
Reeves' international popularity during the 1960s, however, at times surpassed his popularity in the United States, helping to give country music a worldwide market for the first time.
During the early 1960s, Reeves was more popular than Elvis Presley in South Africa and recorded several albums in the Afrikaans language. During 1963, he toured and featured in a South African film, Kimberley Jim. The film was released with a special prologue and epilogue in South African cinemas after Reeves' death, praising him as a true friend of the country. The film was produced, directed and written by Emil Nofal. Reeves was one of an exclusive trio of performers to have released an album there that played at the little-used 16⅔ rpm speed. This unusual format was more suited to the spoken word and was quickly discontinued for music. The only other artists known to have released such albums in South Africa were Elvis Presley and Slim Whitman.
Britain and Ireland
Reeves toured Britain and Ireland during 1963 between his tours of South Africa and Europe. Reeves and the Blue Boys were in Ireland from May 30 to June 19, 1963, with a tour of US military bases from June 10 to June 15, when they returned to Ireland. They performed in most counties in Ireland, though Reeves occasionally abbreviated performances because he was unhappy with the piano. In a June 6, 1963 interview with Spotlight magazine, Reeves expressed his concerns about the tour schedule and the condition of the pianos, but said he was pleased with the audiences.
There was a press reception for him at the Shannon Shamrock Inn organised by Tom Monaghan of Bunratty Castle. Show band singers Maisie McDaniel and Dermot O' Brien welcomed him on 29 May 1963. A photograph appeared in the Limerick Leader on 1 June 1963. Press coverage continued from May until Reeve's arrival with a photograph of the press reception in The Irish Press. Billboard magazine in the US also reported the tour before and after. The single "Welcome to My World" with the B/W side "Juanita" was released by the RCA company during June 1963 and bought by the distributors Irish Records Factors Ltd. This scored the record number one while Reeves was there during June.
There were a number of accounts of his dances in the local newspapers and a good account was given in The Kilkenny People of his dance in the Mayfair Ballroom where 1,700 persons were present. There was a photograph in The Donegal Democrat of Reeves singing in the Pavesi Ball Room on 7 June 1963, and an account of his non-appearance on stage in The Diamond, Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo in The Western People representing how the tour went in different areas.
He planned to record an album of popular Irish songs, and had three number one songs in Ireland during 1963 and 1964: "Welcome to My World", "I Love You Because", and "I Won't Forget You". Reeves had 11 songs in the Irish charts from 1962 to 1967. He recorded two Irish ballads, "Danny Boy" and "Maureen". "He'll Have to Go" was his most popular song there and was at number one and on the charts for months during 1960. He was one of the most popular recording artists in Ireland, in the first ten after the Beatles, Elvis and Cliff Richard.
He was permitted to perform in Ireland by the Irish Federation of Musicians on the condition that he share the bill with Irish show bands, becoming popular by 1963. The British Federation of Musicians would not permit him to perform there because no agreement existed for British show bands to travel to America in exchange for the Blue Boys playing in Britain. Reeves, however, performed for British radio and TV programs.
Reeves visited Njårdhallen, Oslo on April 16, 1964 with Bobby Bare, Chet Atkins, the Blue Boys and The Anita Kerr Singers. They performed two concerts; the second was televised and recorded by the Norwegian network (NRK - Norsk Rikskringkasting). The complete concert, however, was not recorded, including some of Reeves' last songs. There are reports he performed "You're the Only Good Thing (That's Happened to Me)" in this section. The program was re-run many times over the years.
His first success in Norway, "He'll Have to Go", scored No. 1 in the Top Ten and scored the chart for 29 weeks. "I Love You Because" was his greatest success in Norway, scoring No. 1 during 1964 and scoring on the list for 39 weeks. His albums spent 696 weeks in the Norwegian Top 20 chart, making him among the most popular music artists of the history of Norway.
Last recording session
Reeves' last recording session for RCA had produced "Make the World Go Away", "Missing You", and "Is It Really Over?" When the session ended with some time remaining on the schedule, Reeves suggested he record one more song. He taped "I Can't Stop Loving You", in what was to be his last RCA recording. He made one later recording, however, at the little studio in his home. During July 1964 Reeves recorded "I'm a Hit Again", using just an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. That recording was never released by RCA but appeared during 2003 as part of a collection of Reeves songs, after RCA had sold its rights to Reeves' recordings.
Fatal aircraft accident
On July 31, 1964, Reeves and his business partner and manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist of Reeves' backing group, the Blue Boys) left Batesville, Arkansas, en route to Nashville in a single-engine Beechcraft Debonair aircraft, with Reeves at the controls. The two had secured a deal on some real property (Reeves had also unsuccessfully tried to buy property from the LaGrone family in Deadwood, Texas, north of his birthplace of Galloway).
While flying over Brentwood, Tennessee, they encountered a violent thunderstorm. A subsequent investigation showed that the small airplane had become caught in the storm and Reeves suffered spatial disorientation. It was later believed he was flying the airplane upside down and assumed he was increasing altitude to clear the storm. The plane faded from radar screens at around 5:00 p.m. CDT and radio communication was ended. When the wreckage was found some 42 hours later, it was discovered the airplane's engine and nose were buried in the ground due to the impact of the crash. The crash site was in a wooded area north-northeast of Brentwood approximately at the junction of Baxter Lane and Franklin Pike Circle, just east of US Interstate 65, and southwest of Nashville International Airport where Reeves planned to land. Coincidentally, both Reeves and Randy Hughes, the pilot of Patsy Cline's ill-fated airplane, were trained by the same instructor.
On the morning of August 2, 1964, after an intense search by several parties (which included several personal friends of Reeves) the bodies of the singer and Dean Manuel were found in the wreckage of the aircraft and, at 1:00 p.m. local time, radio stations across the United States began to announce Reeves' death formally. Thousands of people traveled to pay their last respects at his funeral two days later. The coffin, draped in flowers from fans, was driven through the streets of Nashville and then to Reeves' final resting place near Carthage, Texas.