Sonny James (1929-2016) was a country music singer widely known by his nickname, the “Southern Gentleman.” During a 30-year career beginning in 1953, he recorded numerous chart-topping country hits and enjoyed great crossover popularity on the pop charts as well, beginning with his signature 1956 hit, “Young Love.” Forty-three of his records entered the Top Ten, and 21 were number one hits.
Sonny James James was born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1929, in Hackleburg, Marion County, a rural tenant-farming community northwest of Birmingham. Loden’s parents, Archie and Della Loden, and his sister Thelma, who was five years older than Sonny, were members of a family band. His father played banjo and fiddle; his mother played guitar using open string tuning; and his sister also played the guitar. James grew up listening to Jimmie Rodgers (“the singing brakeman” from Meridian, Mississippi) on a wind-up Victrola record player and was introduced to other popular music via radio.
Loden Family At the age of four, Loden made his singing debut with Thelma on WMSD (currently WLAY) in Muscle Shoals, Colbert County. James, nicknamed “Sonny,” became a championship-winning fiddle player and guitarist and performed with the family group on their Birmingham-based radio show, which won the Mid-South Championship Band contest in 1933. The Lodens spent 1936 to 1938 in Blytheville, Arkansas, where they played shows on KLCN, a 1,000-watt radio station serving southeastern Missouri. Leaving Blytheville, the Loden Family then played in Columbus, Greenville, and Jackson, Mississippi, where they were featured on WJDX, and on the Tennessee Barn Dance show on Knoxville’s WNOX.
Hollywood Walk of Fame After serving in the Korean War between 1950 and 1952, Loden returned to Alabama, resuming his musical career as a solo act. He took the stage in the early 1950s at the Saturday Night Shindig in Dallas, the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, and the Big D Jamboree on KRLD in Dallas. He met Nashville-based guitarist Chet Atkins, who in turn introduced him to Ken Nelson and Kelso Hurston (a fellow Alabama native) of Capitol Records. He signed with the label as Sonny James in 1952. James’s solo recording career began in 1953 with “That’s Me Without You” and “The Cat Came Back.” James went on to host the Ozark Jubilee, a weekly television show broadcast from Springfield, Missouri, which debuted in 1955. His first number one record, “Young Love,” which was recorded in 1956 and reached the top of the charts in January 1957, showed the potential of country music as a mainstream genre. The single charted in all radio markets (other than classical) with nearly equal appeal. James married Doris Schrode in Dallas that year as well.
Hackleburg James signed with various labels during the early 1960s, including the National Recording Company, RCA, and Dot Records. In 1961, he was the first country music star to be recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1962, he became a regular performer on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry broadcasts from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. He had a Top Ten hit for Capitol Records in 1963 with “The Minute You’re Gone,” and his song “You’re The Only World I Know” stayed at the top of the country charts for four weeks in 1964. Other chart-toppers during the decade included “Need You” (1967), “Heaven Says Hello” (1968), and “Running Bear” (1969). He was chosen as the first host for the Country Music Association Awards in 1967. Record World Magazine chose James as Country Music Artist of the Decade for the 1960s. James signed with Columbia Records in the 1970s and had another 11 top-ten hits. He also produced three albums featuring Marie Osmond, work that includes her hit “Paper Roses,” and toured with his band, The Southern Gentlemen. He moved on to Monument Records in 1979 and then to the Dimension label in 1981. His final single on the country charts was “A Free Roaming Mind” (1983).
James was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and presented with its Lifework Award in 1987. He received the Male Golden Voice Award (2001) and the Career Achievement Award from the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame (2002). In 2006, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. James died on February 22, 2016, in Nashville and was buried in Cedar Tree Cemetery in Hackleburg.
Doggett, Peter. Are You Ready for the Country. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
James, Sonny. Young Love: The Classic Hits of Sonny James. Razor & Tie RE 2105-21997. CD.