James Travis Reeves (August 20, 1923?July 31, 1964) was an American country and pop music singer-songwriter popular in the 1950s and 1960s who also gained a wide international following for his pioneering smooth Nashville sound. Known as Gentleman Jim, his songs continued to chart for years following his death at age 40 in a private airplane crash. He is a member of 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 dropped out after six weeks to work at the shipyards in Houston. Soon he returned to baseball, playing in the semi-professional leagues before signing with the St. Louis Cardinals farm team in 1944 as a right-handed pitcher. He stayed with the team for three years before severing his sciatic nerve on the pitching mound and ending his athletic career.
Reeves began to work as a DJ, and sang live between songs. In the late 1940s, he was signed to a couple of small Texas-based record labels, but with no success. Influenced by such Western swing artists as Jimmie Rodgers and Moon Mullican, as well as popular crooners Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold and Frank Sinatra, it was not long before he got a foothold in the music industry. 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 landed a job as an announcer on KWKH-AM in Shreveport, Louisiana, home to the popular Louisiana Hayride. His musical break came when singer Sleepy LaBeef was late for a performance on the Hayride, according to former Hayride emcee Frank Page, and Reeves was asked to fill in. (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 country hits included "I Love You" (a duet with Ginny Wright), "Mexican Joe", "Bimbo" and other songs on both Fabor Records and Abbott Records. He recorded only one album for Abbott, 1955's Jim Reeves Sings (Abbott 5001). Eventually he tired of the novelty bracket he had been forced into, and left for RCA Victor. In 1955, Reeves was signed to a 10-year recording contract by Stephen Sholes, who produced some of Reeves' first recordings at RCA and signed Elvis Presley for the label that same year.
In his earliest RCA recordings, Reeves was still singing in the loud style of his first recordings, considered standard for country and Western performers at that time. He softened his volume, using a lower pitch and singing with lips nearly touching the microphone, but ran into some resistance at RCA; until in 1957, with the support of his producer Chet Atkins, he used this style on his version of a demo song of lost love, written from a woman's perspective (and intended for a female singer). "Four Walls" not only took top position on the country charts, but went to number eleven on the popular charts. Reeves had not only opened the door to wider acceptance for other country singers, but also helped usher in a new style of country music, using violins and lusher background arrangements soon called the Nashville sound.
Reeves became known as a crooner because of his warm, velvety voice. His songs were remarkable for their simple elegance highlighted by his rich light baritone voice. Songs such as "Adios Amigo," "Welcome To My World", and "Am I Losing You?" demonstrated this approach. His Christmas songs have been perennial favorites, including "Silver Bells," "Blue Christmas" and "An Old Christmas Card."
Early 1960s and international fame
Reeves scored his greatest hit with the Joe Allison composition "He'll Have to Go," a huge hit on both the pop and country music charts, which earned him a platinum record. Released in late 1959, it reached number one on Billboard's Hot C&W Sides chart on February 8, 1960, where it stayed for 14 consecutive weeks. 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."
Reeves' international popularity during the 1960s, however, at times surpassed his standing in the United States.
In the early 1960s, Reeves was more popular than Elvis Presley in South Africa and recorded several albums in Afrikaans. In 1963, he toured and starred in a South African film, Kimberley Jim. The film was released with a special prologue and epilogue in South African cinemas after Reeves' passing, praising him as a true friend of the country. The film was produced, directed and written by Emil Nofal. Reeves was particularly popular among the Zulu population in South Africa, and was known by the monikers King Jim and (because of his 6'1" frame) Big Jim.
Reeves toured Britain and Ireland in 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 cut performances short 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.
He planned to record an album of popular Irish songs, and had three number one songs in Ireland in 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 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 Great Britain. Reeves, however, appeared on British radio and TV programs.
Reeves visited Nj?rdhallen, Oslo on April 16, 1964 with Bobby Bare, Chet Atkins, the Blue Boys and The Anita Kerr Singers. They held 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 Reeve's 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 hit in Norway, "He'll Have to Go," reached number one in the Top Ten and stayed on the chart for 29 weeks. "I Love You Because" was his biggest hit in Norway, reaching number one in 1964 and staying on the list for 39 weeks. His albums spent 696 weeks in the Norwegian Top 20 chart, making him among most popular artists in the history of Norway.
Aircraft accident and death
On July 31, 1964, Reeves and his business partner and manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves' backing group) 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 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 plane had become caught in the storm and Reeves suffered spatial disorientation. It was later believed he was flying the plane upside down and assumed he was increasing altitude to clear the storm. The plane faded from radar screens at around 5:00 p.m. and radio contact was lost. When the wreckage was found some 42 hours later, the plane's engine and nose were buried from the impact. The crash site was in a wooded area north-northeast of Brentwood roughly 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 plane, were trained by the same instructor.
On the morning of August 2, 1964, the bodies of Reeves and Manuel were found in the wreckage. At 1:00 p.m., radio stations across the United States announced Reeves' death. Thousands turned out to pay their last respects at his funeral on August 4. The coffin, draped in flowers from fans, was driven through the streets of Nashville to Reeves' resting place near Carthage, Texas.
Reeves was elected posthumously to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967, which honored him saying, "The velvet style of 'Gentleman Jim Reeves' was an international influence. His rich voice bought millions of new fans to country music from every corner of the world. Although the crash of his private airplane took his life, posterity will keep his name alive because they will remember him as one of country music's most important performers."
In 1998, he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage, Texas, where the Jim Reeves Memorial is located. The inscription on the memorial reads, "If I, a lowly singer, dry one tear, or soothe one humble human heart in pain, then my homely verse to God is dear, and not one stanza has been sung in vain."
Reeves' records continued to sell well, both earlier new albums, after his death. His widow, Mary, combined unreleased tracks with previous releases (placing updated instrumentals alongside Reeves' original vocals) to produce a regular series of "new" albums after her husband's death. She also operated The Jim Reeves Museum in Nashville from the early 1980s until 1996.
In 1966, Reeves' record "Distant Drums" went to number one in the British singles chart and remained there for five weeks, beating competition from The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" and "Eleanor Rigby" (a double-sided "A" release), and the Small Faces' hit, "All Or Nothing". "Distant Drums" also held off songs from living artists on the UK charts. "Drums" remained on the UK charts for 45 weeks and topped the US country music chart. The song was recorded for its composer, Cindy Walker, under the impression it was for her personal use and had been deemed "unsuitable" for general release by Chet Atkins and RCA Records. It was named Song of the Year in the UK; in 1966 and Reeves became the first American artist to receive the accolade.
Reeves' compilation albums containing well-known standards continue to sell well. The Definitive Collection reached #21 in the UK album charts in July 2003, and Memories are Made of This hit #35 in July 2004. Bear Family Records produced a 16-CD boxed set of Reeves' studio recordings and several smaller sets, mainly radio broadcasts and demos. In 2007, the label released a set entitled Nashville Stars on Tour, containing audio and video material of the RCA European tour in April 1964 in which Reeves features prominently.
Since 2003, the US-based VoiceMasters has issued over 80 previously unreleased Reeves recordings, including new songs as well as newly overdubbed material. Among them was "I'm A Hit Again," the last song he recorded in his basement studio just a few days before his death. VoiceMasters overdubbed this track in the same studio in Reeves' former home (now owned by a Nashville record producer). Reeves' fans repeatedly urged BMG or Bear Family to re-release some of the songs overdubbed in the years after his death which have never appeared on CD.
A compilation CD The Very Best of Jim Reeves reached #8 on initial release in the UK album chart in May 2009, to later reach its peak of #7 in late June, his first top 10 album in the UK since 1992.
India and Sri Lanka
Reeves had a large fan following in both India and Sri Lanka since the 1960s, and is likely the all-time most popular English language singer in Sri Lanka. His Christmas carols are especially popular, and music stores continue to carry his CDs or audio cassettes. Two of his songs, "There's a Heartache Following Me" and "Welcome to My World," were favorites of Indian guru Meher Baba, leading Baba follower Pete Townshend of The Who to record his own version of "Heartache" on his first major solo album Who Came First in 1972.
Robert Svoboda, in his trilogy on aghora and the Aghori Vimalananda, mentions that Vimalananda, considered Reeves a gandharva, i.e. in Indian tradition, a heavenly musician, who had taken birth on Earth. He had Svoboda play Reeves' "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" at his cremation.
Tributes were penned to Reeves in Britain and Ireland after his death. "A Tribute to Jim Reeves" was written by Eddie Masterson and recorded by Larry Cunningham and The Mighty Avons and in January 1965 it was on the UK Charts and Top Ten in Ireland.
In the UK, "We'll Remember You" was written by Geoff Goddard but not released until 2008 on the "Now & Then: From Joe Meek To New Zealand" double album by Houston Wells.
Reeves remains a popular artist in Ireland and many Irish singers have recorded tribute albums. A play by author Dermot Devitt, Put Your Sweet Lips, was based on Reeves' appearance in Ireland at the Pavesi Ballroom in Donegal town on June 7, 1963 and reminiscences of people there.
Blind R&B and blues artist Robert Bradley of Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise) paid tribute to Reeves in the album description of his release, "Out of the Wilderness." Bradley is quoted as saying, "This record brings me back to the time when I started out wanting to be a singer-songwriter, where the music did not need the New York Philharmonic to make it real...I wanted to do a record and just be Robert and sing straight like Jim Reeves on ?Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone.'"
English comedian Vic Reeves took his stage name from Reeves and Vic Damone, two of his favorite singers.