The River's Badge

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sonny James


Sonny James was one of those guys who was always around; one who resided in the recesses of a six-year-old's brain, but failed to advance to the front, because she was too enamored of Billy Preston singing some (now admittedly demeaning) song about Native Americans and by Eddie Cochran doing a prescient preview of real rock and roll.

Sonny James was the Ricky Nelson of country music. Ricky, as he was called then, got a featured segment on Ozzie and Harriet, at the end of each episode, to perform one of his rockabilly/teen angst songs with his eyes closed, which only added to his allure, apparently (or so my older sisters tell me). But you know, it was the early sixties, and things were ripening up, but weren't yet overly ripe.

Sonny James, a country singer, had a crossover hit in 1956 with "Young Love". Popular, for the masses, music was in its infancy then. Country was something hayseeds listened to on WSM on their battery-powered crank radios. Elvis had barely scratched anybody's consciousness with "Ready Teddy" on Sun Records -- not a real barn burner in the Eisenhower years. Music aficionados essentially had Eddie Fisher singing, "O My Papa" and Perry Como. Rockabilly was about a year away; the time it took for Carl Perkins to get a record released.

So, it was a revelation and a head-scratcher when Sonny James' song hit the airwaves:


He apparently liked the four-guy harmony behind him, but four-part harmony was the thing that separated the Ray Prices from the "pop crossover" artists.

I never saw Sonny James in person, and believe me, as a thirteen-year-old living in a small town, I went to every traveling caravan show that deigned to show up in my small town. I liked what I liked (Merle Haggard), but I still saw acts like Kitty Wells and Ernest Tubb. But Sonny, apparently never traveled to my town or I would have seen him.

He was one of those artists who was always tucked in the back of my musical mind. He was there, but he, after Young Love, made a decision to record covers of other artists' songs, and at a certain point in my young life, I chose to appreciate the originals. I don't know why he did that. In reading about Sonny's life, it seems he was a versatile artist. A great fiddler, I've learned. Maybe it got too hard. In the 1970's, after a breakout debut, Charley Pride did the same thing -- he started doing covers. It wrecked his career. Maybe it was comfortable -- I don't know. So, Sonny was always there, and always good. It just would have been better had he done original songs. 'Cause he was damn good.

Here's the Sonny James I remember from those days:





Rest in peace, Sonny James.

A tribute:






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