Personalities | Jim Reeves | Nashville & Beyond | Country
James Travis Reeves, born in Galloway, Texas, on 20 August 1924, was one of the most talented singers to find his voice and define his musical style during the late 1950s’ emergence of the Nashville sound. Like Eddy Arnold and Ray Price (in his post-honky-tonk years), Reeves possessed a warm, reflective baritone that conveyed warmth and earnestness when framed by understated, easy-listening style arrangements of pianos and subdued background vocals.
Before embarking on a musical career, Reeves briefly attended the University of Texas on a baseball scholarship in the early 1940s. He dropped out of college to work in the Houston shipyards during the Second World War. After that he played minor-league baseball for several years before injuries sidelined him for good.
Reeves was working as a disc jockey on a radio station in Henderson, Texas, when it dawned on him that he could sing as well as – if not better than – many of the artists of the day whose records he was spinning. He made his first recordings in 1949 for a small, local Houston label (Macy’s), but they attracted very little attention when released. In April, 1953, his fortunes turned when he recorded a straight-ahead country tune called ‘Mexican Joe’ for Abbott Records. At the time, he was working as an announcer on the Louisiana Hayride. After its release, ‘Mexican Joe’ hit the top of the charts and when Reeves first performed the song on the Louisiana Hayride he garnered six encores. For the next two years, he was one of the live radio show’s headlining performers.
By the late 1950s, Reeves had moved on to RCA Victor, where he had a string of Top 10 records. But the sudden rise of rockabilly sapped the record-buying public’s enthusiasm for the rustic, steel guitar-and-fiddle honky-tonk sound, and country record sales temporarily plummeted.
As a result, Nashville producers like RCA’s Chet Atkins, in search of an antidote, began rethinking their basic approach to hit-making. In Reeves’ case, Atkins stripped the fiddle and steel guitar out and instead incorporated less aggressive and subtle rhythm arrangements while relying more heavily on smooth background vocals to fill in the arrangement. Atkins also urged Reeves to sing more softly and stand closer to the microphone, thus imbuing his records with an enhanced sense of intimacy with his listeners.
Reeves’ first flush of success with the Nashville sound came with ‘Four Walls’ – a plaintive ballad that reached No. 2 in Billboard’s country charts shortly after its early 1957 release. ‘Four Walls’ also crossed over and climbed to the No. 11 position in Billboard’s pop charts. In 1959, Reeves had even more resounding crossover success with ‘He’ll Have To Go’, a lush romantic ballad that topped the country charts and reached No. 2 on the pop charts. Reeves’ across-the-board success led to appearances on both the Grand Ole Opry and American Bandstand, a television show that largely featured teen rock and...
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