A Tribute to Country Crooner Jim Reeves on the 50th Anniversary of His Death

Jim Reeves
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Jim Reeves was at the top of his game. He was moving up the charts with his latest RCA Victor single, ‘I Guess I’m Crazy,” and was returning from a business trip to Batesville, Ark., on July 31, 1964. At the controls of his Beechcraft Debonair, he made contact with airport officials, telling them that he was in the process of entering a heavy rainstorm. Less than a minute later, the airport tower radioed him to ask if he was out of the storm’s path. He began to reply “Negative,” but his radio transmission went out before he completed the word -- as the plane’s blip disappeared from the radar.

Over the next two days, a massive search party combed an area just south of Nashville -- eventually finding the bodies of Reeves and his band member, Dean Manuel. Ironically, though his life came to tragic end at the age of 40, Reeves’ career continued to thrive with hit records on the Billboard charts throughout the next two decades (His last entry on the country lists came in 1984 with “The Image Of Me”).

When one looks back at the life and career of the Carthage, Texas native, his versatility as a recording artist has to be noted. The first three years of Reeves’ chart run were comprised of light-hearted, traditional-flavored numbers such as “Bimbo” and “Penny Candy,” but it was a pair of singles released in 1957 that would help to change Reeves’ style for the duration of his career.

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“It was ‘Four Walls’ that really established his reputation as a singer of ballads, of love songs,” the Country Music Hall of Fame’s John Rumble tells Billboard. “That really signified a broadening in his approach.” Interestingly enough, “Am I Losing You,” the single prior to “Four Walls,” was the song that marked his first attempt to change his singing style -- at the urging of Hollywood publicist Bea Terry. That pair of recordings helped to further raise his profile in both the country and crossover ranks.

“Four Walls” became his second country number one, and also crossed over to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though he would continue to enjoy success with more traditional material like “Billy Bayou” and “I’m Gonna Change Everything,” Reeves made his mark by adapting his overall style to a more pop vein, hitting his stride in 1960 with the chart-topping “He’ll Have To Go,” which sold over three million copies.

According to Reeves historian Larry Jordan, who wrote the 2011 book Jim Reeves: His Untold Story, the singer loved all kinds of music. “He straddled both worlds," says Jordan. "He was a country artist who started out by singing pop music. His hand-written journals show a lot of pop lyrics from the day.”

“Four Walls” effectively gave Reeves the leverage to record more and more in that vein. “When he became successful, and he had the freedom to experiment, he began gravitating toward the pop world,” says Jordan. “He was uniquely in his own category, and as a vocalist was in a league with the best crooners of the twentieth century like Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Buddy Clark -- who was his idol. He was in that league.”

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Jordan established the Voice Masters label in 2002, where he has taken steps to maintain the visibility of the singer -- with recordings of his ABC radio series, as well as releases such as the recent 8-CD set The Great Jim Reeves, which includes 170 remastered and remixed tracks with new instrumental accompaniment. The releases have sold well in the United States and abroad. In fact, Reeves’ star shone equally bright overseas in England, India, Germany, and even South Africa -- where he had released the film Kimberley Jim

“We had a letter that came into the Hall of Fame back in 1982 -- from two guys in New York. They had moved there from what is now Guyana. It said ‘Can you settle a dispute between us? Was Jim Reeves a man or was he an angel? We think he was an angel because of his voice,’" Rumble says. "I think that tells you something.”