James helped personify a lighter musical style of country in the mid 1950s, continuing his career through the early 1980s. He was also one of the first artists in the format to consistently see his records cross over to the pop charts. His streak of 16 consecutive No. 1 hits on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart from 1967 through 1971 established a success level that went unsurpassed for close to two decades, helping him to eventually gain membership into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
Born James Hugh Loden on May 1, 1929, in Hackleburg, Ala., the singer began performing with his family on a weekly radio show on WMSD-AM in Muscle Shoals. That exposure led to paying gigs for the family across the South, as well as additional radio shows in Birmingham and Memphis. His professional career took a brief detour when he was sent to Korea as part of the Alabama Army National Guard in 1950, but he returned to the States a year later.
Word of his talent had spread over the years to Nashville, and through the suggestion of former roommate Chet Atkins, James was signed to Capitol by Ken Nelson. The executive was a fan of his voice, but thought that his last name might spur confusion with other musicians of the period and suggested a name change to Sonny James.
“Short Cut,” his first single for the label, failed to chart. But his sophomore release, “That’s Me Without You,” found favor with disc jockeys, peaking at No. 9 on the Most Played by Jockeys country chart (a predecessor to Hot Country Songs). The next few years were hit-and-miss, but in 1957, James struck gold with the teen anthem “Young Love.” Entering various country charts around Christmas 1956, the song quickly became his first No. 1 on a country songs chart, also topping the all-genre Most Played by Jockeys list. Follow-up releases included “You’re the Reason I’m in Love” and the similarly themed “First Date, First Kiss, First Love,” both top 10s on country surveys in 1957.
James continued to release singles for Capitol (as well as a short stint with RCA) over the next few years, but it wouldn’t be until the mid-1960s that he would find a regular home on the airwaves. “You’re the Only World I Know” became his first No. 1 on Hot Country Songs (which had launched in 1958) in the winter months of 1965, and James quickly began to rival Buck Owens as the biggest artist on the Capitol roster.
In 1967, James registered his fourth Hot Country Songs No. 1 with “Need You.” From that point through 1971’s “Here Comes Honey Again,” he would notch 16 Hot Country Songs No. 1s in a row — a mark that would stand until Alabama surpassed him in 1985. Many of his hits were covers of major pop songs of the day, including “Only the Lonely,” “Running Bear” and “Take Good Care of Her.”
After a two-decade run at Capitol, James was lured to Columbia by Clive Davis in 1972. His first release for the label, “When the Snow Is on the Roses,” hit the top of Hot Country Songs, as did 1974’s “Is It Wrong (For Loving You).” He would stay on the roster through 1979, releasing two of his most legendary albums for the label: 1976’s 200 Years of Country Music and 1977’s In Person, In Prison, recorded at the Tennessee State Prison in Nashville, with several of the prisoners playing the instruments themselves.
James released his final Hot Country Songs charted single, “A Free Roamin’ Mind,” in the summer of 1983, which peaked at No. 58. A devoted family man, he then retired from the spotlight, with only a handful of public appearances since. He turned up at Alabama’s celebration for breaking his consecutive No. 1 streak with “Forty Hour Week,” and his 2006 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside George Strait and Harold Bradley. James also served as the host of the first-ever CMA Awards in 1967 and produced Marie Osmond‘s 1973 song “Paper Roses,” which hit No. 1 on Hot Country Songs and reached No. 5 on the Hot 100.
According to his website, funeral arrangements are pending.