Jim Reeves (Wikimedia Commons/RCA Records)
Jim Reeves, born 90 years ago today, helped change the face of country music when he pioneered the smooth, gentle "Nashville sound." So mellow were his melodious tones that he earned the nickname "Gentleman Jim," and he influenced a generation of country singers who carried on the tradition he started, creating a musical movement than endured for many years.
But Reeves wasn't always a crooner. In the earliest days of his recording career, he was known for a much less gentlemanly style of belting out his songs.
The roots of country music were quite different from the pop music-inspired sounds that would take over in the late 1950s. Rollicking songs played with down-homey instruments like fiddles and banjos featured singers who raised their voices to be heard above the musical din. Jim Reeves's early recordings were right in line with this classic style, and he shouted his way through hits like "Bimbo."
But in 1957, Reeves decided to try something new. In the pop music world, crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby had been taking the volume down a few notches for years. Their low, emotive singing style was made possible by microphones, which could amplify their voices to dominate the accompanying instruments even if they didn't sing loudly. The smooth style was all over the pop music charts, but it hadn't yet made its way to country… until Jim Reeves lowered his voice to a more gentlemanly tone. His first single using his new sound was "Four Walls," and it was a No. 1 hit.
Gentleman Jim became an international celebrity creating the music that would come to rule Nashville. As the Nashville sound evolved, the humming background singers evident in "Four Walls" were joined by lush string sections that smoothed out the music – and brought it even further from its country roots. The full Nashville sound helped propel Reeves's Twelve Songs of Christmas album to classic status.
By the late 1960s, the Nashville sound was starting to morph into "Countrypolitan," an even poppier style that was led by stars like Tammy Wynette, Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich . Given Reeves's talent for reinventing himself, we feel confident he could have been at the forefront of the Countrypolitan movement. But it was not to be. On July 31, 1964 – at the height of his popularity as well as that of the Nashville sound – Reeves was piloting a single-engine aircraft that became engulfed in a violent storm. He couldn't control the plane, and it went down, killing him and his business partner and manager Dean Manuel.
For decades after Jim Reeves's death, country music has continued to feel his influence. We think the pioneering singer would be proud – and we feel confident that he's lived up to the inscription on his memorial:
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.
Written by Linnea Crowther