JIM REVEES Story – James Travis Reeves (August 20, 1923 – July 31, 1964) was an American country and popular music singer-songwriter. With records charting from the 1950s to the 1980s, he became well known as a practitioner of the Nashville sound. Known as “Gentleman Jim”, his songs continued to chart for years after his death. Reeves died in the crash of his private airplane. He is a member of both the Country Music and Texas Country Music Halls of Fame.
Early life and education
Reeves was born at home in Galloway, Texas, a small rural community near Carthage. He was the youngest of eight children born to Mary Beulah Adams Reeves and Thomas Middleton Reeves . He was known as Travis during his childhood years. Winning an athletic scholarship to the University of Texas, he enrolled to study speech and drama but quit after only six weeks to work in the shipyards in Houston. Soon he resumed baseball, playing in the semi-professional leagues before contracting with the St. Louis Cardinals “farm” team during 1944 as a right-handed pitcher. He played for the minor leagues for three years before severing his sciatic nerve while pitching, which ended his athletic career.
Reeves’ initial efforts to pursue a baseball career were sporadic, possibly due to his uncertainty as to whether he would be drafted into the military as World War II enveloped the United States. On 9 March 1943 he reported to the Army Induction Center in Tyler (Texas) for his preliminary physical examination. However, he failed the exam (probably due to a heart irregularity), and on 4 August 1943 an official letter declared his 4-F draft status. Reeves began to work as a radio announcer, and sang live between songs. During the late 1940s, he was contracted with a couple of small Texas-based recording companies, but without success. Influenced by such Western swing-music artists as Jimmie Rodgers and Moon Mullican, as well as popular singers Bing Crosby, Eddy Arnold and Frank Sinatra, it was not long before he was a member of Moon Mullican’s band, and made some early Mullican-style recordings like “Each Beat of my Heart” and “My Heart’s Like a Welcome Mat” from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.
He eventually obtained a job as an announcer for KWKH-AM in Shreveport, Louisiana, then the home of the popular radio program Louisiana Hayride. According to former Hayride master of ceremonies Frank Page, who had introduced Elvis Presley on the program in 1954, singer Sleepy LaBeef was late for a performance, and Reeves was asked to substitute. (Other accounts—including that of Reeves himself, in an interview on the RCA Victor album Yours Sincerely—name Hank Williams as the absentee.)
Initial success in the 1950s
Jim Reeves was a country music singer who had success early on in his career first with the song “Mexican Joe” in 1953 for Abbott Records. Other hits followed, such as “I Love You” (a duet with Ginny Wright), and “Bimbo” which reached Number 1 on the U.S. Country Charts in 1954. In addition to those early hits, Reeves recorded many other songs for Fabor Records and Abbott Records. In 1954, Abbott Records released a 45 single with “Bimbo” on side-A which hit #1 and featured Little Joe Hunt of the Arkansas Walk of Fame. Jim Reeves and Little Joe Hunt met at the Louisiana Hayride which was Louisiana’s equivalent to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. After performing at the Hayride in Shreveport, Louisiana, Reeves and Hunt traveled & performed together for several years in the dance halls and clubs of east Texas and rural Arkansas. Reeves became the headliner with Hunt as the backup performer. Due to his growing popularity, Reeves went on to release his first album in November 1955, Jim Reeves Sings (Abbott 5001), which proved to be one of Abbott Records’ couple album releases. Reeves’ star was on the rise because he had already been signed to a 10-year recording contract with RCA Victor by Steve Sholes. Sholes went on to produce some of Reeves’ first recordings at RCA Victor. Sholes signed another performer from the Louisiana Hayride that same year (1955), Elvis Presley. Most of the talented performers of the 1950s such as Reeves, Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jim Ed Brown & Maxine Brown, The Wilburn Brothers and Little Joe Hunt got their start at the Louisiana Hayride. In addition to the Hayride, Jim Reeves joined the Grand Ole Opry, also in 1955. Reeves also made his first appearance on ABC-TV’s Ozark Jubilee in 1955. He was such a hit with the fans that he was invited to act as fill-in host from May thru July 1958 on the popular program, Ozark Jubilee.
Jim Reeves was instrumental in creating a new style of country music which used violins and lusher background arrangements which soon became known as the Nashville Sound. This new sound was able to cross genres which made Reeves even more popular as a recording artist.
Reeves became known as a crooner because of his light yet rich baritone voice. Because of his vocal style, he was also considered a talented artist because of his versatility in crossing the music charts. He appealed to audiences that weren’t necessarily country/western. His catalog of songs such as “Adios Amigo”, “Welcome to My World”, and “Am I Losing You?” demonstrated this appeal. Many of his Christmas songs have become perennial favorites including “C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S”, “Blue Christmas” and “An Old Christmas Card”. Between 1957 and 1958, Reeves was the host of a radio show on the ABC network; this was also the time he began shifting from cowboy outfits to sports jackets.
Reeves is also responsible for popularizing many gospel songs, including “We Thank Thee”, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, “Across The Bridge”, “Where We’ll Never Grow Old”. He was given the nickname Gentleman Jim, an apt description of his character both on stage & off.
Early 1960s and international fame
Reeves scored his greatest success with the Joe Allison composition “He’ll Have to Go”, a success on both the popular and country music charts, which earned him a platinum record. Released during late 1959, it scored Number 1 on Billboard magazine’s Hot Country Songs chart on February 8, 1960, which it scored for 14 consecutive weeks. Country music historian Bill Malone noted that while it was in many ways a conventional country song, its arrangement and the vocal chorus “put this recording in the country pop vein”. In addition, Malone lauded Reeves’ vocal styling—lowered to “its natural resonant level” to project the “caressing style that became famous”—as why “many people refer to him as the singer with the velvet voice.” In 1963 he released his “Twelve Songs of Christmas” album, which had the well-known songs “C.H.R.I.S.T.M.A.S” and “An Old Christmas Card”. During 1975, RCA producer Chet Atkins told interviewer Wayne Forsythe, “Jim wanted to be a tenor but I wanted him to be a baritone… I was right, of course. After he changed his voice to that smooth deeper sound, he was immensely popular.”
Reeves’ international popularity during the 1960s, however, at times, surpassed his popularity in the United States, helping to give country music a worldwide market for the first time. According to Billboard, “Reeves’ star shone equally bright overseas in England, India, Germany, and even South Africa.
During the early 1960s, Reeves was more popular in South Africa than Elvis Presley and recorded several albums in the Afrikaans language. In 1963, he toured and starred in a South African film, Kimberley Jim. In the film, he sang part of one song in Afrikaans. The film was released with a special prologue and epilogue in South African cinemas after Reeves’ death, praising him as a true friend of the country. The film was produced, directed and written by Emil Nofal. Reeves later said that he enjoyed the film making experience and would consider devoting more of his career to this medium. The film was released in South Africa (but never in the US) in 1965 after Reeves’s death. In that country he had been far more popular than Elvis.
Reeves was one of an exclusive trio of performers to have released an album there that played at the little-used 16⅔ rpm speed. This unusual format was more suited to the spoken word and was quickly discontinued for music. The only other artists known to have released such albums in South Africa were Elvis Presley and Slim Whitman.
Last recording session
Reeves’ last two recording session for RCA Victor were held July 2, 1964; they produced the songs “Make the World Go Away”, “Missing You”, and “Is It Really Over?” When the session ended with some time remaining on the schedule, Reeves suggested that he should record one more song. He taped “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, in what was to be his final RCA recording.
Reeves made one later recording, however, at the little studio in his home. In late July 1964, a few days before his death, Reeves recorded “I’m a Hit Again”, using just an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. That recording was never released by RCA (because it was a home recording not owned by the label) but appeared during 2003 as part of a collection of previously unissued Reeves songs released on the VoiceMasters label.
Jim Reeves married Mary White on September 3, 1947. They never had any children as Jim Reeves was believed to be sterile, due to complications from a mumps infection.
On Friday, July 31, 1964, Reeves and his business partner and manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist of Reeves’s backing group, the Blue Boys) left Batesville, Arkansas, en route to Nashville in a single-engine Beechcraft Debonair aircraft N8972M, with Reeves at the controls. The two had secured a deal on some real estate (Reeves had also unsuccessfully tried to buy property from the LaGrone family in Deadwood, Texas, north of his birthplace of Galloway).
While flying over Brentwood, Tennessee, they encountered a violent thunderstorm. A subsequent investigation showed that the small airplane had become caught in the storm and Reeves suffered spatial disorientation. The singer’s widow, Mary Reeves (1929–1999), probably unwittingly started the rumor that he was flying the airplane upside down and assumed he was increasing altitude to clear the storm. However, according to Larry Jordan, author of the 2011 biography, Jim Reeves: His Untold Story, this scenario is rebutted by eyewitnesses known to crash investigators who saw the plane overhead immediately before the mishap and confirmed that Reeves was not upside down.
Reeves’ friend, the musician Marty Robbins, recalled hearing the wreck happen and alerting authorities to which direction he heard the impact. Jordan writes extensively about forensic evidence (including from the long-elusive tower tape and accident report), which suggests that instead of making a right turn to avoid the storm (as he had been advised by the approach controller to do), Reeves turned left in an attempt to follow Franklin Road to the airport. In so doing, he flew further into the rain. While preoccupied with trying to re-establish his ground references, Reeves let his airspeed get too low and stalled the aircraft. Relying on his instincts more than his training, evidence suggests he applied full power and pulled back on the yoke before leveling his wings—a fatal, but not uncommon, mistake that induced a stall/spin from which he was too low to recover. Jordan writes that according to the tower tape, Reeves ran into the heavy rain at 4:51 p.m. and crashed only a minute later, at 4:52 p.m.
When the wreckage was found some 42 hours later, it was discovered the airplane’s engine and nose were buried in the ground due to the impact of the crash. The crash site was in a wooded area north-northeast of Brentwood approximately at the junction of Baxter Lane and Franklin Pike Circle, just east of Interstate 65, and southwest of Nashville International Airport where Reeves planned to land.
On the morning of August 2, 1964, after an intense search by several parties (which included several personal friends of Reeves including Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins) the bodies of the singer and Dean Manuel were found in the wreckage of the aircraft and, at 1:00 p.m. local time, radio stations across the United States began to announce Reeves’ death formally. Thousands of people traveled to pay their last respects at his funeral two days later. The coffin, draped in flowers from fans, was driven through the streets of Nashville and then to Reeves’ final resting place near Carthage, Texas.
Reeves was elected posthumously to the Country Music Hall of Fame during 1967, which honored him by saying, “The velvet style of ‘Gentleman Jim Reeves’ was an international influence. His rich voice brought millions of new fans to country music from every corner of the world. Although the crash of his private airplane took his life, posterity will keep his name alive because they will remember him as one of the most important performers in Country music.”
In 1998 Reeves was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage, Texas, where the Jim Reeves Memorial is located. The inscription on the memorial reads, “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.”
Each year, the Academy of Country Music awards the Jim Reeves International Award to an artist who has made an “outstanding contributions to the acceptance of country music throughout the world.done the most to promote the genre worldwide”. In 2019, the award was bestowed on Kacey Musgraves.
- Jordan, Larry, Jim Reeves: His Untold Story, Page Turner Books International, 2011, pp. 58–59.
- Jim Reeves – His Untold Story p. 41
- “Frank Page Obituary”. Shreveport Times. Retrieved January 12, 2013.
- Obituary: Mary Reeves
- Vinopal, David. “Jim Reeves’ biography”. AllMusic.com. Retrieved May 28, 2012.
- Obituary: Mary Reeves
- [https://www.allmusic.com/artist/jim-reeves-mn0000903609/biography Jim Reeves Biography by David Vinopal]
- First made famous nationally by Eddy Arnold in 1949.
- The Encyclopedia of Country Music
- Gilliland, John (1969). “Show 10 – Tennessee Firebird: American country music before and after Elvis. [Part 2]” (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
- Malone, Bill, Classic Country Music: A Smithsonian Collection (booklet included with Classic Country Music: A Smithsonian Collection 4-disc set). Smithsonian Institution, 1990), p. 51.
- “Gentleman Jim” by Wayne Forsythe, Country Song Roundup, August 1975
- A Tribute to Country Crooner Jim Reeves on the 50th Anniversary of His Death
- Kimberley Jim
- [ACADEMY OF COUNTRY MUSIC® CELEBRATES ARTISTS, MUSICIANS & MORE AT 13TH ANNUAL ACM HONORS™ https://www.acmcountry.com/