Country Great Sonny James, The First Country Artist Whose Music Went Into Space, Dies At 87

Country great and Country Music Hall of Fame member Sonny James, who, in 1971, became the first Country artist whose music went into space, died on Monday, February 22, of natural causes at Nashville’s Alive Hospice. He was 87.

Sonny James was born James Hugh Loden in 1928 in Hackleburg, Alabama, to amateur musician parents Archie Lee ‘Pop’ Loden and Della Burleson Loden. By the age of three, James was singing and playing a mandolin made for him by his father out of a molasses bucket. James would soon earn the nickname “Sonny Boy,” and eventually learned to play the guitar and fiddle as well. As a teen, he even won a fiddle championship.

James and his family — which also included his sister, Thelma Lee — travelled the South during his youth, playing their music on local radio stations and at schoolhouses. It was during this time of travel that James would come to meet another young, musical hopeful by the name of Chet Atkins.

According to the Tennessean, in September of 1950, 22-year-old James was sent to North Korea with his National Guard unit, and while stationed there, decided to begin writing his songs in earnest. After he left the National Guard, James moved to Nashville to pursue his dreams of Country music stardom. While in Nashville, James and Chet Atkins crossed paths once again, and Atkins introduced James to Ken Nelson of Capitol Records. It was Nelson that urged James to change his name from James Loden to Sonny James, saying the latter would be easier for DJs and fans to remember.

Sonny James quickly earned the nickname “the Southern Gentleman” for being a “soft-spoken and humble man with impeccable manners.” Gary Robble, long-time friend and member of the vocal quartet “the Southern Gentlemen” who toured and recorded with James from 1964-1971, said the nickname was very much earned.

“He was the ultimate gentleman. He knew a lot of people, but when you were talking to him, the only person he knew was you. I was proud to be associated with him.”

Sonny began recording for Capitol Records in 1952, and released his first single, “That’s Me Without You,” in early 1953. It would go on to hit No. 3 on the charts. In late 1956, Sonny would record his extremely successful hit “Young Love,” that would spend nine weeks at the top of the Country charts. In the 1950s, James became a regular on the Country music television show the Ozark Jubilee, and he also appeared in several films, including Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, Las Vegas Hillbillies, and Nashville Rebel, among others. In 1961, Sonny James was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1962 was asked to join the Grand Ole Opry. From 1967 to 1971, James would have 16 straight No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts.

In 1971, James became the first Country artist to have his music sent into space when he made a special recording for the three-man crew of Apollo 14, reports USA Today. Upon their return, the crew presented Sonny with one of the small American flags that they had brought with them to the moon. The rest of the 1970s saw many new things happening for Sonny. In 1973, he stepped away from the microphone briefly to produce Marie Osmond’s debut album, Paper Roses, as well as her two follow-up albums, and in 1977, after visiting inmates at Tennessee State Prison, he recorded the album In Prison, In Person, backed by a band of inmates.

In 1983, Sonny retired from the music business with his final album, A Free Roamin’ Mind. In 2006, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Country great and Hall of Famer Sonny James is survived by his wife Doris, who he’d been married to for nearly 6 decades.

[Photo by AP Photo]