Born James Travis Reeves, August 20, 1923, in Galloway, TX; died in a plane crash, July 31, 1964, near Nashville, TN; son of Tom and Beulah Reeves (farmers); married Mary Elizabeth White, 1947. Education: Attended University of Texas at Austin. Professional baseball player. Disc jockey and news reader (and later co-owner of radio station), KGRI, Henderson, TX; sideman with Moon Mullican band, Beaumont, TX; singer and bandleader, Reo Palm Isle, Longview, TX; released four singles on Macy record label; announcer for Louisiana Hayride, KWKH, Shreveport, LA; signed contract with Abbott Records, 1952; joined Grand Ole Opry and signed contract with RCA, 1955; became host of daily television program, ABC, 1957; toured U.S. and Europe; broke international attendance records on tour of South Africa, 1962.
Jim Reeves's death did not mean the end for one of the most popular voices in the history of country music; even more than 15 years after the 1964 plane crash that killed him, previously unreleased material from the singer whose distinctive vocal style was popularly known as "a touch of velvet" reached the Top Ten of the country charts. An international star, Reeves's enormous success during the late 1950s and early '60s stemmed largely from his blend of traditional country themes and lyrics with the more lush arrangements of mainstream popular music.
Born into a large family on a farm in rural east Texas, Reeves was raised by his mother, his father having died shortly after Jim's birth. Reeves developed his interest in country music at an early age from listening to recordings of the legendary Jimmy Rodgers, and he got his first guitar when he was six. But the pastime at which Reeves excelled most was baseball, and after starring as a pitcher on his team at Carthage High School, he moved to Austin to attend school and play ball at the University of Texas. Reeves did not stay in school long, however, going on to play semi-pro baseball and then for minor league teams in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. A leg injury that did not heal properly, though, put an end to Reeves's baseball career.
He had continued playing guitar all along, but performing was not Reeves's first choice for a profession after baseball. Instead, he went into radio announcing, drawing on his exceptional speaking voice and knowledge of country music in his position as disc jockey and news reader at KGRI, a radio station in Henderson, Texas. (Reeves later became one of the station's owners.) However, with the encouragement of his wife, Mary, whom he wed in 1947, Reeves also started performing in the area. He played as a sideman in Moon Mullican's honky-tonk band in Beaumont and also labored as singer and bandleader at one of the best-known honky-tonks in Texas, the Reo Palm Isle, in Longview. He also recorded four singles on the tiny Macy label, which belonged to a chain store in Houston. Then, deciding that the time had come to further his career, Reeves and his wife flipped a coin to decide whether he would try his luck in Dallas or Shreveport, Louisiana. Shreveport won, and Reeves became an announcer at KWKH, the radio station that was home to the weekly Louisiana Hayride show.
Louisiana Hayride was one of the most popular live country music broadcasts in the nation, and it often served as a proving ground for performers who later moved on to the pinnacle of country music, the Grand Ole Opry. Reeves became the announcer for Hayride, performing there only occasionally until one Saturday evening in 1952 when country great Hank Williams failed to show for a scheduled appearance. Reeves filled in, and a member of the audience, Fabor Robison, soon thereafter signed him to a contract with his Abbott Record Company. The relationship with Abbott paid off immediately for Reeves; his second release on the label, "Mexican Joe," reached Number One in 1953. In 1956 he received a gold record for the single "Bimbo," a song that earned Reeves the nickname "Bimbo Boy."
This success caught the attention of major labels, and in 1955 Reeves signed with RCA. That year he also joined the Grand Ole Opry, but Reeves's star was just beginning to rise. From 1955 through 1968--four years after his death--not a year went by without Reeves having at least one single in the Top Ten. At the beginning of this period, Reeves's sound began to change; his earliest recordings with RCA had a traditional honky-tonk sound, complete with fiddles and steel guitars, but in the late 1950s, he and his producer, revered guitarist Chet Atkins, began selecting songs more suited to Reeves's soothing, baritone voice. While the arrangements for these numbers were more orchestral in nature, their subject matter remained firmly in the honky-tonk vein.
This new sound allowed Reeves to expand his appeal and become a success on the pop as well as country charts. Reeves's first big crossover single was "Four Walls," released in 1957. This mellow-sounding story of a man whose girlfriend has left him for life in the honky-tonks went gold while Reeves was touring Europe with other country stars; he came home to find himself flooded with offers to appear on radio and television programs.
Soon Reeves had become a major star. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show, and American Bandstand, but an even better measure of his stature came when ABC gave him his own daily television show, in 1957. Reaching such a broad audience, Reeves softened his music even more, though his songs retained their country subject matter. In 1959, "He'll Have to Go" became his biggest hit ever, again combining an urbane sound with the honky-tonk tale of a man whose girl is at a bar with another man. The success of "He'll Have to Go" was not limited to the U.S; Reeves became an international phenomenon. He toured Europe again, and in 1962 a tour of South Africa with Atkins and Floyd Cramer broke international attendance records. The singer's overseas record sales were equally as impressive; in Norway alone, Reeves chalked up 16 gold, silver, diamond, and platinum records.
And then, at the height of his popularity, Reeves and his manager, Dean Manuel, were killed in the crash of their single-engine plane, in the hills outside Nashville. But his legacy lived on; through RCA, Reeves's widow continued to release his recordings, which consistently became hits. Even as late as 1980, the single "There's Always Me" made its way high on the charts, and an album of the same title landed on the country charts in 1981. Perhaps the strongest testimony of Reeves's enduring appeal, however, is that even 20 years after his death, he continued to receive fan mail addressed to him at RCA. In acknowledgement of his huge contribution toward bringing fans of all kinds of music into the country fold and for his innovative sound, Reeves was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967.
Jim Reeves's Career
Jim Reeves's Awards
Gold records for singles "Bimbo," 1956, and "Four Walls," 1957; inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, 1967.
- Selective Works
- Singles; on RCA/Camden, except as noted "Mexican Joe," Abbott Records, 1953.
- "Bimbo," Abbott Records, 1954.
- "Yonder Comes a Sucker," 1955.
- "According to My Heart," 1956.
- "My Lips Are Sealed," 1956.
- "Am I Losing You," 1957.
- "Four Walls," 1957.
- "Blue Boy," 1958.
- "Billy Bayou," 1958.
- "He'll Have to Go," 1959.
- "I Know One," 1960.
- "I Missed Me," 1960.
- "The Blizzard," 1961.
- "What I Feel in My Heart," 1962.
- "I'm Gonna Change Everything," 1962.
- "Losing Your Love," 1962.
- "Is This Me," 1963.
- "I Guess I'm Crazy," 1964.
- "Welcome to My World," 1964.
- "I Won't Forget You," 1965.
- "Is It Really Over," 1965.
- "Snow Flake," 1966.
- "I Won't Come in While He's There," 1967.
- "I Heard a Heart Break Tonight," 1968.
- "The Writing's on the Wall," 1972.
- "I'd Fight the World," 1974.
- "Little Ole Dime," 1977.
- "There's Always Me," 1980.
- Albums; on RCA/Camden Bimbo 1955.
- Jim Reeves 1957.
- Girls I Have Known 1958.
- He'll Have to Go 1960.
- Intimate Side of Jim Reeves 1960.
- To Your Heart 1961.
- Touch of Velvet 1962.
- Gentleman Jim 1963.
- Moonlight and Roses 1964.
- Best of Jim Reeves 1964.
- Distant Drums 1966.
- Best of Jim Reeves, Volume 2 1966.
- Touch of Sadness 1968.
- Best of Jim Reeves, Volume 3 1969.
- Missing You 1972.
- Don't Let Me Cross Over 1980.
- There's Always Me 1980.
- Welcome to My World: The Essential Jim Reeves Collection RCA, 1993.
- Live at the Opry CMF, 1993.
- Dellar, Fred, Roy Thompson, and Douglas B. Green, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony Books, 1977.
- Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A, University of Texas Press, 1985.
- Malone, Bill C., and Judith McCulloch, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
- Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Thomas Y.
- Crowell, 1974.
- Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin's, 1983.
- --Lloyd Hemingway