Mostly Credited As: Jim Reeves (1)
Sometimes Credited As: Gentleman Jim
Birth Name: James Travis Reeves
Date Of Birth: August 20, 1923 (Age 40)
Country Of Birth: USA
Birth Place: nr. Galloway, Panola County, Texas
Date Of Death: July 31, 1964
Cause Of Death: Plane crash in Brentwood, Williamson Co., Tennesse
Height: 6' (1.82 m)
He was known as "Gentleman Jim" for his smooth singing style that brought country music a new audience. Although he died in 1964, his popularity has never waned.
James Travis Reeves was the youngest of nine children born to Tom and Mary Beulah Reeves in Galloway, a tiny town in Panola County in eastern Texas. Jim's father died when Jim was just 8 months old. The family stayed together during the Depression, and music was a source of comfort. The first performer Reeves fell in love with was Jimmie Rodgers. He recalled a neighbor having a phonograph player with a recording of "Blue Yodel #5" (commonly known as "Waitin' for a Train") by the Father of Country Music. Reeves would later record his own version of this song.
When he was 7, Reeves swapped a basket of pears for a guitar. An oil pipeline worker taught him basic chords. By the time he was a teenager, Reeves had already played numerous high school dances and socials. After graduating, Reeves volunteered for the Army but was rejected on his physical. He took work wherever he could find it, working in the oil fields of eastern Texas and as a welder. He briefly attended the University of Texas, but finances kept him from staying longer than half a semester.
One additional talent Reeves showed in his early 20s was pitching. He played for several informal leagues and was discovered by a St. Louis Cardinals scout. He received a minor league contract from the Cardinals and went to Virginia to pitch. Reeves pitched a total of three years in the minor leagues, never being called up to the Major League level. In August 1947, he suffered an injury that put an end to his baseball career. That was also the year he married Mary White.
Reeves turned his attention full-time to music. With his baritone voice he easily found work as a radio announcer. His first job came at a small station, KGRI, in Henderson, Texas. (Reeves would later buy the station once he became successful.) He played records and introduced live acts. When scheduled performers did not show, Reeves picked up his guitar and filled the 15-minute gaps with his own music.
Reeves received his first recording contract for Macy's Records (named for the owner's wife, not the famed New York store) and recorded four sides. He then got a deal with Abbott Records and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, home of the famous Louisiana Hayride. He began as an announcer and eventually performed, earning numerous encores for his performance of a Mitchell Torok (best-known for the song "Caribbean") novelty song called "Mexican Joe." The song hit #1, and Reeves was quickly on his way to success.
In 1955 Reeves was signed to RCA Victor Records. He was still singing in a voice slightly higher than his normal baritone voice and accompanied with standard country instrumentation (steel guitars, fiddles). Producer Chet Atkins changed that on February 7, 1957, and in the process changed country music forever. On that date, Reeves recorded the song "Four Walls," singing in his natural range and accompanied with background singers. The song, released as a single, became a major hit on both the country and pop charts. This song is credited by many as the hit that began the country-pop blend known as "the Nashville Sound."
Reeves' success in the pop field was not limited to "Four Walls." In late 1959 he recorded another song that he had heard a regional performer sing, a number about a man trying to make amends to his girlfriend in a phone call from a bar. The song, "He'll Have to Go," became the fourth biggest hit of the entire decade of the 1960s on Billboard's country charts, staying at #1 for 14 weeks. The song also went to #2 on the pop charts for three weeks and spawned an answer song ("He'll Have to Stay," the only hit for Jeanne Black).
The success of "He'll Have to Go" was phenomenal. The single sold over three million copies and was nominated for a Grammy. Reeves became an international success. His biggest international success was in South Africa, where Reeves was mobbed in 1962 by over 3,000 fans, having his jacket torn and nearly losing his wedding ring in the melee. Reeves recorded 12 songs in Afrikaans (Cape Dutch) for release in South Africa. He also made a film, Kimberly Jim, about a Tennessee card hustler who wins a worthless diamond mine in a poker game. The movie was not released in the U.S. until 1965.
By 1964 Jim had obtained his pilot's license. On July 30, he and his manager/piano player, Dean Manuel, flew to Batesville, Arkansas to look at some property Jim was interested in buying. He asked friend Maxine Brown, of the brother and sisters act the Browns (of "The Three Bells" fame), if she wanted to fly with him, since she was from Arkansas. She turned him down because her daughter was ill. The next day, Friday, July 31, as Reeves and Manuel were returning to Nashville, they encountered a summer thunderstorm. Reeves, not cleared to fly on instruments, was in contact with the Nashville air traffic control tower when the plane disappeared from the radar. Reeves was in mid-sentence when his transmission was cut. Reeves' fellow performer, Marty Robbins, was in his back yard collecting rain water with which to wash his hair and heard the crash. He went back into his house and told his wife, "Someone's just been killed out there!"
Following performing on the Grand Ole Opry, several country music celebrities joined Nashville police in a search for the missing plane. On Sunday, August 2, the wreckage was discovered and the news was sent to the world: Gentleman Jim Reeves was dead. He was buried in Carthage, Texas (the county seat of Panola County) on August 4, 1964.
Reeves made prolific recordings in his life. Under the supervision of his widow, Mary, "new" Jim Reeves songs were released into the 1980s. The output was such that, according to an interview with Reeves' long-time secretary Joyce Jackson, younger employees at RCA Victor frequently questioned why Reeves did not make personal appearances or promotional tours for his new releases. New technology also added to Reeves' legacy, with recordings of songs that he and Patsy Cline had recorded separately were dubbed together into a "duet." The two never recorded together (and, contrary to what many people think, they did not die in the same plane crash: Cline died in March, 1963).
Mary Reeves remarried in 1969. She opened the Jim Reeves Museum in the early 1980s in Nashville. She developed Alzheimer's and died on November 11, 1999. Following her death, a bitter battle ensued over the Reeves estate, which was estimated to be worth $7 million. Most of Reeves' personal effects were eventually auctioned off.
Jim Reeves was also a gifted songwriter. In 1981, Ronnie Milsap had a #1 hit with his rendition of a Reeves composition, "Am I Losing You." Among Jim's hits that he wrote himself are "What Would You Do," "Then I'll Stop Loving You," and "I'm Gettin' Better."
Jim Reeves was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1967. He was the first performer who had died since the inception of the Hall of Fame to be posthumously inducted, and only the sixth deceased member at the time of induction.
Country Music Hall of Fame, 1967
Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, 1998 (original inductee)
Like a Moth to a Flame: The Jim Reeves Story by Michael Streissguth (1998). This controversial biography is held in contempt by a number of Reeves' fans, friends, and co-workers because of its less than flattering handling of Reeves' personal demons.
All of Jim Reeves' music, including outtakes, demos, and un-overdubbed original recordings, are available on the 16-CD box set Welcome To My World (Bear Family, 1994). The box set also features a 124-page biography written by Colin Escott.