Country singer Sonny James, who recorded romantic ballads, such as "Young Love," died Monday at age 87. He was good at turning pop songs into country hits. James, whose given name was James Hugh Loden, died in a Nashville, Tenn., hospice facility, according to a family friend, Gary Robble, who was the lead singer of James' backing band, the Southern Gentlemen. He is survived by his wife, Doris, and was a member of the Church of Christ.
James had 72 country- and pop-charted releases from 1953 to 1983, including an unprecedented five-year streak of 16 straight Billboard No. 1 singles among his 26 No. 1 hits. Twenty-one of his albums reached the country top 10 from 1964 to 1976. In May 2007, James and his Southern Gentlemen, walked the red carpet and were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
The singer was born in Hackleburg, Ala., into a farm family. He was known as the "Southern Gentleman" because of his gentle, respectable demeanor, reports USA Today. He also wrote songs, and played the guitar and fiddle.
His musical career started with his family's band, including his parents and his sister, Thelma. Before he reached high school age, he already had performed on several country music radio shows. Capitol producer Ken Nelson suggested he use a combination of his nickname, "Sonny Boy," with his first name as his professional name.
In 1956, when James scored his biggest hit, "Young Love," sold 3 million copies were sold, and it became a No. 1 hit on the country and pop charts. His other hits included "It's the Little Things," ''You're the Only World I Know," ''I'll Never Find Another You," ''Empty Arms," ''Behind the Tear," ''Take Good Care of Her," ''When the Snow Is on the Roses," ''That's Why I Love You Like I Do" and "Here Comes Honey Again."
"Sonny James was one of country music's greatest. He was a true gentleman and made some of the greatest country music records of all times, certainly some of my favorites," singer Dolly Parton said in a statement.
"Sonny made country music more commercial," Robble told USA Today. "He wasn't trying to. He was singing what he enjoyed singing."
In the 1960s, he made several motion pictures, including "Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar," ''Las Vegas Hillbillies" (with Jayne Mansfield) and "Hillbilly in a Haunted House" (with Basil Rathbone and Lon Chaney Jr.). He then produced Marie Osmond's first records, including her biggest country hit, "Paper Roses."
He was the first co-host of the Country Music Association Awards show with Bobbie Gentry in 1976.
He recorded some pioneering albums: "200 Years of Country Music" in 1976 chronicled country music and took more than a year to plan, research and record. "Sonny James In Prison, In Person" was recorded in 1977 with inmates at the Tennessee State Prison, while "The Astrodome Presents the Southern Gentlemen" in 1969 was the first live album recorded there.
His "Little Bit South of Saskatoon," which he wrote, was used as theme music for the movie "Slap Shot" starring Paul Newman.
James had retired to Nashville, Tenn., in 1984 because of vocal issues, according to Robble.