In the 1940s, when country music was not yet part of the mainstream, a string of artists set out to bring the genre to a wider audience. People such as Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, or Gene Autry were adamant that their music not be dismissed as hillbilly music and insisted on its being labeled country & western. Their contribution to country music, then, goes beyond their hit recordings and their vocal mannerisms, as they sought respectability for the genre. Chief among this group of performers is Eddy Arnold, whose warm, caressing voice allowed him to cross over to the pop field, as well as dominating the country charts during the forties and early fifties. In fact, no other artist in the history of country music has spent more weeks atop the charts or has had more charting singles. Eddy's chart appearances, although far more numerous in the early years of his career, spread out over five different decades, and that is a feat that very few artists have accomplished.
Eddy Arnold's career began with a stint on radio station WMPS in Memphis, where he honed his skills as a singer and where he soon became very popular. In the early forties, he spent some time as the featured vocalist with Pee Wee King's Golden West Cowboys before recording his first solo single, "Mommy Please Stay Home with Me" in 1944. Arnold was a very versatile singer, which enabled him to evolve with the times, and his career reflects the many changes that country music has undergone throughout the years. His earlier hits ("Each Minute Seems a Million Years," "Bouquet of Roses," and "Just a Little Lovin'," to name but three) have a rootsy, classic country sound, always embellished by the rippling notes played by the great Little Roy Wiggins on steel guitar. However, his voice sounds always polished and betrays the influence of great crooners by the likes of Bing Crosby and Perry Como. Eddy must have also listened to a great deal of records from the twenties and early thirties, as echoes of vaudevillians such as Emmett Miller can be heard in his style, especially in his reading of Miller's "Anytime," which became a million seller for Eddy in 1948. A year before, he'd had his first crossover hit with "I'll Hold You in My Heart (Till I Can Hold You in My Arms)," and around the same time, even Frank Sinatra recorded a jazzy version of one of Eddy's compositions, "That's How Much I Love You."
Through his continuous appearances on television, Eddy Arnold soon achieved nationwide popularity and kept his impressive streak of hits well into the 1950s, when the arrival of rock'n'roll began to hurt the sales of most country performers. It was then that his career took a decisive turn, as he started to favor a softer style that leaned more toward pop than country, though not totally doing away with the country elements of his music. Just like many other singers of his generation (Jim Reeves, George Morgan, even Ray Price), he became a country crooner and helped popularize what became known as the Nashville Sound. Replacing fiddles and steel guitars with full-blown orchestras and choirs in the background, this brand of country music was geared to a wider market, hoping to spark the interest of record buyers who would not usually listen to country music. Eddy's voice was perfect for the style, and so he returned to the charts with smash hits such as "What's He Doing in My World," "Make the World Go Away," and "I Want to Go with You."
Throughout his long, outstanding career, Eddy Arnold made records that are not only legendary, but that ooze with class and savoir faire. Along with Jean Shepard and Johnny Cash, he was one of the first country artists to realize that albums did not necessarily have to be just a collection of hit singles, and in 1963, he released Cattle Call, a delightful concept album devoted to cowboy songs (it has been reissued by Bear Family together with Thereby Hangs a Tale, another LP of a similar kind). Both the number of awards that he received over the years and the figures of his record sales are impressive, and as one of the most successful entertainers of all time, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966. His death leaves us saddened because we have lost not only a legend of country music, but also a wonderful man whose music has touched many generations of dedicated followers. His hit-studded body of recordings is an invaluable legacy to both country music and world music in general.
Cowboy Anton -- Nashville, Tennessee.
Cowboy Anton -- Nashville, Tennessee.
For more information about Eddy Arnold's life and career, check out Michael Streissguth's outstanding biography Eddy Arnold: Pioneer of the Nashville Sound (Da Capo Press, 1997).