Thursday, May 08, 2008

Eddy Arnold

Seminal country music artist Eddy Arnold passed away this morning at age 89. One of the most successful country singers of all time, Arnold perhaps more than anyone was responsible for expanding the scope of the genre from its rural "hillbilly" roots to its acceptance by the wider, more urban pop music audience.

He was born Richard Edward Arnold on a farm near Henderson, Tennessee in 1918. His father died when Eddy was 11, and when the Great Depression hit, the financial pressures became too much, and the Arnolds lost the family farm. Young Eddy saw singing as the only way to escape a life of poverty. While still a teenager, Arnold began singing on local radio stations. In 1938 he moved to St. Louis with a friend and together they found gigs in local clubs and on the radio.

Returning to Tennessee, he quickly caught on as a vocalist with Grand Ole Opry fixture Pee Wee King's band, which gave him the exposure he needed to start a solo career. In 1943, he formed his own band, the Tennessee Plowboys, and gained a manager, the infamous Col. Tom Parker, who would later become a household name for his association with Elvis Presley. The next year, he had a contract with RCA Victor, and in December 1944 cut four songs in the first recording sessions ever produced by a major label in Nashville. One of those songs, "Cattle Call", launched one of the most successful careers in popular music history.

His career reached a peak in 1947 with the release of "I'll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You In My Arms)". That song was his first major pop crossover hit, as well as topping the country charts for 21 weeks, beginning an incredible string of 53 consecutive weeks that an Eddy Arnold song was #1 on the C&W chart. Arnold was one of the first country stars to make regular TV appearances. Even more than innovators like Hank Williams, Arnold was the face of country music in the late 40's and early 50's. His smooth baritone crooning style, not unlike that of Bing Crosby, attracted millions of listeners who ordinarily thought of country as "hillbilly music".

Arnold's career went into a temporary lull in the late 50's and early 60's, as young Southern whites like Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis appropriated black music to create a more boisterous style attractive to a new generation of listeners. Arnold responded by creating songs with a more sophisticated, "uptown" sound, awash in strings and heavy orchestration, helping to pioneer a style that came to be known as "countrypolitan". By 1965, he was atop the charts again with songs like "Make The World Go Away" and "What's He Doing In My World", beginning a second run of chart hits that would carry him into the 70's. In all, Arnold would go on to sell over 85 million records, placing 145 singles onto the country charts. 28 of those would reach #1, and 37 of his country hits crossed over to pop. By Billboard chart standards, Arnold is the most successful country artist of all time.

Recalling his childhood poverty, Arnold was noted for being a wise investor, especially in real estate. His holdings included thousands of acres in the fast-growing upscale suburbs south of Nashville. Yet for all his wealth, Arnold remained a man of simple tastes. He didn't drive flashy cars, and often ate his meals at a nondescript Southern diner just south of downtown Nashville.

In March Arnold lost his wife Sally, to whom he had been married for 66 years. Later that month, he fell and injured his hip. He was never able to recover from those twin blows. Arnold will be remembered a a giant of country music, one of those rare artists whose influence shaped an entire genre.

Make the world go away.