It was almost like a death in the family. Hardly unexpected — after all Eddy Arnold was just a week shy of 90 when he died last Thursday in Nashville — but sad nonetheless. One of the voices of my childhood now silent forever.
Arnold was my father’s favorite, and my mother, perhaps at least a little out of self-defense, liked him too. (When Dad liked a thing it wasn’t always easy to get away from it — still today Mom, in the shadow of 90 herself, can tell you things about Stan Musial.) So when Dad was at home, Arnold’s clear, buttery-smooth baritone voice could often be heard throughout our house in Tampa, either from the 78-rpm records Dad played or from the AM country stations he listened to at home and in the car after the Baseball Game of the Day was over.
Dad stuck with Arnold through the early successes as a country singer, through the slow-down in the Arnold career when rock and rollers just about routed crooners in the late fifties, and then through Eddy’s reincarnation as a successful pop singer in the sixties (using essentially the same sound, but with more strings and a tuxedo).
It was a huge event when Arnold came to Tampa or St. Petersburg for a concert, and Dad was usually the first in line for tickets. (Dad always made a modest income, so the tickets usually depleted the family entertainment budget for several months.) The first one I attended was in 1948, when I was six. So I have only the gauziest memories of guys in cowboy hats singing at the National Guard armory in Tampa. (They weren’t gaudy cowboy hats — and no sequins or spangles on the shirts either. Arnold sang country then, but he usually dressed closer to Perry Como than to Hank Williams Sr. Sang closer too, come to that.)
The last Arnold concert, at least for us, was in the seventies, when I was a grownup, Dad was near retirement, and Eddy was pushing the back-half of middle-age himself. When Eddy got to “The Cattle Call,” his signature song, which requires a tricky falsetto yodel, he stopped after that part, winked at the audience, and with a big smile said, “Bet you thought I couldn’t do that anymore.” Got a big laugh. Partly because it’s a funny, self-effacing line, but the laugh was also a little nervous because half the people in the house were indeed wondering if he could still do it. He could and did. And he saw through us, and laughed us out of our discomfort. (Arnold and Marty Robbins are the only two singers I’m familiar with who didn’t sound ridiculous doing a falsetto yodel.)
THOSE EARLY COUNTRY successes were remarkable. Many young country fans today couldn’t pick Arnold out of a photo lineup — don’t even know the name. Not surprising as Arnold’s hits started running out in the late sixties. But as America’s rural Southern music moved from “hillbilly” to country after the war and established a beachhead in town, Arnold was recording more hits and selling more records than anyone.
Arnold’s first number one hit in 1947 was, “It’s a Sin” (my darling, how I love you). He had another number one hit in ‘47, and then in ‘48 he dominated the country charts with songs like “I’ll Hold You in My Heart,” “Anytime,” “Bouquet of Roses,” “Texarkana Baby,” and “Just a Little Lovin.’” In ‘47 and ‘48 Arnold had the number one country song for 53 consecutive weeks. In 1948, Arnold had the number one song on the country charts for all but two weeks.
According to Billboard, Arnold had 28 number one country singles in his career. Perhaps even more remarkable is the 67 consecutive singles that made the top 10 list. No other artist has done that. Arnold has sold more than 80 million records, tapes, and CDs, and they’re still available and enjoy modest sales today.
Arnold, who had picked up the sobriquet “The Tennessee Plowboy,” stayed in the country style, but with a difference. He didn’t twang. His diction was perfect and his phrasing straightforward. No gimmicks. He always sang from his diaphragm, not through his nose. Except for a few specialty items like, “The Cattle Call,” his songs were mostly about love, loss, and yearning. Standard country themes. But he eschewed some of the revered country pathos such as songs about crying in your beer, philandering, dogs named Rooster, and the day Mama got drunk and was run over by a train the day she got out of prison and totaled my almost new truck.
Arnold meant no disrespect to the traditional country singers, and he liked much of their music (me too — so no nasty letters from George Jones fans please — I’m one too). But drunken benders, bar fights, serial wives and messy divorces, pill-popping, and other gaudy, dysfunctional, and self-pitying features of a fair chunk of the post-war county music world never featured in either Arnold’s personal life or in his songs. He was married to the same woman, the former Sally Gayhart, for 66 years. They lived quietly and modestly in Nashville where Arnold did extremely well as a real estate investor. The son of a Tennessee sharecropper, born into real poverty, died a wealthy man. (His Sally died in March — which may at least partly account for why Eddy departed this life when he did.)
FOR ALL HIS MODERATION, Arnold was no square. He had a warm and relaxed stage presence and was able to connect with his audience. He usually had a bit of amusing patter to go with the songs. For this reason he was a frequent guest on TV shows with such as Perry Como, Andy Williams, Dinah Shore, et al. He did country shows too, and even had his own TV show for a time.
The sixties featured Arnold singing his love songs in front of a full orchestra, heavy on strings, and wearing a tuxedo. This was called crossover, and wasn’t popular with everyone in the country music biz back then (when, it appears, neither country nor crossover was cool). But it saved Arnold’s career, as well as countless others, and brought a lot more listeners to country. Many of Arnold’s songs, and those of other country artists hit, the pop charts as well as the country charts.
Country singers with rich and authentic sounds, like Arnold and Patsy Cline, could pull off this collaboration with the orchestra and the choral backup and still be compelling. They created what became known as the lush Nashville sound. Lesser singers who attempted this format turned out more mush than lush, and are now C-list has-beens, working down-market waiting rooms and elevators, if they’re working at all.
Arnold’s crossover sixties hits, “What’s He Doing in My World?,” “Make the World Go Away,” “I Want to Go With You,” Somebody Like Me,” “Lonely Again,” “They Don’t Make Love Like They Used to,” “The Last Word in Lonesome,” and others, were international hits as well as pop and country hits here. “Make the World Go Away” was on the charts for 17 weeks in Britain in 1966, where it reached as high as number six. Perhaps this is why so many U.K. publications, including the Telegraph, had obits and appreciative articles on Arnold the day after his death. Arnold was clearly a storyteller whose message traveled well.
Arnold’s long, and to all outward appearances, happy life, lasted well beyond his years of fame. He avoided another country music tradition — the one that says, “Live fast, love hard, die young, and leave a beautiful memory.” My Dad is also gone, along with many of Arnold fans of that generation. But even though it has been a long time since the last Arnold hit, there are plenty of us out there who remember him, who still listen to his music, and who are taking some time this week to honor his life.
Rest in peace, Eddy. Thanks for the songs and the memories.
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