Sonny James: The “Shindig Heartbreaker”

by Paula Bosse

shindig-cast_sonny-james-websiteSonny James, center, with fiddle (photo: SonnyJames.com)

by Paula Bosse

Sonny James — the much-loved Country Music Hall of Fame singer — died yesterday (Feb. 22, 2016). When I was a child, his version of “Runnin’ Bear” was my favorite song, and it was played endlessly throughout the ’70s on Dallas’ classic country stations like KBOX and WBAP. I was surprised to learn a few years ago, that the Alabama-born Sonny James lived in Dallas for several years, and that Dallas was where he was performing regularly when he exploded into the national consciousness with his first #1 hit, “Young Love.”

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Before he made his way to Dallas, Sonny James had been making a name for himself as a performer on Shreveport’s Louisiana Hayride. One of his first appearances in Dallas was during his Hayride Days: he was a guest on the Big D Jamboree in the summer of 1952.

He must have made quite a splash, because only a month later, he had left the Hayride, moved to Dallas, and was signed to appear on the show “Saturday Nite Shindig,” the WFAA-sponsored answer to the Big D Jamboree, which debuted on October 11, 1952. (As “Saturday Night Shindig,” the radio show had been a WFAA staple since it began in 1944; Sonny James was hired to be part of a new “Shindig,” which was revamped from a folksy half-hour show to a 4-hour live music show and was broadcast from Fair Park.)

“Yeoow! More Zip than a Singed Cat!” (Click for larger image.)

sonny-james_dmn_100852Oct. 8, 1952

sonny-james_dmn_101052Oct. 10, 1952

It was an immediate hit, and Sonny became the main draw and something of a teen heart-throb. Less than a month after the announcement of his permanent gig as a “Shindigger,” he also got his own radio show on WFAA, Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 11:00 to 11:15.

Pretty soon, the Shindig revue was being simulcast on TV and radio, live from Fair Park (from the bandshell when it was warm, and from various other buildings during cold and inclement weather).

sonny-james_dmn_041153April 11, 1953

The Shindig show seems to have died away in 1954 or 1955. Sonny James headed back to the Sportatorium and the Big D Jamboree (which was run by his manager, Ed McLemore). One show of note was this one in 1955, with his old Louisiana Hayride pal Elvis Presley. (McLemore made sure that even though Elvis was the headliner, Sonny’s name was actually bigger!)

big-d-jamboree_FWST_041555-elvis_sonny-jamesApril 15, 1955

Sonny James had been recording for Capitol for several years, with some success, but it wasn’t until the end of 1956 that he had his mammoth #1 crossover hit, “Young Love,” which made him a national star. Apparently, he kept a residence in Dallas for a while (the last address I see for him in Dallas was in 1955 at 4718 Capitol, between N. Carroll and Fitzhugh). While living in Dallas, he was a steadfast member of the Church of Christ at East Side and Peak, and he frequently participated in area fishing contests (in fact, there might have been more mentions of his extracurricular fishing exploits in the local papers than there were mentions of his show-biz exploits — his fishing activities were often covered using his real name, Jimmie Loden). One person who lived in the same neighborhood Sonny did recalled on a Dallas-history message board that Sonny worked on Saturday mornings bagging groceries at a store on the corner of Capitol and Fitzhugh.

Sonny James went on to be a much-loved country performer who racked up a number of hits and was, apparently, one of the nicest guys around. He was most definitely a Southern Gentleman. Thanks, Sonny.

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Nov. 8, 1952

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1953

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Sept. 12, 1953

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Billboard, Oct. 3, 1953

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Aug. 21, 1954

james-sonny_1957_promo-photoRadio Annual and Television Yearbook, 1957

james-sonny_mclemore_1958Radio Annual and Television Yearbook, 1958

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Sources & Notes

Sonny James’ obituary form the Hollywood Reporter is here. His Wikipedia page is here.

The official Sonny James website is here.

To get an idea of the absolutely HOT hillbilly and rockabilly music that was being performed in Dallas in the years that Sonny James was here, check out this fantastic sampling of recordings from the Big D Jamboree:

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See a few photos of Sonny James in Dallas at SonnyJames.com here (click thumbnails for larger images — the photo of Sonny sitting in the wings watching Elvis on stage at the Big D Jamboree is pretty great!).

A couple of good articles about Sonny James’ time in Dallas (written while he still considered himself a resident of the city) can be found in the Dallas Morning News archives:

  • “Success Won’t Spoil Mr. James” by Tony Zoppi in his “Dallas After Dark” column (DMN, Feb. 10, 1957)
  • “Sonny Snubs That Las Vegas ‘Loot'” by, of all people, Frank X. Tolbert in his “Tolbert’s Texas” column (May 13, 1957), in which Sonny — fresh off his 2.5-million-selling “Young Love” hit — talked about having a clause in contracts saying he would not perform in places with drinking, “clinch dancing,” and gambling, mostly because he did not want to exclude his teenage fans from being able to see him perform.

A good interview with Sonny James — packed with photos — appeared in the January, 1958 issue of TV Radio Mirror, a full scan of which you can find here. Even after he had hit the mega-big-time, Sonny said he continued to keep an apartment in Dallas. In the story there is a photo of his Dallas girlfriend, Doris Farmer (née Shrode) — she and Sonny took out a marriage license in July, 1957 (seen here) — I’m not sure when they married, but Sonny and Doris were happily married until Sonny’s death, almost 60 years.

Another performer who lived in the DFW area at the same time as Sonny James and who was also on the cusp of national stardom was Pat Boone, who had his own show on WBAP while attending college in Denton. Sonny and Pat were friends and even appeared on a few bills together. They were both also members of the Church of Christ, which both no doubt felt was an important bond. I wrote about Pat Boone’s time in DFW in the Flashback Dallas post “Pat Boone, Host of Channel 5’s ‘Teen Times’ — 1954,” here.

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Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.