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. 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. (Most images and clippings in this post are larger when clicked.)

sonny-james_dmn_082952Dallas Morning News, Aug. 29, 1952 (click for larger image)

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. (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 the new “Shindig” — revamped from a folksy half-hour show to a 4-hour live music show, broadcast from Fair Park.)

sonny-james_dmn_100452DMN, Oct. 4, 1952

“Yeoow! More Zip than a Singed Cat!”

sonny-james_dmn_100852DMN, Oct. 8, 1952

sonny-james_dmn_101052DMN, Oct. 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.

sonny-james_dmn_110152DMN, Nov. 1, 1952

Pretty soon, the Shindig revue was being simulcast on Channel 8 and WFAA radio, live from the Fair Park Band Shell.

sonny-james_dmn_041153DMN, April 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 pal Elvis Presley. (McLemore’s made sure that even though Elvis is the headliner, Sonny’s name is actually bigger!)

big-d-jamboree_FWST_041555-elvis_sonny-jamesFort Worth Star-Telegram, April 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 that mammoth #1 crossover hit, “Young Love,” and he became 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). He was a member of the Church of Christ at East Side and Peak, and he frequently participated in local fishing contests.

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 in show-biz. He was most definitely a Southern Gentleman. Thanks, Sonny.

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DMN, Nov. 8, 1952

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DMN, Nov. 7, 1952

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DMN, Nov. 8, 1952

sonny-james_dmn_122352DMN, Dec. 23, 1952

sonny-james_dmn_010853DMN, Jan. 8, 1953

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DMN, May 19, 1953

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DMN, Sept. 12, 1953

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Billboard, Oct. 3, 1953

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DMN, Aug. 21, 1954

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Tony Zoppi, DMN, Feb. 10, 1957

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Frank X. Tolbert, DMN, May 13, 1957

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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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And here’s one of my favorite childhood songs that I sang along to at least a hundred times.

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(“Runnin’ Bear” was written by J. P. Richardson — better known as “The Big Bopper” — who, along with George Jones, sang back up for the original version of the song which was a hit for Johnny Preston. To keep this Tex-ified, though not from Dallas, Richardson, Jones, and Preston were all Texans. You can watch Preston perform it here.)

Click pictures and articles for larger images!

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Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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