Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
After spending a few weeks talking about the “saga song,” it’s time to shift back to everyone’s favorite topic in country music – the debate between what is and isn’t “country.”
To give a quick recap with previous editions of this feature, the biggest hit songs were either rockabilly numbers or lavish, smooth pop songs disguised as country music. Today, we’re going to discuss arguably one of the most “pop” artists ever in country music, at least when factoring in historical context.
Born James Travis Reeves on August 20, 1923 in Galloway, Panola County, Texas, the entertainer who would go on to become known as Jim Reeves had arguably the greatest ability to appeal to popular audiences while maintaining a country identity. As a child, Reeves hated farm life and was always looking to find diversions from it. Those diversions came in the form of baseball and country music. To put a long story short, however, the former diversion ended with a leg injury in July 1947.
Ironically, it wasn’t Reeves’ singing ability that made him attractive to music industry executives, but rather his speaking voice. He obtained a position as an announcer and hillbilly disc jockey on a Henderson radio station, KGRI, which he later owned jointly with Tom Perryman. As a disc jockey, Reeves occasionally picked up his guitar and wooed his listeners with a hymn or vintage sentimental song.
When Reeves truly began his own singing career on the Macy label, he was a reedy-voiced country bumpkin who specialized in novelty songs like “Bimbo” and “Mexican Joe.” When he began his association with RCA Records, his performing sound wasn’t far removed from the dominant honky-tonk style of the early ’50s.
A shift came in 1957 during the recording sessions for the song “Four Walls,” however. Reeves decided he wanted to set the session up differently, leaving pedal steels and fiddles out of the mix in favor of a more sophisticated, pop-friendly sound featuring smooth background vocals by The Jordanaires, tasteful slip-note piano fills courtesy of Floyd Cramer and spare guitar strumming courtesy of Chet Atkins.
His voice had also begun to lower into its more natural baritone registers, away from the high, strident sound on those aforementioned earlier recordings. Finally, his fashion style changed, as he left the Nudie suits on the hanger and adopted a new cosmopolitan look complete with business suit and tie. It was all an attempt at making country music look “cool” by selling it in a different package.
Reeves’s biggest hit came in the form of “He’ll Have To Go,” and, conversations about Reeves’s place as a country artist aside, the story behind the song is quite fascinating. The song was inspired by a husband’s telephone call to his wife. As songwriter Joe Allison checked in at home by phone, he was having trouble hearing his wife, Audrey. Her softer tone simply wasn’t coming through well over the line. After several times of asking her to repeat what she had just said, Joe finally instructed her to speak louder and put her mouth closer to the phone. After that, he had no more problems hearing her.
When the songwriter got home that night, he found a single line written in longhand on a blank piece of paper. The handwriting, as you would expect, came from Audrey, and as he read the sentence, he realized that it had come from their phone call: “put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.” By changing “mouth” to “lips,” and phrasing it as a more intimate conversation, Audrey had sparked an idea for Joe. As he studied the solitary line, he was overcome by its straightforward beauty. Not even bothering to ask why Audrey hadn’t finished the lyrics she had started, the man picked up a pen and began to add his own ideas. Within a few minutes, Joe had completed the lyrical content of the song and fashioned a basic melody.
In case you’re wondering, yes, the song is credited to both Joe and Audrey Allison.
The first artist to cover the song was Billy Brown for Columbia Records, but due to a lack of promotion, his version was almost dead on arrival, getting a spin every once in a while on a station, but never reaching the national playlist. However, during one of the few times his version of “He’ll Have To Go” made the airwaves, Reeves just happened to catch it on the radio.
Perhaps out of respect for the young artist, Reeves waited for about three months before deciding to cover and release his version of the song. Brown’s version never charted, giving Reeves the green light to go ahead with his take. During the recording of what would eventually become Reeves’ studio version of the song, he was surrounded by a smaller group of musicians than usual because, on this particular song, Reeves wanted to showcase his vocal more prominently and feature a much less-elaborate instrumental backing. In other words, he wanted to forgo the lush instruments and violins typically heard in other hit songs during this time (and featured in this series).
Reeves believed heavily in the song’s potential, so he wanted the record to be absolutely perfect. On the third take, he achieved the performance he wanted. Three other less-than-average songs were cut later at that session, and one of those, the Johnny Russell-penned, “In A Mansion Stands My Love,” was selected by RCA as the “plug” or A-side of Jim’s next single, with “He’ll Have To Go” designated as the “flip” or B-side.
As you can imagine, Reeves wasn’t happy about this.
Both he and producer Chet Atkins were certain the song would be the stronger single, but it was out of their hands, and they had to go along with RCA’s management decision from the company’s New York headquarters. Radio programmers and disc jockeys must have agreed with them, however, as they turned the record over and played “He’ll Have To Go” as if it had been the hit side all along.
1960 is one of the strangest years on records for hit songs in country music. Only five country singles made it to the No. 1 position during the entire year, and “He’ll Have To Go” was one of them. “He’ll Have To Go” also just barely missed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 2 for three weeks. With “He’ll Have To Go,” Reeves had become the biggest country music sensation in the world.
The success was short-lived, though, unfortunately. Reeves died, along with his manager and pianist, in a plane he was piloting in Brentwood, Tennessee on July 31, 1964 at just 40 years old. Join me next time where we’ll discuss Marty Robbins for the third time in this series, and the accidental hit that was “Don’t Worry.”
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding Jim Reeves’ life and rise as a country music artist comes from Country Music U.S.A. by Bill C. Malone, specifically the chapter, “Country-Pop Music And The Nashville Sound”
- Information regarding the background of “He’ll Have To Go” is credited to this article by Eric Berman.