He was the affable “Tennessee Plowboy” who brought elegance, sophistication and millions of fans to country music. Eddy Arnold, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died around 4:40 a.m. today at NHC Place in Cool Springs at the age of 89.
Mr. Arnold’s contributions to the history of American popular music are manifold, and integral. He sold more than 85 million records, with 37 singles charting on the pop charts and many more impacting the country charts. He ranks as Billboard magazine’s single most popular country artist of all time. He was a star of stage and screen, and he was also a public face of Nashville music for decades.
Hits such as “Make The World Go Away,” “I Want To Go With You,” “Turn The World Around,” “I Really Don’t Want To Know” and “You Don’t Know Me” charmed a nation and moved country toward the popular mainstream.
“Eddy Arnold has become virtually an institution in American life, with an identity that is only peripherally related to country music,” wrote Bill Malone in his definitive history, Country Music, USA. Malone went on to describe the “almost unparalleled impact that the Tennessee Plowboy has had on the country field.”
Though his music was seldom embraced by traditionalists, Mr. Arnold was one of the titans of Nashville music. His voice was an unpressured, engaging croon that sometimes recalled a clarinet played in the lower register, and though he favored strings and uptown instrumentation, he delivered his songs with few affectations.
Mr. Arnold utilized genre-blurring arrangements, but he was at base a storyteller of the highest order.
Mr. Arnold was a multi-millionaire who cherished eating with pals at a simple meat-and-three along 8th Avenue South. He was a real estate magnate who loved green spaces and fresh air. He was a proud country boy who struggled to extend southern music’s reach and scope into America’s urban centers. He was a star, and a force, and a charmer.
“Eddy Arnold gave dignity and respect to country music at a time when it was referred to as ‘hillbilly music,’” said Cusic, a friend of Arnold's, this week. “The story of country music is, in many ways, the story of a fight for respect. Eddy Arnold gave it respect; he made you proud to be a country fan.”
An avid radio listener, Mr. Arnold tuned into WSM one morning and noticed that Jack Skaggs, who was normally featured as a singer on Grand Ole Opry star Pee Wee King’s morning show, wasn’t on the air with King. Mr. Arnold requested, and received an audition, and in January of 1940 he became a member of King’s Golden West Cowboys. That job allowed him to tour extensively, impressing audiences with his smooth, sincere voice. The work with King also helped him to gain notoriety around the Grand Ole Opry, and when he decided in late 1942 to pursue a solo career, Mr. Arnold was immediately accepted into the Opry’s family of performers.
And so in 1943, Mr. Arnold was living in Nashville with his wife — he’d married the former Sally Gayhart on Nov. 28, 1941 — and fronting his own band on the biggest country music show in the world. He formed a band, The Tennessee Plowboys, and he secured a manager in the wily Colonel Tom Parker (who later managed Elvis Presley’s career).
In 1944, Mr. Arnold signed a contract with RCA Victor Records, but a musicians’ strike meant that he had to delay his recording career. But in December of 1944, Mr. Arnold entered WSM’s Studio B and recorded a four-song session that included “Cattle Call,” a number that would become one of Mr. Arnold’s signatures. Though Mr. Arnold may not have realized it then, that was the first major label recording session in Nashville.
Mr. Arnold’s first charting country single came in 1945, with “Each Minute Seems A Million Years,” and his star rose quickly. He gained national appeal with the jaunty “That’s How Much I Love You,” and his voice and cultured cowboy image helped him to gain a prime, 8 – 8:15 p.m. slot on the Opry. In 1947, Mr. Arnold had his first No. 1 Billboard Country single with “What Is Life Without Love,” and he followed that with another No. 1, “It’s A Sin.”
The watershed moment came with the release of “I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You In My Arms.” That song ascended to No. 1 in November 1947, stayed there for 21 weeks, crossed over into the pop charts, became the No. 1 country single of the 1940s and began Mr. Arnold’s most astounding chart run: For 53 consecutive weeks, he held the No. 1 country singles spot. In 1948, there were only two weeks in which an Eddy Arnold song wasn’t No. 1.
“Eddy Arnold put a tuxedo on country music,” Cusic said. “Eddy Arnold was the biggest star in country music in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He sold more records than Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell or any other country artist. He also transcended Nashville and country music and had an impact on the American pop audience through his TV shows and appearances.”
Legendary broadcaster Ralph Emery dedicated his last book to Arnold, "country music’s first superstar." Emery said, "We didn’t even use those terms back years ago. He opened the doors and led the hillbillies out to credibility. He hated the word hillbilly anyway. He made it OK to be a country singer. He was the first crossover artist."
In 1948, Emery said, Arnold was RCA's best-selling artist of all genres, topping sales of Perry Como and Vaughn Monroe. "He led the charge. He brought country music out of the backwoods and put it on mainstreet in America. Nashville will always owe him a debt."
Emery said he liked Arnold's manner. "He was a gentle man. He had a laugh, he loved a good story." When the comedy act Homer & Jethro recorded in the 1950s and 1960s, producer Chet Atkins made sure Arnold was in attendance. "He put Eddy down front because Eddy was such a big laugher."
Emery recalled a famous story Atkins like to tell about the time Arnold attended a Broadway comedy written by Frank Loesser. "Eddy laughed so hard and so loud that he interrupted the show. It made the producer very angry, but Frank Loesser happened to be there. The producer was saying things like, 'Get that guy out of here! He's ruining my show.' Frank Loesser said, "Leave him alone. He loves my material".
"He was a very easy to like man. I think also he was a man most respected. He made us all look good".
Mr. Arnold was preceded in death by his wife Sally Gayhart Arnold, who died March 11, 2008. He is survived by their children, Richard Edward Jr., of Nashville, and Jo Ann Pollard, of Brentwood, Tenn. He is also survived by two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Viewing will be 5-9 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m.-noon Wednesday in the rotunda of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It is open to the public.
The memorial service, which is open to the public, will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Ryman Auditorium. It will be followed by a private burial.
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