Eddy Arnold, a smooth-voiced crooner who over the course of his 50-year career has successfully blurred the boundary between country music and pop, is considered by many industry analysts to be the most popular country recording artist of all time. Few pop artists have surpassed his single and album sales total of 85,000,000 and counting. His single releases spent a total of 145 weeks at the top of Billboard magazine’s country music charts, and he placed an astonishing 91 of them in the Top Ten. Yet his name, strangely, is almost completely absent from journalistic and scholarly listings of the landmark figures of American popular music. As Tom Persall succinctly stated in the St. Petersburg Times, “Arnold is curiously underrated as an innovator.”
Arnold is a natural and engaging performer, with an unaffected vocal style of great range and power. But his superstardom had deeper roots: He was the point man in a long-running battle for America’s musical soul. As the musical tastes of the young began to shift toward rock and roll in the late 1950s, a group of producers and executives in the country-music capital of Nashville staked a claim to the musical middle of the road, updating the already-romantic core of country music with polished arrangements for small orchestras of strings and winds. Arnold had the perfect voice for helping them to realize their goal of making country music a nationally viable, soft alternative to rock. As he once told TV Guide, “I want my artistry to be as acceptable to John Q. Public as Frank Sinatra’s or Tony Bennett’s.”
Early in his career Arnold was dubbed the “Tennessee Plowboy,” and the name, unlike so many of those bestowed by show business, accurately reflected his origins. He was born in 1918, near Henderson, in west Tennessee. His family was reduced to the hand-to-mouth existence of the sharecropper by his father’s death when he was 11, and soon thereafter he had to drop out of school to help with the farm work. As a teenager Arnold worked as a driver for a funeral home, but he took up singing and guitar on the side, entertaining at dances and other gatherings.
Hitchhiking to Jackson, Tennessee, at the age of 18, Arnold began appearing on WTJS radio. (He had talked his way into an audition by buttonholing a salesman from the newspaper that owned the radio station.) He then worked for a time as an entertainer in Memphis and St. Louis. His breakthrough into the center of the country music business came in 1940 when he was hired as a vocalist by Pee Wee King and His Golden
For the Record…
Born May 15, 1918, near Henderson, TN; married wife Sally, 1940; children: Richard, JoAnn.
Worked as farm laborer, c. 1929; driver for funeral home; entertained at dances and other gatherings; appeared on radio station WTJS, Jackson, TN, c. 1936; worked as entertainer in Memphis, TN, and St. Louis, MO; performed with Pee Wee King and His Golden West Cowboys, beginning in 1940; member of Grand Ole Opry cast, 1943-48; signed to RCA Victor, 1944; made numerous television appearances, 1950s; performed at Carnegie Hall, New York City, and with major symphony orchestras throughout the U.S., mid-1960s.
Awards: Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1966; named Country Music Association entertainer of the year, 1967.
Addresses: Management —Gerard W. Purcell Associates, 210 East 51st St., New York, NY 10022.
West Cowboys, stars of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and importers to the country genre of a debonair dance-music style.
In 1943 Arnold joined the Opry roster as a solo act and soon after was signed to a recording contract by RCA Victor. A 1944 session in Nashville helped inaugurate the city’s development as an important recording center. Arnold’s graceful vocal style, containing few hints of the hillbilly stereotype, was reminiscent of that of western star Gene Autry, and his recording career took off immediately. Arnold’s personal manager was Colonel Tom Parker, who later masterminded the career of Elvis Presley. Arnold’s first major hit came in 1945 with a western yodeling number, “Cattle Call,” and thereafter, chart-topping discs came in a steady sequence. In fact, until 1954 no Arnold release that made the charts would fail to crack the country Top Ten. The extremely popular “Bouquet of Roses,” from 1947, offered a harbinger of further movement in the direction of pop.
Alone among country singers, Arnold made appearances on the leading television shows of the 1950s, including those of Arthur Godfrey and Milton Berle. (His many commitments had forced him to drop his membership in the Opry cast in 1948.) But his popularity took a slight dip with the advent of the rock and roll revolution in 1955 and 1956. The next year, guitarist and producer Chet Atkins took the helm of RCA’s Nashville operations. Sensing a wide-open opportunity to appeal to a music-buying public alienated by rock and roll’s driving rhythms, he began to surround Arnold with increasingly sophisticated musical arrangements, creating a mellow pop style rooted in country music but free of its rural trappings. Arnold began appearing on stage in a black tuxedo, and his records would increasingly be backed by strings and a sweet-voiced choir. He kept to country themes in the 1959 smash “Tennessee Stud,” but the production values of that record were thoroughly molded by pop.
By the mid-1960s, the efforts of Arnold and Atkins had come to fruition: The “Nashville Sound” commanded national recognition. In 1965 Arnold topped country charts and garnered a wide pop following with singles like “What’s He Doing in My World” and the lushly escapist “Make the World Go Away.” He performed at New York City’s Carnegie Hall and began a series of appearances with major symphony orchestras around the country.
Arnold was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1966, but it was around this time that he began to encounter criticism from fans of traditional country music who believed he was straying too far from his roots. The censure intensified when he passed up the Hall of Fame award ceremony for his 1967 Country Music Association entertainer of the year honor in order to make an appearance at Los Angeles’s swank Coconut Grove nightclub. Bill Malone, author of Country Music U.S.A., confirmed that by the late 1960s, Arnold “was no longer strictly a country singer.”
Arnold, though, remained steadfastly unrepentant about the path his music had taken. “This may make the purists mad,” he ventured in Entertainment Express, “but I figure for every purist I lose, I gain five other fans who like country music the modern way.” Indeed, Arnold rightly views himself as having helped pave the way for country music’s broad acceptance and in 1974 argued in an interview with Country Music Encyclopedia author Melvin Shestack that country entertainers needed to adopt a more sober approach, reasoning, “Once we cut out the by-cracky nonsense and give respect to our music, then people will respect us.” As of the spring of 1993, Arnold continued to identify himself with the country idiom and maintained a household in the Nashville area.
Moderate chart success followed Arnold even into the 1980s, but he gradually cut back his concert appearances, devoting more time to a string of business interests and to his wife Sally, to whom he has been married for over 50 years. In an emotional 1983 appearance on a Country Music Awards show, he proclaimed his love of performing music—regardless of style. He bounced back from major heart surgery in 1990, turning to vocal exercises to rebuild his technique; as he told Country Music magazine, “You’ve gotta have a strong throat, just like a baseball pitcher’s got to have a strong arm.” In the early 1990s Arnold’s concerts still reliably topped music-business small-venue attendance tabulations, and his records persisted as top-sellers. In 1993, RCA released a double album, Last of the Love Song Singers, a combination of new and reissued material. That year found Arnold enjoying his semi-retirement, taking the time to answer all his fan mail, and deriving great satisfaction at having become the Frank Sinatra of country music, an urbane but emotional vocal stylist beloved by fans of tender singing all over the world.
The Last Word in Lonesome, RCA, 1966.
My World, RCA, 1966.
Christmas With Eddy Arnold, RCA, 1967.
Best of Eddy Arnold (includes “Cattle Call,” “Bouquet of Roses,”
“Tennessee Stud,” “What’s He Doing in My World,” and “Make the World Go Away”), RCA, 1967.
Cattle Call, Bear Family (Germany), 1983.
Greatest Hits, Curb, 1991.
You Don’t Miss a Thing, RCA, 1991.
Last of the Love Song Singers, RCA, 1993.
The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, edited by Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon, St. Martin’s, 1984.
Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., University of Texas Press, 1985.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Country Music, September/October 1990.
Entertainment Express, March/April 1990.
Los Angeles Times, July 15, 1989.
Performance, December 20, 1991.
St. Petersburg Times (FL), February 16, 1990.
TV Guide, January 20, 1968.
Union City Daily Messenger (TN), September 18, 1992.
—James M. Manheim