From Tennessee Plowboy to Sophisticated Crooner
Thirty years ago, Eddy Arnold stood at the edge of Carnegie Hall's stage as patrons of his concert there splashed praise on him. Dressed in a tuxedo and hands clasped in gratitude, Eddy had just completed the performance of his life time -- and he lapped up the adoration like a hungry cat drinks milk. He scanned the famed New York auditorium, seeing men in ties and women in pearls. What a contrast, he might have thought, to the audiences he played twenty years before in the days of his "Tennessee Plowboy" persona.
Eddy Arnold was the biggest selling artist in country and western music, but in 1966 he was expanding the boundaries of acceptability in Nashville and finding a whole new audience in doing so. His hits "What's He Doin' In My World," "Make The World Go Away" and "I Want To Go With You" sizzled on the country and pop charts in the mid-'60s, belying his rustic presentation of the '40s and attracting "ermine" fans similar to those who watched his Carnegie Hall show. Eddy had metamorphosed from his early days as a country-hillbilly act with a sweet voice to a sophisticated middle-of-the-road crooner. The gentile style of Eddy's 1960s, highlighted by lush string arrangements and angelic background singing, carried Eddy to a prominent place in American entertainment. He found acceptance across all audiences, not just the country and western audience, and reached Sinatra-like status with his frequent television appearances and astounding chart performance. During the '60s, Eddy filled concert hall after concert hall, frequently appeared on the well-worn TV variety show circuit and had no fewer than 22 appearances on Billboard's pop charts. Eddy called it a second career, this adventure into the general audiences of America. And really it was, because anyone who saw this "new" Eddy Arnold and never saw the "old" would never believe the two were one.
Both careers, however, sprang from one man, and that one man first cried a note on May 15, 1918 on a farm outside Henderson, Tennessee. Located in the western portion of the state, Henderson was a bustling little town that had grown in fits and starts since its birth just before the Civil War. Around Henderson, few men could say they fared as well as Eddy's father, Will Arnold. Mr. Arnold had amassed over 200 acres of land that burst with cotton and timber, and he owned the best in farm accouterments. All this prosperity, however, proved tenuous. Will Arnold mortgaged his farm in the 1920s to help a son from his first marriage (Will was widowed in 1905). He made a few payments toward clearing his debt, but ill health befell him, and the payments stopped. On May 15, 1929, Eddy's 11th birthday, Will Arnold died and left Eddy's mother, Georgia, and her children facing an uncertain Great Depression existence. Shortly after Will's death, the Arnold farm was auctioned off, and Eddy's family lived as tenants on land they once owned.
Circumstances, obviously, required more of Eddy's help on the farm. He set out to re-acquire farm instruments lost at auction and more often took a place behind the two-horse cultivator during planting time. He feared working on somebody else's land for the rest of his life, and found less and less time for studies. He dropped out of school after the 9th grade.
For Eddy, solace often came from watching Gene Autry movies and strumming an old guitar that he borrowed from a cousin. Eddy had banged paint cans and blew the harmonica as a youngster, but as he grew the guitar seemed to be attached to him. Friends remember seeing the guitar bouncing on Eddy's back as he walked by and say that whenever they stopped to talk to him, strumming soon followed. At church suppers, house parties and fish fries, young Eddy often showed up with his guitar and joined the fiddlers, banjoists and other guitarists who dotted the farms around Henderson. Eddy absorbed the music of those who lived around him and inhaled the records of Gene Autry, Kate Smith, the Carter Family and Bing Crosby. His vocal styling would come to mirror the smooth, urbane approach of both Crosby and Autry.
Then I Turned And Walked Slowly Away
Before Eddy put up his school books, he had represented his classmates on radio station WTJS in Jackson, Tennessee -- a mid-sized city north of Henderson. The station occasionally asked schools to send musical talent, and Eddy, who often picked for the school's morning chapel time, got the nod -- he sang "If You'll Let Me Be Your Little Sweetheart." The experience stirred Eddy's dreams of a music career. So, several years later, when a man selling subscriptions to the Jackson Sun (which owned WTJS) suggested he audition for a regular gig on the station, Eddy made his move. He auditioned, and a band leader named Bill Westbrooks hired him.
At the age of 18, Eddy moved to Jackson and played with Westbrooks and the band in every hamlet in the area. However, the radio shows and live gigs paid little, so Eddy worked part-time for a funeral home. He was thinking of taking a full-time job there in late 1937 when Bill Westbrooks and the band were summoned to Memphis where bigger things, it seemed, awaited them on radio station WMPS. WMPS hired the hillbilly ensemble to appear daily on the station, but the program director there quickly became disenchanted with the band. "They just told us they didn't need us," said Eddy. "I don't think we were very good." After two weeks, WMPS fired Eddy and his compatriots. Each member scattered in his own direction. Eddy, with the group's fiddler Speedy McNatt in tow, took a St. Louis-bound bus out of Memphis in search of regular work. Speedy, ironically nicknamed for his unwillingness to get out of bed although he played a right nimble fiddle, grew up a few miles from Eddy and had joined Bill Westbrooks on Eddy's recommendation.
The two stayed with Eddy's sister who lived in St. Louis and soon copped gigs on two radio stations which, in turn, led to a rigorous schedule of live appearances. In the St. Louis of 1939, Eddy's performing skills improved with every one-nighter. He did comedy, increased his song repertoire and searched for novel ways to reach bar patrons distracted by drink and dates. Speedy, Eddy's partner in the "Tennessee Harmony Lads" (as Eddy and Speedy were known on one station), eventually tired of the hassles of big city life and headed back to the Jackson area. But Eddy persisted, and on a drive back to visit his mom in late 1939, he calculated his next move.
A Full Time Job
On that trip home, Eddy tuned into Nashville radio station WSM as he often did to listen to Pee Wee King and His Golden West Cowboys. But something was different about this particular broadcast of King's western and polka-influenced music -- his lead singer, Jack Scaggs, didn't appear. "I wrote him a letter and told him what I could do," said Eddy, "and if he was interested, I would send him a transcription. I heard from his father-in-law [Pee Wee's manager J.L. Frank] who told me to send the transcription which I did. After I sent that, they sent me a little note that said, 'come on down here.'"
"Down here" meant Nashville, and Eddy hurried over to his new employer (who soon would bring on Speedy McNatt -- again at Eddy's instigation). Pee Wee King gave Eddy his chance to sparkle. Dressed in slick cowboy outfits, Eddy and the boys rollicked through up-tempo music and served up slow waltzes that highlighted Eddy's singing style. Eddy would ultimately m.c. for Pee Wee and sang lead whenever the band broke out into a trio or quartet. And they traveled. They went as far south as Florida, and when World War II sucked millions of American boys into training camps, Pee Wee King and His Golden West Cowboys hit the road to play for them. As part of the Camel Caravan, an R.J. Reynolds-sponsored entertainment troupe, Eddy and the boys hit bases stretching from the Northeast down to Panama. "We went to seems like every military camp that existed," recalled Eddy.
By 1943, Eddy's potential as a solo artist could no longer hide among Pee Wee's band members. Nudged by his wife Sally (who he met during an extended radio job at WHAS in Louisville), Eddy approached Harry Stone, the manager of WSM, for his own spot on the station. "At this point, I had my mother and I had my wife, and I wanted to do a little better financially," said Eddy. "I knew Harry Stone really liked what I was doing. He told me two or three times when I was out with the Caravan." As Eddy figured, Stone gave Eddy a morning spot on the station and soon carved a spot for the younger singer on the fabled "Grand Ole Opry." As a solo artist, Eddy clicked. He relied heavily on soft, sentimental songs such as "Molly Darling" and "That Little Kid Sister Of Mine," and eschewed the nasal sound of other country and western artists. When the "Tennessee Plowboy," as he was dubbed by the Opry's Judge Hay, sang a song, he sang it straight. There was little embellishment -- the natural sincerity in Eddy's voice seemed to be all the song needed to capture the listeners. Eddy's band, the Tennessee Plowboys, also helped Eddy gain new fans. Speedy had joined the band behind his old friend, and Eddy also hired steel guitarist "Little" Roy Wiggins and bass player Gabe Tucker.
WSM did much to propel Eddy. In addition to exposing his voice and name to millions of listeners via the Grand Ole Opry, the station's management found him personal appearances and helped arrange a coveted recording contract with RCA Victor. According to Eddy, Harry Stone mentioned his name to a respected music publisher who, in turn, pointed Victor to the Tennessee Plowboy. But despite finally having deal with Victor, Eddy came to believe that his recording career would never leave the ground. At the time of Eddy's signing, late 1943, the industry was suffering through a musicians' strike called by union boss James Petrillo who feared that the spinning of records on juke boxes and over the radio would put instrumentalists out of business. Eddy took welding classes just in case the strike stunted his career development.
Each Minute Seems A Million Years
After a seemingly interminable wait, the strike ended in November of 1944, and Eddy recorded his first Victor session a few weeks later on December 4. With his band, he cut "Mommy Please Stay Home With Me," "Mother's Prayer," "Each Minute Seems A Million Years" and "The Cattle Call" (which would become Eddy's theme song). In the months following the session and the cessation of World War II hostilities, Eddy Arnold's first career began the simmer that would become a boil. Victor released his first single, "Mommy Please Stay Home With Me," on its folk and race label Bluebird and, because of a war-induced shortage of shellac, only pressed 85,000 copies. Fans quickly depleted the Bluebird issue, and his very next effort, "Each Minute Seems A Million Years," peaked at #5 on Billboard's country charts. Eddy's first hit ignited a string of chart toppers that, by the end of the decade, would make him the top country and western singer. In the late '40s, Eddy boasted number one success with "It's A Sin," "I'll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You In My Arms)," "Anytime," "Bouquet Of Roses" and a host of others.
Parlaying his musical achievements with the help of manager Col. Tom Parker (who would manage Elvis Presley in the '50s), Eddy became a star of radio and television. He even made two films in 1949 -- Hoedown and Feudin' Rhythm. In 1948, Eddy left the Grand Ole Opry and began a quest for more general acceptance. He wanted to be known as a great singer, not simply a great singer of country and western songs. So, Eddy's producer at RCA Victor, the legendary Steve Sholes, re-arranged the singer's recording background to include polished New York session instrumentalists and recruited sharp, Northeast song writers. By the early '50s, a jazzy, pop sound pervaded Eddy's music. With the altered sound, greatly embellished by guitarist Hank Garland, Eddy continued to score big hits like "There's Been A Change In Me" (number one for 11 weeks), "Easy On The Eyes," and "A Full Time Job."
Throughout the 1950s, Eddy moved closer to a middle-of-the-road sound, avoiding the harsher, honky-tonk style that came to dominate country music in the wake of Hank Williams. "How's The World Treating You" (which peaked at #4 on Billboard's country charts in 1953) and "I Really Don't Want To Know" (#1 in 1954) are good examples of Eddy's new direction. In 1955, Eddy re-recorded "The Cattle Call" with RCA's pop music arranger Hugo Winterhalter, and he did a series of duets with pop singer Jaye P. Morgan in 1956 (the session produced "Mutual Admiration Society" -- #47 on Billboard's pop charts in '56). Unfortunately for Eddy, however, the middle-of-the-road sound he courted in the 1950s proved less and less to be the pop music of the era. The youth of America increasingly made up a larger portion of the record buying market, and their music style of choice was rock and roll. Like many pop singers and country artists, Eddy took a back seat to rock.
His career veered toward a downward path, and during the late '50s and early '60s, he could not approach his 1940s glory. In 1958, he failed to touch any chart. One of his only memorable hits from the time was "Tennessee Stud" of 1959 (#5 on the Billboard country charts and #47 pop).
Turn The World Around
"I still had the capacity of earning a livelihood," said Eddy of his doldrums, "but my popularity went down. I kept working some. . .[but] the records were not selling like they once sold. I was riding along in the car one day, wondering what I could do. The way I was making records earlier was just singing and having a guitar and a steel guitar. There's no freshness about it -- every record sounds the same. I got to thinking, 'Now wait. Why don't I take some violins and put them on my records [and] see if that don't work. . . .It did. I made a record called 'What's He Doin' In My World' there in about '65."
Actually, Eddy had employed strings on his records from time to time in the 10 years leading up to 1965 and the recording of "What's He Doin' In My World." But, up to that point, no string-laden record equaled the success of "What's He Doin' In My World." The song broke Eddy out of his haze and shot to number one on the country charts for a two-week stay. Eddy had not reached number one since 1955. Eddy followed his long awaited number one with another -- "Make The World Go Away" (a #24 Billboard pop hit in 1963 for Timi Yuro). There was little doubt that Eddy had returned. "Make The World Go Away" climbed to the top ten of the American and British charts and put Eddy Arnold to work again.
With the help of an enterprising new manager, Gerry Purcell, the Nashville Sound technique of producer Chet Atkins, and the lush arrangements of Bill Walker, Eddy became one of the most popular country acts of the late 1960s. After "Make The World Go Away," Eddy charted 17 country hits and all but two crossed over to the pop charts. Curiously, Eddy managed to maintain a foothold in the country arena despite his decided leanings toward a pop sound. As the '60s progressed, the Eddy Arnold fan rarely heard a steel guitar or banjo lick. It was a grand symphonic sound that carried Eddy. Eddy had rekindled his ability to sell and capitalized on his strong sales with extensive tours of America and the United Kingdom, appearances at New York's Carnegie Hall, and a regular place in front of American TV audiences.
As the 1960s became the 1970s, the country and pop market appeared to tire of Eddy's symphonic, middle-of-the-road sound. The big names in country music tended to be Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard and other singers who embraced a more Hank Williams-influenced sound. Sensing the shift in the market's taste, Eddy compromised more to country instruments. Eddy still refused to sing with an affected nasal twang (unlike many of his peers), and strings continued to appear on his records. But more frequently Eddy allowed the cry of a steel guitar or a singing electric guitar to embellish his records.
By 1973, Eddy had slowed his pace somewhat. His son had been in a serious car accident in 1971, and Eddy had scaled back his work to help rehabilitate him. As a result, he recorded less frequently and shortened his live appearance schedule. But at the age of 55, Eddy continued to have considerable stamina in reserve. In '73, he jumped from his long-time label RCA to MGM Records which was run at the time by a young Mike Curb. The new association produced nine country hits over two years, but no real smashes ("I Wish That I Had Loved You Better" was the strongest, but only hit #19 on the Billboard country chart).
Eddy was back at RCA in 1976, and with producer Owen Bradley, made his return memorable. In a song tailor-made for American's bicentennial, Eddy recorded "Cowboy" -- a song about a young boy's fantasies of the frontier. (He's trying to tame the West, but mom don't seem to understand.)The ditty hit #13 and lingered on the country charts for more than three months.
Throughout the '70s and into the '80s, Eddy continued to score country hits including "Let's Get It While The Gettin's Good" which notched a #6 position on Billboard's country chart in 1980. The string petered out, though, in 1983, and Eddy fell victim to one of country music's periodic youth movements. Eddy has not hit the charts since 1983, but he still tries. "I'd like to have one more," he said. "Then I'll go out to pasture." In the 1990s, Eddy has thus far recorded three albums worth of new material with producer (and long-time session guitarist) Harold Bradley, but nothing has charted despite the pleasing quality of the records. Yes, Eddy's voice is weathered by age, but he retains his warm baritone and the ability to add just the right phrasing to a song. Recently, he's returned to the studio with Mike Curb, and he continues to perform occasionally around the nation. With his determination to continue, it may not be surprising to see Eddy's name appear on the country charts one last time.
But Eddy, obviously, has nothing left to prove. He dominated country music in the 1940s and early '50s with a relatively rustic presentation and made a refined sound more acceptable to country music. His inventiveness also allowed him a second career on which he established a Sinatra-like presence in American pop music. Eddy Arnold accomplished his goal to be considered a great interpreter of songs, any songs.