On his 99th birth anniversary on August 20, Partab Ramchand analyses why Jim Reeves continues to be popular in so many countries round the world including India even though it is 58 years since he died in a plane crash
For innumerable Western music fans in India, their idea of nirvana or total bliss is to close their eyes and listen to the velvety voice of Jim Reeves. His 99th birth anniversary on August 20 would seem to be an appropriate time to remember the singer whose voice and words have touched millions of lives around the world. Among the many countries that Gentleman Jim is popular, India and Sri Lanka rank very high. Outside of the US where he was born, Reeves enjoys unprecedented popularity in South Africa among Western singers but perhaps it would not be wrong to say that India and Sri Lanka are perhaps next on the list.
Indeed, it is reckoned that Reeves is probably the all-time most popular English language singer in the island nation but his overall popularity in India too cannot be far behind. I well remember how in the 1960s and early 70s when the Listener’s Choice programme over All India Radio Madras on Saturday nights was incomplete without numerous requests for a Jim Reeves song. I suppose the same was the case with Western music programmes all over the country.
In Madras that is Chennai I have attended numerous Jim Reeves Nites over the years where either on his birthday or on his death anniversary events are held to keep the peerless singer’s memory alive with a medley of his super hits. Either clones of Jim Reeves belt out his melodious numbers or, even better, the originals are played on the soundtrack and, as I said, this is the ultimate in meaningful, sublime entertainment.
Of course, when it comes to Reeves the entertainment is very different from what constitutes entertainment today. There are no computer graphics, no laser lights, no razzle-dazzle, no fog lights or other special effects. Gentleman Jim holds centre stage with his mellow voice, tuneful guitar and expressive words. In many ways, Reeves is the Mukesh of the West for his songs are almost always emotional. He has either lost the girl he loved, or is a victim of unrequited love or has been unjustly treated by the girl who has ditched him.
Put like that it would appear that there is a lot of melancholy about Reeves’ songs. Be that as it may, he is able to convey the hurt through his rich baritone and apt usage of words. In his numbers, the music stays in the background; it is the voice and words that are of utmost importance.
In India, Reeves continues to enjoy immense popularity nearly 60 years after his death. Among the Anglo-Indian Community, there is no function or event that does not feature a song or two by Reeves. But, of course, the following he enjoys is not restricted to one or two communities. His music transcends all this and Western music followers from a broad section of society have remained his fans in some cases for nearly 70 years since his first big hit Mexican Joe was recorded in the mid-Fifties.
Our most humdrum days are best enriched by the voice of Jim Reeves. There is no question of swaying or dancing or doing a little jig when it comes to a Reeves number. You are just lost in the melody of that rich voice and the meaningful words and transported to an ethereal world as it were. And there are so many gems that one just does not know where to start and where to finish. His most famous numbers include Guilty, Distant Drums, I Love You Because, Am I losing You, He’ll Have To Go, Adios Amigo, and Golden Memories And Silver Tears, but then one can also be mesmerised by hits like Four Walls, One Dozen Roses, Snowflakes, Rosa Rio, Heartbreak In Silhouette, Welcome To My World and In The Misty Moonlight. The list is really quite endless and there are some breezy numbers too like Bimbo and Billy Bayou.
The voice of Jim Reeves is ideally suited for gospel numbers and at Easter or Christmas there is nothing better than to sit back, close your eyes and listen to his songs sung in praise of the Lord. Among his gospel numbers the best include the likes of May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You, Mary’s Little Boy Child, This World Is Not My Home, and Take My Hand Precious Lord. In fact, his versatility knows no bounds and he is at home while rendering Blues numbers as well as gospel songs though he is best remembered for his country Western songs for which he figures in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Reeves’ words mirror life and touches us all for the truisms he utters we have all been through. In What’s In It For Me, when he sings “Why I do I dream of you, when I am just dreaming of what used to be, there’s no future in the past, so what’s in it for me”, the line “there is no future in the past” besides being very subtle is something we have come to believe in as one of the truisms of life. Similarly in Golden Memories And Silver Tears, after he has loved and lost the girl, he sings “oh memory of love, bringing me pain, oh how sad to love, and love all in vain”. And there is something that tugs at our heart for who among us has not been through this feeling?
The ultimate tribute to Gentleman Jim is that his fan base keeps growing and even those who were not born when he died in a plane crash three weeks before his 41st birthday keep humming or singing his songs – thanks to YouTube and other music channels – enraptured as they are by the twin qualities that made him an endearing artist – the mellifluous voice and the meaningful words.
July – September 2022