Country singer Sonny James, who recorded romantic ballads including "Young Love" and turned pop songs into country hits, has died. He was 87.
James died Monday in a Nashville hospice facility, according to a family friend, Gary Robble, who was the lead singer of James' backing band, the Southern Gentlemen.
His death was attributed to natural causes, according to a statement released on his website.
Born James Hugh Loden in rural Hackleburg, Ala., he was performing by age 4 with his parents and his older sister, Thelma, as the Loden Family. By the time he was a teenager, he had mastered the guitar and fiddle and had won several fiddle championships. Before he reached high school age, he already had performed on several country music radio shows. In the 1950s, he made solo appearances on radio shows such as "Louisiana Hayride" and the "Big D Jamboree."
After military service in Korea, James started working with guitarist Chet Atkins, who introduced him to Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson. Nelson suggested that James use a combination of his nickname, "Sonny Boy," with his first name as his professional name.
In 1957, he scored big with "Young Love," which sold 3 million copies and reached the top of the country and pop charts.
James, whose gracious, unassuming manner earned him the nickname "Southern Gentleman," spent several years searching for another hit. In 1963, he bounced back with "The Minute You're Gone" and became a fixture on the country charts for the next decade. Between 1967 and 1971, he had 16 consecutive No. 1 records, including "Need You" (1967), "Heaven Says Hello" (1968), "Running Bear" (1969) and "Here Comes Honey Again" (1971).
Robble said James invited the Southern Gentlemen to record and tour with him during this period, which created a vocal-driven sound based on hit songs from the R&B and pop genre. Some of his popular covers included "Since I Met You Baby," "Endlessly," "It's Just a Matter of Time," "Only the Lonely" and "Only Love Can Break a Heart."
"Sonny made country music more commercial," Robble said. "He wasn't trying to. He was singing what he enjoyed singing."
James was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
In the 1960s, he made several motion pictures, including "Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar," "Las Vegas Hillbillies" (with Jayne Mansfield) and "Hillbilly in a Haunted House" (with Basil Rathbone and Lon Chaney Jr.). He then went on to produce Marie Osmond's first records, including her biggest country hit, "Paper Roses."
Osmond tweeted, "Country Music Hall of Famer, producer & lifelong friend #SonnyJames. U will be missed! #RIP." She included a video link to James performing "Young Love" on the "Donny & Marie" show in the 1970s.
James was the first cohost of the Country Music Assn. Awards show with Bobbie Gentry in 1976.
He recorded some pioneering albums: "200 Years of Country Music" in 1976 chronicled country music and took more than a year to plan, research and record. "Sonny James In Prison, In Person" was recorded in 1977 with inmates at the Tennessee State Prison, while "The Astrodome Presents the Southern Gentlemen" in 1969 was the first live album recorded there. His "Little Bit South of Saskatoon," which he wrote, was used as theme music for the movie "Slap Shot" starring Paul Newman.
He retired in the mid-1980s, because of vocal issues, according to Robble. He is survived by his wife, Doris.
"With immense admiration we say thanks to this dear and beloved friend to so many," read the statement released on James' website. "No words exist to express our loss and sorrow at this time."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.