Before his untimely and tragic death in a 1964 plane crash, Jim Reeves, thanks to one of the smoothest voices ever, had become one of the biggest names in music. As a presenter on the legendary Louisiana Hayride Show Jim’s big break came when, according to some sources, he was asked to step in for a performer who was running late, the aptly named Sleepy LaBeef! As Reeves himself later remembered, however, the missing man who left the gap in the evening’s programme was none other than Hank Williams.
Either way, Jim stepped in and neither his world nor ours was ever the same again. His first number 1 on the U.S. Country charts was ‘Bimbo’ in 1954, and in 1960 he had perhaps his biggest hit, the unmistakable ‘He’ll Have To Go’, which spent an incredible 14 weeks in the number 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Among his other most well loved hits were ‘Make The World Go Away’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, both of which, in a sad twist of circumstance, were recorded during his last session for his RCA Victor label shortly before the crash that was to claim his life.
On Sunday, February 11th, in the Tullamore Court Hotel, the echo of Gentleman Jim will float tenderly through the early springtime air as another gentleman of song, Al Grant, virtually the guardian of the late Texan’s vocal legacy, so twinned are the soft, velvety tones of both men, takes to the stage to honour and remember Reeves.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Al again recently, and we began by chatting about how long Al himself had been a fan of the ‘Welcome To My World’ singer….
“I’ve been a fan of Jim Reeves since I was 14 or 15 years old. And I was 16 when he was killed. That’s over 50 years ago now, so you can work out how old I am! [laughs]. But all my life basically, I’ve been a Jim Reeves fan. I first heard him, unknown to me, when I was about 7 or 8 years old. When I was that age we had a programme over here [in Scotland] on a Saturday called ‘Children’s Favorites’, and there was one song that was always played every week, and that was ‘Bimbo.’ And I loved this song about Bimbo, the little boy. But at that age, of course, I didn’t realise that it was Jim Reeves that was singing it. To me, it was just a guy singing a song. But later on, when I was 14, 15, my mother, who was a huge fan of Jim Reeves too, she said to me one night when I came in,’I heard this fantastic singer on the radio today and I wrote down his name and the name of the song.’ And it was Jim Reeves singing ‘He’ll Have To Go.’ And I’ve been a fan ever since, to be quite honest.”
So when and how did the idea of a tribute show start to take shape?
“Well it all kicked off about 10 or 12 years ago, if not a little bit before that. I was always a part of Isla’s show (Al, in case you didn’t know, is one half of what might well be country’s closest thing to a royal couple, married as he is to the wonderful singer/songwriter, Isla Grant!), of course, playing in her band. And I used to do a couple of songs too, so I’d do a couple of Jim Reeves songs. And unknown to me, there was such a lot of Jim Reeves fans in Ireland. So the record company that Isla was with at the time said look, we want you to go into the studio and do an album, maybe a couple. And then it all came together from there. Tom Kelly put together a Jim Reeves tour.”
Given that it’s been so long since he left us, what does Al think it is about Reeves and his music that still has such a strong hold on peoples’ affections, over half a century later now?
“You know something,I don’t know! He obviously had something very special. And there was, there was something very special about his voice. It sort of drew you to it, you know. It felt as if he was singing just to you. Like he was always singing in a one-to-one situation. I think the songs as well, because he had such powerful songs. Songs that ordinary people could relate to. And I guess no matter where you go in the world, basically people are the same. They think the same way, for the most part, and feel the same way. Life means the same things to everybody no matter where you are. Jim had a very, very special gift for bringing that across.”
Something that jumps off the stage during any Isla show is the fantastic rapport between she and Al, and indeed, between both and Glen Flynn, also. How much of that, I asked, stems from the fact that Al and Isla obviously have a brilliant relationship, and how much from a stagecraft point of view, in knowing what makes a show ‘work’ well for the audience?
“What we do on stage is just what we do in life, believe it or not. That’s just how we are. We never rehearse that part of our shows or anything like that. What goes on between Isla and myself is absolutely off the cuff. In fact, it wouldn’t work, I don’t think, if we did try to script it or put it together in a formal sort of way.”
When it comes to songs, are he and Isla similar in what they like?
“Well we both have a fairly wide spectrum of music likes, but we do tend to like the same things. Obviously we love country music and Irish music because that’s what we were brought up with. Our parents would have played that type of music. It sort of got into our systems that way, I suppose. Isla and I are huge fans of Celine Dion too, she’s just a fantastic vocalist and a fantastic artist. Our loves musically go right through jazz, folk, country. We’re not so keen on the modern day stuff now [pop, chart], but that’s because we don’t really understand it, I suppose.”
Al suffered a ‘wee’ bit of a health scare back towards the end of the 90’s, but he’s bounced back stronger than ever.
“Yeah, I had a heart attack in 1998, Anthony, and I went through a triple by-pass in the year 2000. But since then I’ve really got back on my feet. I was in Australia just 10 weeks after my operation on my heart and I’ve never stopped since! I’ve been all around the world, the last 14 years have been absolutely fantastic.”
What is it about the performer’s life that makes it so hard to step back from, even after going through such scares?
“Well ….I think the music business is a little bit like a drug! [laughs]. Both Isla and myself get a huge buzz from what we do. From being on-stage, entertaining people, meeting people after a show, all of that. And do you know what? We love to work with Glen Flynn too! Glen has been with us now for nearly 16 years, I think it is. He keeps us young and he’s like a son to us, really. And we have 3 sons that are about the age of Glen, a little bit younger maybe. But Glen has become like another son to us. And it’s fantastic because it’s like going on tour with family! Glen and I have great craic, he keeps things buzzing all the time. He’s a diamond. We couldn’t put into words how highly we think of him.”
Before parting, I had a to ask a man with Al’s experience and wisdom-of-the-road what words of advice he’d think most important to pass onto anyone already in, or thinking of, a future in the music business.
“It’s a very hard business, you need to know that from the start. To achieve success you have to keep at it. And it’s tough sometimes because you get a hell of a lot of knocks along the way. But I’d say this: get a good manager who has your interests at heart and who you can trust. Then put your trust in that person. Listen to what they say, do what they say and hopefully, everything will fall into place.”
* Al brings his tribute to Jim Reeves to the Tullamore Court Hotel, on Sunday 11th February. Tickets are available from hotel reception.
** Albums by Al and Isla Grant, and by Jim Reeves, are available now or upon request in TRAX, the Bridge Centre, Tullamore.