At 9.15am on 21 October in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.
That autumn had seen the singles chart ruled for 5 weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.
‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas in August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.
Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.
By the early 1950s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.
Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.
As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.
In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.
On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.
Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.
So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.
To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.
On the final day of Distant Drums‘ number 1 reign, former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.
Written by: Cindy Walker
Producer: Chet Atkins
Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)
Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October
Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October