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Popular country singer Sonny James dies at 87

North Alabama native and popular country singer Sonny James died Monday at the age of 87.

Born James Hugh Loden in Hackleburg in neighboring Marion County May 1, 1928, James was best known for his 1956 hit “Young Love” but had 72 charted country and pop music releases from 1953-1983 and 26 No. 1 hits.

James got his start in the music industry in the group Sonny Loden and the Southerners, a group comprising his parents, biological sister and adopted sister that performed on radio programs and in theaters around the South.

He later moved to Nashville to pursue a music career, where he found success as the “Southern Gentleman,” a nickname many said he embodied both on and off the stage.

James was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. He also received the Career Achievement Award from the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame and Country Radio Broadcasters, Inc. in 2002; was named the Male Artist of the Decade for the 1960s and 1970s by Record World; and was the first country music recording artist to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But even after receiving so much recognition and so many accolades in the music industry, James never forgot his North Alabama roots.

After the deadly tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011, devastated his hometown and nearby Phil Campbell and East Franklin, James showed his support by participating in a benefit concert for the victims of the tornado in June 2011 at the Russellville High School Stadium.

Local musician Kerry Gilbert, who also performed at the benefit, said you could tell James still had a strong love for the area and for the people who lived here.

“I developed a love of music at a very early age,” Gilbert said. “I had always heard of Sonny James from Hackleburg, and my parents and I would ride around in the car singing, ‘Young Love,’ which was one of his biggest hits.

“I never had met Sonny until the day we played the 2011 tornado benefit for its victims. I had been very anxious leading up to that event, excited to finally get to meet one of my all-time favorite singers.

“I can honestly say that he was the epitome of the nickname given him many years ago: ‘The Southern Gentleman.’ He took his time while talking to me, and he was as sincere and kind as anyone I had ever met my entire music career.”

Gilbert said James was also encouraging while he and his band, The KGB, were onstage performing.

“I will never forget looking over to the side of our stage and seeing Mr. James smiling as big as a possum eating saw briars,” Gilbert said. “He made eye contact with me and gave me a big thumbs up, letting me know of his approval of our music. That was a very special moment – one that I’ll never forget.”

Phil Campbell Councilman Danny Brown, who was also serving on the council in 2011, said the benefit concert and those who were a part of it did a lot to lift the spirits of the affected communities.

“The concert was put together for at least a couple reasons, one of which was to give the residents of the two counties, Marion and Franklin, an opportunity to get away from the aftermath and enjoy a night of music and meeting with friends they had not had time to see since the tornado,” Brown said. “The second was to raise some money for relief for the families that had suffered so much.

“Just knowing someone like Sonny that had so many connections with the musicians and was willing to give his time and effort to help people that needed so much was uplifting and rewarding.”