Not Elvis, Sinatra, Nor Beatles: Jim Reeves Is The Biggest Western Singer In South India And Sri Lanka

on September 04 2013 5:59 AM

If country-and-western singer and songwriter Jim Reeves is remembered at all by the casual music fan in the U.S., his remaining admirers are likely quite elderly by now or form part of a small coterie of musicologists with a passion for the genre.

Known as “Gentleman Jim,” Reeves was born in East Texas near the Louisiana border 90 years ago and died tragically in a plane crash in 1964 at the age of 40. Reeves' recording career spanned the 1950s and early 1960s, yielding hits like "I love You Because," “Four Walls,” “Welcome to My World," "Am I Losing You?," "Make the World Go Away," and perhaps his most famous and signature tune, "He'll Have to Go." Reeves' records continued to sell well after his death – in 1966, he even scored a huge No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom called “Distant Drums” that even knocked The Beatles (then at the very peak of their fame and popularity) from the top of the charts.

While his deep, rich baritone voice attracted millions of fans in the U.S. during his heyday, Reeves probably generated more excitement overseas, particularly in Britain, Ireland, Norway and South Africa. Moreover, in a fact that may surprise Westerners, Reeves has achieved iconic pop culture status in a part of the world he never visited nor probably even thought much about – India and Sri Lanka, places light years removed from the East Texas community that spawned him. Indeed, in South Asia, Reeves attained a fame that rivaled -- perhaps even exceeded – that of the three biggest Western pop stars of that period, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and The Beatles.

Not only did ordinary people in the subcontinent swoon over Reeves' velvety soft voice, but even some prominent spiritual figures fell under his sway. Indeed, Merwan Sheriar Irani, better known as “Meher Baba,” the famous Indian mystic, greatly admired Reeve's music. Baba's most renowned disciple, Pete Townshend, even recorded Reeves’ "There's a Heartache Following Me" on his 1972 solo album, “Who Came First” -- more as a tribute to Baba than to Reeves himself. According to a blog titled "Meher Baba's Words," the spiritual leader also loved Reeves' "Welcome to My World," which he played on a turntable repeatedly, even mouthing the lyrics. “Baba said that Jim Reeves' voice was full of spiritual power and love,” Townshend once remarked. “I listened to him sing this song and had to agree.”

In addition, Robert Svoboda, an American author and expert on Hinduism and Ayurvedic medicine, said that a Hindu ascetic guru, the Aghori Vimalananda, was so enamored with Reeves that he regarded the Texas cowboy as a “gandharva,” a skilled singer, and even a “heavenly” being. Svoboda claimed that one of Reeves' most moving gospel songs, "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," was played during Vimalanda's cremation ceremony.

Rahul Moghe, an Indian fan of Reeves, spoke for many of his fellow countrymen when he wrote on an online tribute commemorating the 35th anniversary of the singer's passing: “Jim Reeves has been our family's favorite artist, and we all sit together to listen to his songs. … I now have a pretty big collection of his, and try to promote his music among friends and relatives. I do not think there's going to be another artist like Jim Reeves. I only wish he was still around.”

Majella Fernando, a Sri Lankan living in Dubai, gushed: “I thank God for Jim Reeves and the music he has given the world. He died before I was born, but he is as alive to me as when he was living in this world. I always feel so inspired by him and the goodness that flows through him. I am sure he is in Heaven singing with all the choirs there.” Leo J. Fernando of Madras (Chennai), India, called Reeves the “greatest singer who ever lived ” and characterized his voice as “pure as a crystal and soft as velvet.” Similarly, Sri Lankan Brandon Rozairo praised Reeves as “the greatest, warmest entertainer who ever performed.” In South India, which has a significant Christian population, Reeves’ Christmas songs are enormously popular during the holidays.

South Asians have even adopted a very Western approach to remembering their long-deceased icon – as Elvis Presley- impersonators have proliferated from Las Vegas to London over the past three decades or so, singers impersonating Jim Reeves also ply their trade on the subcontinent. For instance, in the summer of 2009, to honor the 45th anniversary of Reeves' death, the members of the Mangalore Ladies' Club – on the southwestern coast of India – held a charity concert where a man named Max Karkada sang Reeves' songs in front of a band. The annual concert series has become so popular that it draws musicians and Reeves’ fans from across the Karnataka region and elsewhere.

Karkada was probably the most prominent Reeves imitator in India – widely admired for his near-perfect imitation of his idol. A fan of Karkada/Reeves named Richie Lasrado told Indian media: "Listen to [Karkada] without any prejudices and if you cannot, just close your eyes and listen, you will not be able to tell the difference." A violinist in Karkada's band summed up the passionate feelings that Reeves inspired in India. Arun Shiri stated: "Jim Reeves' music is not just music, it is an obsession. I know hardcore Jim Reeves fans in the city who have spent half their lives listening to him.”

Indian media reported that, matching the obsession for Elvis Presley that many fans around the world have, Karkada had a similar obsession with Reeves. His home (an estate on a coconut plantation) was festooned with not only the singer’s photographs, but he had even constructed a replica of Reeve’s guitar in concrete -- which has become a destination for “pilgrims” who worship the singer. Karkada passed away in October 2010.

Ray Baker, the manager of Reeves’ estate in the U.S., is well aware of the fascination for the singer in South Asia as well as the existence of fan clubs and charity concerts there. He told the Indian news site DNA: “It is so heartening to know there are so many fans of my Jim in Mangalore and they remember him and even play a tribute every year. In the USA, his own country, there are tributes paid to him, but the tributes paid in India are special.” Oliver Rajamani, himself a musician from India who now lives and works in Austin, Texas (about 300 miles from Reeves’ hometown of Carthage), told International Business Times that he grew up listening to Reeves’ right from the cradle.

“My whole family were big fans of his,” Rajamani said. “My father had almost all of his records at a time when it was probably quite difficult to find foreign music in the 1960s and 1970s in India.” Rajamani believes that Reeves appeals to Indian sensibilities due to his “deep, strong, clean and peaceful voice.” “He had such a strong sense of command in his voice and over the phrases that he sang, that his songs were almost like hypnotic suggestions,” Rajamani noted.

Reeves’ wholesome family image and spirituality likely also holds tremendous appeal to Indians, for whom family remains the bedrock of society. “Jim was not trying to pass on [any] revolutionary messages or trying to corrupt peoples’ minds with drugs, sex, [and] rebellion,” Rajamani noted. “His music was seen as safe and soothing… I [also] believe that people did not really pay attention to his lyrics but [more so] to the haunting quality of his voice.”

Rajamani commented that even now when he plays Reeves CDs he is magically transported to the safe and happy childhood he enjoyed in India. “This is odd since I live in Texas, the birth state of Jim Reeves, yet I feel more at home with Jim's music in India,” he said. “It is quite strange since there are many who have no clue who Jim Reeves even is in the U.S.” 

Professor Bilinda Devage Nandadeva of the Faculty of Humanities at University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka suggests that Reeves was a virtual folk hero in his country, even to the point where the heroes of popular Sinhala-language novels were often Jim Reeves’ fans themselves (even humming their favorite tunes of the cowboy crooner).

Nanandeva posits a number factors behind Reeves’ popularity in South Asia, including the clarity of his pronunciation. “It is very easy for a non-native English speaker to understand what [Reeves] sings,” Nanandeva said.  “Therefore, we can understand the meaning of the song, just [like] listening to a song in one's native language.” Secondly, unlikely many pop songs that emanate from the US and UK, the voice dominates in a Reeves recording – quite similar to pop music of India. Perhaps the greatest reason for Reeves’ appeal in South Asia simply has to do with the sentimentality inherent in his tunes. “We South Asians are generally very sentimental, and hence we like sentimental music,” Nanandeva said.

Regardless of the reasons, Jim Reeves, a somewhat minor figure in modern Western pop music, is huge in India and Sri Lanka. “I can proudly say that if Jim is not as alive in his home state of Texas today, he is definitely alive in the hearts of many in India,” Rajamani concluded.

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