Jim Reeves would have celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday, had his plane not crashed on that fateful 31st day of July, 1964, just 20 days short of his 41st birthday. He was deeply mourned by those who knew him, personally and through his legacy of some 38 albums, 17 of which were released posthumously by his widow, Mary Reeves, who combined unreleased tracks with re-recorded previous releases by mixing updated instrumentals alongside Jim Reeves’ original vocals.
Driving home from church yesterday with our own balladeer extraordinaire Pu L.Keivom, I mentioned that 20th August was Jim Reeves’ birth anniversary. His mind went back instantly to that day 42 years ago when, as a student in Gauhati University, he heard about Jim Reeves’ untimely death. Pu Keivom told me that he skipped dinner that day, to mourn the passing away of one of the greatest voices of the last century.
So, who was this man who, more than half a century ago, captured the imagination and hearts of a whole generation in faraway NE India? It was a time when, just before my generation was born, our people and society found themselves at the crossroads, the future before them. There was hope in the air as our first graduates and future leaders returned home from far-off places such as Gauhati, Calcutta, Allahabad and even the UK and USA, having completed their studies. I imagine them in my mind – bright, starry-eyed, young men from our society, the first to reap the fruits of our fledgling Mission-driven education system and legacy left behind by the white missionaries. Even though rumblings of the coming implosion in our society and church may have been sensed by some of the more discerning, our people and society were still more or less organized under one umbrella and worshiped together in the same church on a Sunday morning.
Arriving into the scene after the implosion in our society and church in the late 60s and 70s, I remember listening to great bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beatles, Slade, Tony Orlando, Elvis, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and, of course, Jim Reeves, whenever we visited my grandparents both in Old Churachand (Mission Compound) and Muolvaiphei. In Lamka, old timers like the late Pu Jeff Biekthang, Pu Mawia Khawlum were busy playing their adaptation of the Beatles’ ‘Obladi-Oblada’ which went ‘In rock shoes, beatles shoes hai bun raw…..boys, kawng bawng rakin inher raw…’ Much to my loss, I never had the privilege of hearing them live. I was still too young – but I remember this particular song being sung by those who were a little older than us. If I’m not mistaken, it was also recorded by AIR Imphal and used to be played on the Hmar Programme on radio.
On the gospel music scene, my uncles were at the height of their own popularity as members of the ‘Mission Compound Quartet’. I remember preening with pride whenever people commented on how good their voices blended together. Songs like ‘On the Jericho Road’, ‘Lily of the Valley’, come to mind whenever I think of that era. This may not be true of everyone of that era, but in the privileged circle of western music lovers that I was a part of during my wonder years, thanks to my music loving extended family from both my parents’ sides, country legends like Skeeter Davis, Freddy Fender, et al formed a big part of our lives. I remember upcoming young stars like Olivia Newton-John on whose ‘Banks of the Ohio’ I learned to play the guitar. Unfortunately, my guitar playing ability never progressed beyond that particular song which, by the way, could be played just by interchanging three chords.
Above and beyond all these great singers, was Jim Reeves. His 1962 gospel classic ‘We Thank Thee’ remains THE gospel album of all time to me, and, I’m sure to each and every one of us from that era. To hear him croon ‘Never Grow Old’, ‘Across The Bridge’, ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’, ‘This World Is Not My Home’ is to be transported to another world and, perhaps, the closest one can come to experiencing real heaven on earth. His 1963 Christmas album, ‘Twelve Songs of Christmas’ which include perennial favourites like ‘Silver Bells’, Blue Christmas’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘An Old Christmas Card’ also remains THE Christmas album for me. I don’t remember any Christmas when I’ve not listened to this classic. To a great extent, the album defines the spirit of Christmas for me. From ‘…silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city….soon it will be Christmas Day’ (Silver Bells), to ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ and ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ Christmas would simply be not Christmas without this great Jim Reeves album.
His warm, velvety, rich and light baritone voice immediately transported you to another world where you either pined for a lost love or reveled in the warm embrace of a loved one. Poignancy is redefined when one hears ‘I Missed Me’, ‘Rosa Rio’, ‘Is It Really Over’, ‘Distant Drums’ while one experiences what warm, everlasting and true love should be when one hears ‘I Love You Because’, ‘Anna Marie’, ‘I Won’t Forget You’ or ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’. Then there are songs like ‘Bimbo’, ‘Mexican Joe’, ‘Yonder Comes a Sucker’ which transport you to a world of innocence and light-hearted banter. That he was a part of our lives was amply demonstrated by the fact that no wedding was complete without Jim Reeves being played on the PA system. In fact, if someone asked ‘When will you be playing Jim Reeves?’, it meant ‘When are you going to get married’. Seventeen years, two months and twelve days ago, we played our Jim Reeves. I still have the ‘Hitachi’ cassette in which I recorded the songs we played that Day. Though it remains a treasured part of my music collection, I don’t play it anymore. My Jim Reeves now does his stuff from CDs I’ve collected through the years.
So, here’s to Gentleman Jim. Happy Birthday, wherever you are. Forty two years after you left us, the world you created remains, and I thank you for welcoming me into that world.
Delhi, 21 Aug 2006