In 1966, some two years after Jim Reeves‘ death in a plane crash in July 1964, the song “Distant Drums” provided the singer with his only No. 1 hit in the United Kingdom – despite being released posthumously.
It remained in the UK Singles Chart for twenty-five weeks. The single also snagged the top spot on the US country chart for four weeks, making the song his most successful posthumous single.
Reeves’ Most Enduring Song of All Time
Written by American songwriter Cindy Walker, “Distant Drums” tells the tale of a young man who wants his true love – whose name is Mary – to marry him right now before the drums and bugles that he can already hear from a distance will arrive. As soon as it calls for him, he knows he will then be enlisted and forced to go off to war, and it will absolutely change their wedding day.
“I hear the sound of distant drums far away, far away. And if they call for me to come, then I must go, and you must stay. So, Mary, marry me, let’s not wait. Let’s share all the time we can before it’s too late. Love me now, for now, is all the time there may be. If you love me, Mary, Mary, marry me,” the song goes.
“Distant Drums” was first recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it was Reeves’ version that has endured over the years.
It managed to beat off stiff competition from several major artists of the day during its time at the top of the UK chart. This included The Beatles – who just got in the UK chart around the same time with their double A-sided release of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine.”
Indeed, it was an incredible achievement for a song that Reeves recorded for its composer, Cindy Walker. The song was actually under the impression that it was for Walker’s private use only. It was even earlier dismissed by both the RCA record company and the noted guitarist and record producer working with Reeves, Chet Atkins, as unsuitable for wider public release.
This explained why the original recording of the song came with a lower than usual sound quality. However, subsequent to Reeves’ death, the track was overdubbed with an orchestral backing before it was released to the public.
The timing of the song’s release may have helped too! “Distant Drums” attracted attention to the persistent hostilities in the Vietnam War at that time. It also increased public awareness, not only in the United Kingdom but as well as in the United States, of the challenging conditions faced by United States armed personnel fighting in that conflict.
So, it was no longer a surprise when “Distant Drums” was named the UK’s Song Of The Year in 1966. You can listen to it below.