September 15

Story of Jim Reeves’ “He’ll Have To Go” Has a Romantic Twist

Story of Jim Reeves' “He’ll Have To Go” Has a Romantic Twist 1

The song of Jim Reeves, “He’ll Have To Go” is a country and pop hit recorded on October 1959. It was released in fall and went on to become a massive hit in both genres in early 1960’s.

“He’ll Have To Go” is one of the most memorable and successful country songs. It was inspired by a husband’s telephone call to his wife. The songwriter, Joe Allison, checked in at home by phone, he was having trouble hearing some of his wife Audrey’s words.  Her soft voice simply was not carrying over the line. Joe asked her to repeat what she was saying several times. Then he instructed her to speak louder and put her mouth closer to the phone. She did, he had no more trouble hearing her voice after that.

When Joe got home that night, he found a single line written in a longhand on an otherwise blank piece of paper. He recognized the handwriting as his wife’s and as he read the sentence, he realized that it had come from their phone call: “put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone.” By changing “mouth” to “lips,” phrasing it as if two lovers were having a very intimate conversation. Audrey had begun what was to be one of the Music City’s most beloved ballads. Joe studied the solitary line, he was overcome by its direct beauty. He did not even bother asking why his wife hasn’t finished the lyrics she started, he picked up a pen and began to add his own ideas. It was amazing, Joe finished writing the song within minutes, not only the lyrical components, but also the basic melody.

In many ways, “team songwriting” is often a strange endeavor. In this case, if Audrey hadn’t rewritten something her husband had told her, then Joe would have never been moved to compose the rest of the song’s lyrics. So, while most of the actual labor may have been him, Mrs. Allison’s inspired first line triggered everything else. Neither of them could have or would have written the song alone, but together they combined to create musical magic. The Allisons titled their new song “He’ll Have To Go.” A young artist named Billy Brown acquired “He’ll Have To Go” and was the first to record it. However, during one of the few times Billy Brown’s version of “He’ll Have To Go” ever made the airwaves, one of country music’s top stars happened to catch it on the radio.

Jim Reeves was immediately drawn to the song and wanted to record it right away, but he decided to hold off for the time being and see if the Billy Brown version would do anything. Reeves waited for about three months and Billy’s record had yet to chart (in the end, it never did), so Jim decided to go ahead and record “He’ll Have To Go.” Because Reeves believed that his voice sounded more resonant during the morning hours, he requested an earlier than normal start time for the session…9:30 AM (most sessions in those days usually took place in the afternoon or evening). On the morning of October 15, 1959, Jim was in the studios of “Little Victor” (RCA’s nickname for its Nashville operation), surrounded by a smaller group of musicians than usual because, on this particular song, Reeves wanted to showcase his vocal more prominently and feature a much less-elaborate instrumental backing, without the violins normally found on most “Nashville Sound” sessions of the day.

Jim Reeves knew that “He’ll Have To Go” was going to be “the big one” even before recording it. Somehow he just knew. He wanted the record to be absolutely perfect, and on the third take, he achieved the performance he wanted. Well, Reeves was absolutely livid about this. Both he and his producer Chet Atkins were certain that “He’ll Have To Go” would be the stronger song, but it was out of their hands and they had to go along with RCA’s management decision from the company’s New York headquarters. As it turned out though, radio programmers and disc jockeys agreed with Reeves and Atkins and they turned the record over and played “He’ll Have To Go” as if it had been the hit side all along.

1960 was “the year of the mega-hits.” Only five country singles made it to the number one position during the entire year, and “He’ll Have To Go” was one of them. It debuted on Billboard’s country singles chart on December 7, 1959, and by February, the record began a fourteen-week stay at the summit (tied with Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” for longest duration). “He’ll Have To Go” also just barely missed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, peaking at #2 for three weeks. Only four months after it was recorded, “He’ll Have To Go” surpassed the three million mark in sales, and remained on the country playlist for an amazing 34 weeks. The record then traveled overseas and topped charts in Europe, Africa, and Australia. Jim Reeves had become the biggest country music sensation in the world. Touring the globe, he was often mobbed like a rock star or movie star and was now fronting the charge in the worldwide growth of country music.

When Reeves became aware of “He’ll Have To Go” after hearing it on the radio by Billy Brown (who was to forever remain in obscurity) and decided to record the tune (but hadn’t yet done so), Jim told his associates, “This is going to be ‘the big one.’ No matter what I’ve done in the past, or ever will do, ‘He’ll Have To Go’ is going to be the one that will live on.” Well, many of his classic recordings have “lived on,” but he was essentially correct about “He’ll Have To Go.” For as long as music exists, this masterpiece will be played and enjoyed by generations to come.

Amazing story of a classic song. What do you think? Leave a comment below.



Jim Reeves

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