MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This morning one of country music's biggest stars passed away. Eddy Arnold was just shy of his 90th birthday. If you measure in terms of hit recordings, Eddy Arnold was the most successful country artist of all time. He sold 85 million records in a career that started in the Great Depression and lasted until 2005, when he released his final album.
Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN in Nashville has the story of Eddy Arnold's life and career.
CRAIG HAVIGHURST: Few recording artists have adapted an entire genre of music to their times and the changing tastes of those times as successfully as Eddy Arnold. He was the son of a Tennessee farmer, who at the outset of his career in the 1940s wore cowboy hats and sang under the influence of Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. By the late 1950s the artist who've been dubbed The Tennessee Plowboy was a tuxedo-wearing crooner in vain of Bing Crosby, recording smash hits like...
(Soundbite of song, "Make the World Go Away")
Mr. EDDY ARNOLD (Singer): (Singing) Make the world go away, and get it off my shoulder. Say the things we used to say...
Professor DON CUSIC (Belmont University): In the '60s he reached Bing Crosby's audience, and that's really what he wanted to do.
Belmont University Professor Don Cusic was Arnold's friend and biographer.
Prof. CUSIC: He came along at the time when the national sound is becoming popular, Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, putting all the strings on, trying to get crossover, appealing to the guy who'd come off the farm and moved to the suburbs and wanted to wear a sports code and not be a hillbilly.
HAVIGHURST: That could describe the arc of Arnold's career. His father lost his farm in the Great Depression, and the young singer vowed never to return to poverty. After entertaining troops during World War II, and landing on the Grand Ole Opry, he hooked up with manager Colonel Tom Parker, who would very soon take over Elvis Presley's career. Parker boosted Arnold with tricks he'd learned working carnivals, to get his artist paid by shady promoters.
Mr. ARNOLD: He said, Kid, don't hit a note until I wave to you. So he went out front and he said to the gentlemen - I won't use his name, I remember his name - but he said, Sir - said, you know, these entertainers are funny; they won't hit a note unless I wave like that. Says why don't you give me the rest of the money and I'll wave, and the show will start. And it did.
HAVIGHURST: Arnold told National Public Radio in 2005 that after he broke from Parker he built his career on his own, with hard work and retail politics.
Mr. ARNOLD: When I got into a town - in those days you had record shops that we'd call Ma and Pa record shops. I would go to that record shop and I would say hello, I would introduce myself, and I always say I'm delighted to see you and I hope you'll remember me when you're ordering your records. Remember me. I sold a lot of records that way.
(Soundbite of song "Cattle Call")
HAVIGHURST: There were many other benchmarks. Arnold became the first country artist to his own network television show. He was one of the first country artists to play the supper clubs of Las Vegas, and the songs like "Cattle Call," which became his theme song, he was able to fuse the themes of country and western music with the uptown sound that sold him to the mainstream.
[Soundbite of song "Cattle Call"]
Mr. ARNOLD: (singing) The cattle was prowling, the coyotes are howling. Way out where the doggies bawl, where spurs are a-jingling, a cowboy is singing, this lonesome cattle call.
HAVIGHURST: In 1966, when he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Arnold was still a top tier country artist. By the time he released his last recording two years ago, he could count 92 top 10 singles across five decades. Arnold's wife of 66 years, Sally, died in March. Soon after Arnold fell at his home, injured his hip and never recovered. But one friend said the real cause of death might have been a broken heart.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville