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Sonny James, 87, legendary singer of No. 1 country hits

NASHVILLE — Country singer Sonny James, who recorded romantic ballads such as ‘‘Young Love’’ and turned pop songs into country hits, died Monday at a Nashville hospice. He was 87.

The singer, born James Loden in Hackleburg, Ala., was known as the ‘‘Southern Gentleman’’ because of his gentle, respectable demeanor. He was also a songwriter as well as a guitarist and fiddler. He started his music career in his family’s band with his parents and his sister, Thelma. Before he reached high school age, he already had performed on several country music radio shows.

As Mr. James started a solo career, a Capitol producer suggested he use a combination of his nickname, ‘‘Sonny Boy,’’ with his first name as his professional name.

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In 1956, Mr. James scored his biggest hit, ‘‘Young Love,’’ which sold 3 million copies and became a No. 1 hit on the country and pop charts. A decade later, he started an impressive run on top of the country charts with 16 No. 1 songs between 1967 and 1971.

Other hits included ‘‘It’s the Little Things,’’ “You’re the Only World I Know,’’ “I’ll Never Find Another You,’’ “Empty Arms,’’ “That’s Why I Love You Like I Do,’’ and ‘‘Here Comes Honey Again.’’

‘‘Sonny James was one of country music’s greatest. He was a true gentleman and made some of the greatest country music records of all times, certainly some of my favorites,’’ singer Dolly Parton said.

‘‘Sonny made country music more commercial,’’ said Gary Robble, lead singer of Mr. James’s backing band, the Southern Gentlemen. ‘‘He wasn’t trying to. He was singing what he enjoyed singing.’’