Aug. 29, 1927 - June 21, 2014
Jimmy Yves Newman, known to Grand Ole Opry fans as Jimmy C. Newman, died June 21. He was 86, and suffered from cancer.
For more than 50 years, Mr. Newman was a mainstay on the Opry, where he performed rollicking, Cajun-inflected songs such as "Alligator Man" and "Bayou Talk." He added the "C" to his stage name in the early 1960s, saying that it stood for "Cajun," and he took pride in his designation as the first Cajun artist to join the Opry. His first Top 10 country hit, "Cry, Cry, Darling," came 60 years ago, in the summer of 1954.
"His role became the Cajun fellow at the Opry, and that's great," says Opry member Marty Stuart. "But if you go back to his 1950s recordings of 'Cry, Cry, Darling' and 'Seasons Of My Heart,' you'll witness a country music architect at work. He was a brilliant singer, a brilliant designer of country music."
Mr. Newman was born in High Point, Louisiana, near Big Mamou, and raised in a bilingual family with parents who delighted in the cowboy sounds of Gene Autry and the country music of Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Mr. Newman's father died when he was a teenager, and he left school after six years of education, to work on a farm. During World War II, Mr. Newman worked in a defense plant as a welder's helper, and there he met an electrician and music aficionado named J.D. Miller. After Mr. Newman's recorded debut in 1946 for Modern Records, Miller determined to record Mr. Newman on his own Feature label. He did so, but without commercial success.
"I said to myself, 'I gotta write a hit song,'" Mr. Newman told author and music historian Colin Escott for the liner notes of a Bear Family album called "Bop A Hula." "So I wrote 'Cry, Cry Darling.'"
Actually, Mr. Newman collaborated with Miller on "Cry, Cry, Darling," and Miller took a recording of the song to Nashville in hopes of raising interest in Mr. Newman's strong, emotional singing. Mr. Newman re-recorded the song at Fred Rose's Nashville home on Woodmont Ave., and the song provided for Mr. Newman's first introduction to a national country music audience. "Cry, Cry, Darling" was later recorded by Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Ronnie Milsap and others.
Mr. Newman did not immediately move to Nashville. In 1954, he joined Shreveport-based radio show "The Louisiana Hayride," where he performed alongside Johnny Horton, Elvis Presley and others. The Opry beckoned in 1956, though, after Mr. Newman notched five straight Top 10 records, including the George Jones and Darrell Edwards-penned "Seasons Of My Heart." And in 1957, Mr. Newman notched his highest-charting record with "A Fallen Star," which reached #2 on the "Billboard" country chart and peaked at #23 on the pop chart.
Mr. Newman went from Dot to MGM in 1958, and to Decca in 1961. In the 1960s he recorded 16 Top 40 country hits, including 1963's "D.J. For A Day," the first country hit written by Tom Hall, who would later add a "T" to his stage name. Mr. Newman was a partner in publishing house Newkeys Music, and Hall began writing for Newkeys in 1963.
He was an important mentor to Hall, telling the future Country Music Hall of Famer that success is like a bird: If you hold it too tight, you'll kill it. If you don't hold it tight enough, it'll fly away."
Mr. Newman also offered a boost to talented teenager Dolly Parton, allowing her to take part of his allotted "Friday Night Opry" stage time in 1959 so that she could make her debut on the show. And he helped Louisiana-reared hit-maker Eddy Raven to a publishing deal in the 1970s, and he gave a gleaming yellow stage suit to a scuffling young Marty Stuart so that Stuart could look like a bandleader. That suit was one of the first pieces in Stuart's collection of country memorabilia, a collection that is now museum-quality.
Some of Mr. Newman's early recordings were Cajun-shaded, most notably his 1954 take on Miller's "Diggy Liggy Lo," but most of the material he recorded early on was of the honky-tonk variety. The French Arcadian-sounding "Alligator Man" hit the Top 40 in 1962, though, and Mr. Newman recognized that a "Cajun Country" blend would set him apart from the competition and honor his roots.
In 1963, he recorded "Folk Songs of the Bayou Country," with fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux and accordionist Shorty LeBlanc, and he sung some of that album's lyrics in French. From that point, Mr. Newman took care to include Cajun music in his concerts, and to hold high his Louisiana heritage. In 2009, Mr. Newman was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, an honor that followed by five years his induction into the Cajun Music Hall of Fame.
Mr. Newman's final Top 10 country hits came in 1965 and 1966, with two Tom T. Hall songs, "Artificial Rose" and "Back Pocket Money." But he remained a formidable and popular presence on the Opry and on television. (He was frequently featured on "The Nashville Network" during that station's 1980s and '90s heyday.) His 1974 recording of "Lache Pas La Patate" sold more than 200,000 copies in Canada, and his 1991 "Alligator Man" album with his band, Cajun Country, received a Grammy nomination.
Mr. Newman, by all accounts, knew how to hold success. Never a chart dynamo, he was a steadily entertaining personality for a majority of country music's commercial life and a spice of life for more than a half-century on the Opry. He was a devoted husband to Mae Newman: Their marriage lasted more than 60 years. He was a cultural ambassador for southeastern Louisiana, and a kind and gracious presence offstage. And he was a smiling, engaging performer to the end. His final Opry performance came on Friday, June 6.
Sunday morning, Stuart recalled a new-century day at Mr. Newman's Rutherford County ranch, Singing Hills.
"He leaned up by his porch steps, under a tree, and started singing songs from his childhood, as the sun was going down," Stuart says. "It was so pure, and it offered me a glimpse into how country music really was for guys like him, from the farms and the bayous and fields and plains, who had it in their heart before they brought it here to Nashville."