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Obituary: Mary Reeves

ONE OF the most enduring images of popular music is that of Jim Reeves, the good-natured, utterly trustworthy romantic singer who was country music's answer to Nat "King" Cole. In reality, "Gentleman Jim" was created and nurtured by Jim's wife and later widow, Mary Reeves. She wrote in Music City News in March 1966 that "he was a husband, perfection personified", but her fingers were firmly crossed at the time.

Mary Reeves was born Mary White, the last of nine children, into an impoverished family in Shelby County, Texas, in 1929. Before she was 10, their cabin had burnt down and her father had died, and the family moved to Marshall. She attended Marshall High School and met Jim Reeves, who was five years older, at a dance in January 1946. He played baseball professionally, but a leg injury ended his career. They were married on 3 September 1947, the day after Reeves had proposed to her. Reeves, with his friendly voice, found work as a radio announcer and made his first records in 1949.

Jim Reeves became an announcer on a national radio show devoted to country music, Louisiana Hayride, in 1952, and the following year he had his first hit with "Mexican Joe" for Abbott Records. As a way of thanking Mary for her book-keeping and scheduling, he entered her name as the composer on "Where Does a Broken Heart Go", although he had written the song himself. Reeves moved to RCA in 1955 and continued to record novelty songs. In 1957 he wanted to record "Four Walls", but his producer, Chet Atkins, told him it was "a girl's song". Mary Reeves responded, "I don't see why a man can't sing that song", and "Four Walls" established Reeves as a country balladeer.

Although Mary often accompanied Jim Reeves on tour, she knew when to make herself scarce. She told the singer Ginny Wright, "I don't like to see women messing around with Jim and I don't want to know anything about it." Jim Reeves was cited in a paternity suit but the claim was denied, which was true as he was sterile. Mary also contended with Reeves's tantrums and bad temper and a recent biography, Like a Moth to a Flame by Michael Streissguth, claims that Reeves beat her. (This, in 1998, was the first biography on Reeves because Mary Reeves did not want the truth made public.)

Jim Reeves shunned the hayseed image of country music. He dropped steel guitars and swopped country fiddles for orchestrated violins. He wore a suit for public appearances and his music was described in the industry as "countrypolitan". He scored with "Welcome To My World" (1963), "I Love You Because" (1964) and "I Won't Forget You" (1964) and years before Willie Nelson's influential Stardust, he recorded an album of standards, Moonlight and Roses (also 1964).

Jim Reeves trained as a pilot in 1963 and, once qualified, he flew as often as he could. In July 1964, he viewed some property with his pianist and manager, Dean Manuel. Although the weather was bad, he chose to return home and his plane crashed seven miles outside Nashville, killing them both instantly.

Once the mourning was over, Mary Reeves proved herself to be a tough, determined woman. She offered RCA her full co-operation providing none of their artists would cover his songs. Unissued tracks were regularly released as new singles and, indeed, Reeves had a release schedule that many living singers would envy.

Mary Reeves passed over demo recordings and even recordings made at home of his appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. Backing was added to a demo of "Distant Drums" and, in 1966, the song became his first his UK No l. Existing tracks were doctored for duets and bizarrely, two separate recordings of "Have You Ever Been Lonely" were linked to create a duet between Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline. With Mary's efforts, Jim Reeves remained on the US country charts for a further 15 years.

In 1969 Mary Reeves married a Baptist preacher, Terry Davis. She established a museum devoted to her first husband's life and often spent time talking to his fans. Many assumed he was still alive and she said in 1992, "People often call in for his autograph and ask about his itinerary." In 1994 the German label, Bear Family, issued a 16-CD boxed set, The Complete Recordings, but, by then, through ill-health, she had lost the inclination to promote his work. Indeed, the annual record royalties in the 1990s have only been around $300,000.

In 1996, Mary Reeves was living with 200 cats on a dilapidated farm. She was moved to a rest home and Terry Davis was given power of attorney. Immediately, he negotiated the sale of her assets including the rights to market Jim Reeves's name for $7m. They were bought by a fairground operator, Ed Gregory, and the sale has been disputed by Reeves's relations ever since.

Mary Reeves lost all interest in life because of the controversy. Whoever wins the rights has an opportunity to make millions. One hopes they will be marketed with a proper appreciation of Jim Reeves's legacy.

Spencer Leigh

Mary Elizabeth White: born Teneha, Texas 1929: married 1947 Jim Reeves (died 1964), 1969 The Rev Terry Davis; died Nashville, Tennessee 11 November 1999.