Obituary: Bobby Helms

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The Independent Online
Bobby Helms's career as a top-flight country star was in every sense meteoric. In 1957 he was named Country Singer of the Year (Male) by Cashbox magazine; by the end of the decade he was struggling to hit the heights of chart success.

Helms had struck gold with his first release on the Decca label: "Fraulein". The Lawton Williams-penned song had been inspired by a German-American girl he had worked with at a Houston radio station and had been rejected by most of the acts in Nashville before Helms cut it. Although slow to take off, it eventually topped the country charts - remaining on them for an extraordinary 52 weeks - and crossed over to the pop listings, reaching the Top Forty.

Helms followed it shortly afterwards with the slick ballad "My Special Angel". A country No 1 for four weeks, it too climbed the US pop charts, reaching the Top Ten, and even became a minor hit in Britain. He later named his youngest daughter Angel in tribute to the record.

By now heavily in demand, Helms became a regular guest on American television, appearing on both American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. At the end of 1957 he had another smash on his hands with Joe Beale and Jim Boothe's "Jingle Bell Rock". A response to J.S. Pierpoint's festive standard, it has become a mainstay of Christmas playlists and sold over a million copies within the first five years of its release. Even today is it heard regularly on the soundtrack of Christmas films and television programmes.

Helms kick-started 1958 with another Top Ten hit, "Just a Little Lonesome", and then made his movie debut alongside Darren McGavin and Warren Stevens in a now-forgotten drama, The Case Against Brooklyn. A song from the film, "Jacqueline", on which he was backed by the Anita Kerr Singers, gave him another hit and also appeared in the charts in Britain. His "Schoolboy Crush" from the same period was covered by Cliff Richard to become the flip-side of his debut single "Move It". From that point on, however, Helms's luck began to change as numbers like "New River Train" (1959) and "Lonely River Rhine" (1960) fared less well and he parted company with Decca.

As with so many country acts, Bobby Helms had started performing whilst still a youngster. Billed as "Bouncing" Bobby Helms, he and his guitarist brother Freddie had proved a popular act on the Monroe County Jamboree before moving on to the Hayloft Frolic Show out of Bloomington, Indiana. It was whilst there that he was encouraged to head to Nashville, an audition tape which was to have landed him a spot on Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree being passed by Tubb to Paul Cohen of Decca, who signed him to the label.

The exact reason for Helms's failure to remain at the top, especially after such an auspicious start, are difficult to pinpoint, but he never regained the popularity he had enjoyed during those four blazing years. He continued to record sporadically, scoring a clutch of minor hits including "He Thought He'd Die Laughing" (1967) and "So Long" (1969) for Little Darlin' Records before making his final chart appearance in 1970 with "Mary Goes 'Round" on the Certon label.

Based in Indiana, he toured both in the US and across Europe and was by now sporting a distinctive and necessary patch over his right eye. A 1983 album, Pop-A-Billy, on MCA did very little and he remained until his death a figure remembered solely for brief past glories; glories which have now been collected together by Bear Family Records and issued as a fine two-CD set.

Robert Lee Helms, singer: born Bloomington, Indiana 15 August 1933; twice married (three sons, three daughters); died Martinsville, Indiana 19 June 1997.

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