March 17, 1980 12:00 PM

Country crooner Jim Reeves’ current hit, Oh, How I Miss You Tonight, a duet with Deborah Allen, is his 71st to climb the C&W charts in a career spanning more than two decades. His wife, Mary Reeves, frequently receives phone calls from hungry composers pitching tunes, watches the fan mail for Jim pile up on her desk, and hopes someday to do a movie bio on her husband. That would seem like a good commercial possibility, considering his incredible output: 28 singles and 31 albums released with sales of some 50 million worldwide—all since July 31, 1964. That, alas, was the night Jim Reeves died, at 39, in the crash of a small plane outside Nashville.

Other artists, ranging from Hank Williams and Patsy Cline to Jim Croce, have had hits from the grave, but only Reeves’ music has had such lasting commercial impact. His posthumous durability is the result of shrewd control over a batch of master tapes by widow Mary, now 51. Explains singer Eddy Arnold (who helped locate and identify Reeves’ body at the crash site): “Jim had a large backlog of un-released material, which was unusual in this business. He liked to hear what something sounded like, so he and his band would put it on tape.” That treasure has kept one of country’s most beloved and honey-smooth voices close to his loyal fans. “A lot of people,” his widow notes, “think Jim is still alive.”

When Mary White met Reeves 35 years ago, he was a minor league baseball player and worked in a Firestone Tire plant off-season. Two years later an injury finished him as a pitcher, and they were married. Mary quit her job at Woolworth’s (“When you married then, you didn’t think about a career”), and Jim began as a disc jockey and occasional singer at a string of Texas radio stations. Mary recalls thinking that “country music was just for home entertaining. I grew up listening to piano recitals, choirs and symphony orchestras. I didn’t know what Billboard or the Grand Ole Opry was.”

His first single, Wagonload of Love, bombed. But his second, Mexican Joe in 1953, rose to No. 1, and when Reeves quit his radio job to tour, Mary joined him. “I realized he needed someone to take care of him,” she says. So she became his manager, agent and secretary. (They were never able to have children and decided against adoption.)

Jim and Mary settled in Nashville, where Jim signed with the Opry and began his long skein of hits like He’ll Have to Go, Am I Losing You?, Four Walls and Blue Boy (the name of his backup group). Foreshadowing the most significant change in country music in the 70s, Reeves removed pedal steel and fiddle parts from his sound and “crossed over” into the massive “pop” field here and abroad. He was becoming one of Nashville’s early international stars (he even shot a movie in South Africa, Kimberly Jim) when a single-engine Beechcraft returning him home went down in a heavy rainstorm.

“Everybody thought Jim was very wealthy,” says Mary. “He wasn’t—the IRS took the actual cash and assets. I was left with the corporation and his music. My choices were to fold or go on. There were a thousand things to do. I didn’t have a chance to stop.” She convinced RCA not to squander Reeves’ legacy on a one-shot memorial LP but to dole it out, a single at a time. Each album usually included selected oldies plus one of Jim’s unreleased songs. It was a winning strategy that has reaped No. 1 hits from Sweden to Kenya and annual worldwide sales of one million LPs, singles and tapes. “I have a good product,” says Mary.

Her new life has included marriage to film producer Terry Davis 10 years ago. They live in the tan brick house she and Jim built. The rooms are full of Reeves memorabilia, and the singer’s old touring bus sits in the front yard. Terry, 48, doesn’t mind, observing: “Mary recognizes Jim in two capacities—as a former husband and as an artist. The husband is dead, but the artist lives on. She is promoting a great talent and might be called the ‘artist surrogate.’ ”

Davis, an ex-real estate agent, recently produced H.O.T.S., a sexier sorority variation on Animal House. Though Mary is interested in films, she’s sticking for now to Music Row. “I’m not finished yet with Jim’s career,” she says. Indeed, to satisfy ever-rising demand for Reeves’ live and studio material, Mary has hired former Blue Boy Bud Logan to electronically strip previously released tunes of all tracks except for Reeves’ timelessly affecting voice. Then Logan lays in contemporary instrumentation and, as on the Miss You Tonight hit, even a female vocalist.

One beneficiary has been Deborah Allen, 26, a Memphis belle plucked from backup singer obscurity to harmonize with a man who died when she was 10. Says Allen (who has parlayed her “collaboration” with Reeves into a solo contract with Capitol): “I didn’t think singing with Jim was strange until I started When Two Worlds Collide. Then I thought, golly, two worlds really are colliding.”

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