“Old Flames” Singer Joe Sun Passes

Joe Sun. Photo: joesunmusic.com

Joe Sun, the baritone honky-tonk singer best known for originating the country classic “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You,” has died at age 76.

Sun also introduced “What I Had With You,” which later became a big hit for John Conlee. He cowrote “I Came on Business for the King,” a signature song for gospel music’s The Hemphills.

Between 1978 and 1985, Joe Sun placed 15 titles on the country charts. He enjoyed particular popularity with European audiences.

The singer-songwriter was born James Joseph Paulson in 1943 in Rochester, Minnesota. He began dabbling in music while in high school, and this is when he first encountered fellow Minnesotan Robert Zimmerman, later to gain fame as Bob Dylan.

Sun served in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam, then tried his luck in Los Angeles. He had his first public performance and recording session there in 1966.

He returned to Minnesota to study radio broadcasting in Minneapolis. His first on-air job was in 1967 at a rock station in Key West, Florida, followed by a stint as a country DJ in Madison, Wisconsin.

While working in radio, he also began performing in nightclubs. During a stint singing in Chicago as “Jack Daniels,” he met a recording-studio manager named Brien Fisher.

Joe Sun had his first Nashville recording session in 1972. It led nowhere. Still determined to break into country music, he moved to Nashville in the fall of 1975. He initially worked as a cartoonist, and some of his drawings were published in The Tennessean. He then took a job as a record-promotion man for Hi Records.

Meanwhile, Brien Fisher had hooked up with the Chicago-based label Ovation Records. He had also moved to Music City and had signed The Kendalls to the company. The father-daughter duo (Royce and Jeannie Kendall) became Fisher’s production clients.

Brien Fisher offered Joe Sun a job in record promotion at Ovation. He knew that Sun’s ultimate ambition was to make records, himself. To compensate for the drop in salary in moving from Hi to Ovation, Fisher promised Sun that if he promoted The Kendalls onto the charts, Fisher would give him a shot as an artist.

In 1977, Sun turned The Kendalls’ “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away” into a multi-awarded, smash hit. True to his word, Fisher placed Sun on Ovation Records.

The singer’s first single was 1978’s “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You.” It became his biggest hit and was soon recorded by others. Dolly Parton turned it into a No. 1 country smash in 1980.

“Old Flames” has also been recorded by Merle Haggard, Mark Birchfield, Norma Jean, Jim Paul Blair, The Osborne Brothers and Katy Moffatt, the sister of the tune’s co-writer, Hugh Moffatt. In addition, it has been recorded by pop star Kesha, who is the daughter of Hugh’s co-writer Pebe Siebert.

Joe Sun followed that hit with another top-20 country success, “High and Dry.” Billboard named him its Best New Male Country Vocalist of 1978.

In 1979, Sun charted with “On Business for the King,” “Blue Ribbon Blues” and “I’d Rather Go on Hurtin.’” Fisher produced all of them, as well as Sun’s debut albums Old Flames and Out of Your Mind. The latter featured liner notes by Johnny Cash, who proclaimed Joe Sun, “the greatest new talent I’ve heard in 20 years.”

For 1980’s Livin’ on Honky Tonk Time,” Sun was given the unusual latitude of recording with his band, Shotgun. This move associated him with country’s “outlaw” artists. Shotgun included such future notables as Ray Flacke and Neil Flanz.

This album showcased Sun’s flowering as a songwriter with “Bottom Line,” “We’re All a Bunch of Outlaws in Our Mind” and its biggest hit, “Bombed, Boozed and Busted.” It also included covers of tunes by Dylan (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”), Hank Williams (“My Sweet Love Ain’t Around”), Delbert McClinton (“Hobo On a Freight Train to Heaven”) and Allen Reynolds (“Ready for the Times to Get Better”).

Sun toured with a wide variety of country and rock notables during this period, including Leon Russell, J.J. Cale, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He also recorded national radio ad spots for Budweiser beer and Timberline boots.

After charting with the 1980-81 singles “Out of Your Mind,” “What I Had with You” (a duet with Sheila Andrews) and “Shotgun Rider,” Sun departed Ovation for the larger Elektra Records.

Retaining Fisher as his producer, Joe Sun debuted on his new label with 1982’s I Ain’t Honky Tonkin’ No More. His charting Elektra singles were “Holed Up in Some Honky Tonk,” “You Make Me Want to Sing” and a remake of the classic “Fraulein.” Elektra also issued The Best of Joe Sun.

He next moved to AMI Records and charted with his co-written “Bad for Me” in 1984 and with Pebe Siebert’s “Why Would I Want to Forget” in 1985.

Joe Sun next landed an acting role in the acclaimed 1985 film Marie, starring Sissy Spacek, Jeff Daniels and Fred Thompson in a true story of Tennessee political corruption.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Sun toured extensively overseas, becoming particularly popular in Sweden, France and Austria. He starred in his own special on German television in 1989. He also recorded for several European labels.

He re-surfaced on disc with the 1986 CD The Sun Never Sets.

Other CDs ensued, including Twilight Zone (1988), Hank and Bogart Still Live (1989), Out on the Road (1991), Dixie and Me (1992), Some Old Memories (1993) and Diamonds in the Dust (2017).

His self-produced 1998 U.S. release Heartbreak Saloon drew particular notice. It featured 11 of his original compositions alongside the standards “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Johnny B. Goode” and Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

Joe Sun had been living in recent years in Merritt Island, Florida. He died of natural causes on Friday, Oct. 25, in nearby Palm Bay, Florida.
 

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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