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Years before Tom Parker added "Colonel" to his name and Elvis to hismanagement stable, he oversaw the beginning of Eddy Arnold's career.

Anyone who doubts Parker's sense of talent need only look at a list of the top-selling singers of all time.

Presley is rated first, with the Beatles close behind. But nestled in third place, as anonymous to many as he has been successful, is Eddy Arnold, with 85-million records sold in a 50-year country music career. Obviously, when it comes to survival, the so-called "Tennessee Plowboy" has far outstripped them all.

Not once in his half-century of fame has scandal been linked with Eddy Arnold. He has stayed married to the same woman for 48 years and the same record company for only three years less. Nice guys don't always finish last; sometimes they settle for third place.

"I answer all of my fan mail - I really answer it," says Arnold.

"You just have to be careful," Arnold said recently by phone, with the advisory tone of a favored grandfather. "I've always stayed busy and taken care of my own business and treated my career as a business.

I'm not interested in sitting around a beer joint and getting drunk all the time. That doesn't interest me. There are some guys who stay up all night and do that kind of thing. That's not my bowl of fish. I like the music side of it."

There is more to the explanation of Arnold's success than simply taking care of himself. He also takes care of his public better than many younger artists who figure that a chance to spend money on a record or a two-hour show is all they owe an audience.

"I answer all of my fan mail - I really answer it," Arnold said from his Nashville office. "Oh, my secretary helps me, but I read all of my mail and if it's from a person who writes an intelligent letter - somebody who's all right and doesn't have a mental problem - well, I answer it. It's a people business, and you have to take care of it.

I'm often asked how I've stayed around so long, and I believe that's part of it."

Arnold and his fans have taken care of each other since 1945 and his first hits, I'll Hold You In My Heart and That's How Much I Love You. He gives them romantic tunes wrapped around his gentle voice, and they return an undying admiration that keeps him recording and performing at age 71.

The years have weathered his voice a bit and his face a bit more.

They have been kinder to signature songs such as Make The World Go Away, Bouquet Of Roses and Welcome To My World. His penchant for easing into a lyric and a listener's heart made him one of the first crossover successes from Nashville. Modern stars such as Kenny Rogers owe much to his image as well as his phrasings.

Arnold always preferred a tux over buckskin. A smooth image and a

preference for violins instead of fiddles set him apart from the rural bumpkin image of Hee Haw. Arnold was the first country music artist to be the host of a network television show in 1952 and has since starred in 20 specials, including the classic Kraft Music Hall. He revolutionized the Nashville sound in the 1960s after inaugurating the recording industry there in 1944.

"I had no idea what was going to develop there," he recalled. "There were no studios here and I was a greenhorn, really. I did my first sessions in a radio studio. It was three or four years before they put a studio here. You had to go to Chicago or New York to record."

Through a twist of luck and some convoluted communication lines, Arnold went to Chicago in 1945 to record for RCA Victor Records. He was hired sight-unseen yet treated like a major star by a studio that was then begging for performers. Forty-five years and 91 hit singles later, Arnold and RCA are still making tracks.

A new album, Hand Holding Songs, is scheduled to be released in March. Arnold's first record in six years is a collection of 16 pop romance standards such as As Time Goes By, And I Love You So and The Nearness Of You. Arnold said the idea came from watching concertgoers hold hands while he crooned a medley of classic love songs in his act.

A date to plug the release on The Pat Sajak Show was scheduled for - when else? - Valentine's Day.

Even with his Country Music Hall of Fame credentials and a list of firsts and accomplishments unmatched in Nashville, Arnold is curiously underrated as an innovator. There haven't been any recording revivals of his mellow method led by contemporary artists such as Dwight Yoakam did for Buck Owens and the Bakersfield sound.

The reason is obvious. Eddy Arnold's unabashed romanticism and untainted professionalism have never really gone out of style.

AT A GLANCE Eddy Arnold at the Bayfront Center Mahaffey Theater on Wednesday, February 21, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22.50 and $24.50, available at the Bayfront Center box office or through Ticketmaster (a service charge will be added). Call 287-8844 for information.