Posted September, 2003 - By SHAUN MATHER
Seventy years ago this month, what at first seemed like any other young kid
was born on the banks of the Mississippi in the tiny town of Friars Point,
although he grew up across the
river in Helena, Arkansas. His daddy, Floyd, was a steam boat sailor who
ferried people across the wide, brown expanse, between the poor cotton lands
of Arkansas and Mississippi. In this neck of the woods, it was the norm for
the kid to follow in his fathers foot steps. But this kid was different.
Harold Jenkins was destined for bigger things. At one stage it looked like
he might make it in major league baseball, that was before he became Conway
Twitty, one of the most successful figures in the history of country music. He voice
possessed the perfect timbre for both rock 'n' roll and country. Outside of
Jerry Lee Lewis, no-one was better equipped to handle both styles.
An amazing percentage of 50's stars in the blues, country and rock 'n' roll
field came from Mississippi. There was a musical richness in the fertile
soil and it was soaked up by the populace. Conway was no exception. He
developed a love for not only country, but for blues and gospel as well. He
got the country from the radio (Grand Ole Opry), the blues from a neighbour
(Uncle Fred) and the gospel from the nearby black church, when he'd sit on
the river bank and listen to the heavenly sounds as they drifted from the
church. At the tender age of ten he joined a band, the Phillips Country
Ramblers, with John Huey (later of the Slim Rhodes band) and Wesley Pickett.
They occasionally performed on local radio, before going their separate ways
in 1953. It was his prowess on the baseball park that looked like his best
way out of Arkansas though and he was earmarked to sign for the Philadelphia
Phillies when Uncle Sam pointed his finger. A spell in the Korean War was no
substitute for Shibe Park and Phillies infamous Whiz Kids, a handful of
exciting talent that had been nurtured from the clubs farm system.
Whilst serving his time, he formed another band, the Cimarrons. Music must
have been getting into his veins, the band even started dropping a few rock
'n' roll songs into their act. They entered an All-Army Talent contest in
'55 and finished second - the first prize was a slot on the Ed Sullivan
Show. When he returned to the States in 1956, he made the brave decision to
pursue a musical career, despite still being wanted by the Phillies. He came
back to Arkansas and formed Harold Jenkins & The Rockhousers. He fronted the
band which included Bill Harris on bass, Jimmy Ray Paulman on guitar and
Billy Weir on drums. Harris was soon replaced by Jimmy Evans who would try
his own luck a year or so later.
The obvious port of call for the youngsters to try their luck was at Sun
Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. The local label had become the most talked
about label in the country, putting the fear of God into the major labels
thanks to the barnstorming sounds of Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
With Conway stretching his considerable vocal powers to the full, the owner,
Sam Phillips, liked what he heard and signed the band to a deal. With too
much quality product on hand, but not enough collateral to hand, he was
unable to issue anything by the group, despite some strong rocking numbers
being cut in Give Me Some Love and Born To Sing The Blues. The only glimmer
of hope they had was when Roy Orbison covered their rockabilly signature
tune, Rockhouse, which became a small hit. Over the years the song has
reached legendary status.
Something told Harold Jenkins that his voice was good and so were the band.
So he figured that the only spanner in the works must have been his name.
Looking for a more suitable moniker he put his finger randomly on a map, one
landing in Arkansas, the other in Texas. The two towns were Conway and
Twitty, lucky really because Tuscallosa Natchitochas just wouldn't have
worked. Actually, I think it might - why didn't Charlie Feathers go with
Early in 1957 Conway signed with Mercury Records, where he was unlucky to
only make the charts once, with "I Need Your Lovin'" (same song as Give Me
Some Love) creeping to the heady heights of the number 93 spot. If they'd
have flipped the single over, the re-cut "Born to Sing The Blues" could have
gone 92 places higher in my opinion. The follow-up single proved to be his
last for the label, a two sided bopper in "Shake It Up" and "Maybe Baby".
Still intent on making the big time he undertook a long term engagement at a
Canadian club in Hamilton, Ontario with his band which now included Blackie
Preston on bass, Jack Nance on drums and Joe Lewis on guitar. Whilst there
Nance wrote "It's Only Make Believe". They cut a demo and it back across the
border to Twitty's manager Don Seat who used it to gain a contract with MGM
Records who were keen to bolster their rock 'n' roll roster. On 7th May 1958
they cut the song properly in Nashville, along with "I'll Try" and "I
Vibrate" (or "I Vi-berate" as he sings it). Nance and Lewis were augmented
by some of the Nashville A-team. It was one of the first sessions in town to
use Owen Bradley's new stereo tape machine. When MGM issued the single they
put "I'll Try" as the a-side with "It's Only Make Believe" on the b-side.
The single was headed nowhere until Columbus, Ohio DJ Doctor Bopp started
playing the b-side. The record took off and by the winter of '58 was sat on
top of the pop charts. It went to number 1 in an astonishing 22 countries
across the world. Conway was on his way, hitting the lower rungs of the top
30 with the follow-up "'The Story Of My Love" and "Make Me Know Your Mine".
The next single was a tasty affair, coupling "Hey Little Lucy" with "Mona
Lisa". The standard had been tarted up by Carl Mann over at Sun Studios but
Sam Phillips had been slow to spot it's potential and only rush released it
once he was warned that Conway could take the spoils. Mann had the biggest
hit Stateside but over in the UK the public went for the Twitty version. As
usual with the music business, once a formula has been stumbled upon, it's
milked for all it's worth. So it was that producer Jim Vienneau convinced
Conway to add a beat to "Danny Boy".
Danny was to raise it's head for the next single. Elvis had cut a moody
ballad for his greatest film, King Creole, but the song, "Danny" was omitted
from the sound track. Conway covered it with a change in title to "Lonely
Blue Boy" and sent it to number six in the US pop charts. Conway's version
is a classic full of growls and menace, and he liked the song so much he
decided to call the band the Lonely Blue Boys. Talking of King Creole,
Conway made his own ventures into the movie industry, with three B movies,
'Platinum High School', 'College Confidential' and 'Sex
Kittens Go To College' (aka 'The Teacher Was A Sexpot'). Sex Kittens gets a
regular showing on TCM and really is crap, even with the added charms of
Mamie Van Doren who also starred in College Confidential.
The MGM years came to an end in 1963, as the singles became less successful,
typified by his last single for the label, "Portrait of a Fool" only
climbing to the #98 slot. He moved to ABC-Paramount and had a couple of
releases, starting with "Go On and Cry". Next up was a great cover of the
Drifters/Elvis classic, "Such A Night", that was produced by Felton Jarvis.
Although his rock stuff was to seem insignificant compared the success of
his country hits, he managed to sell over 16 million records before swapping
the bull-fiddle for the country fiddle.
June '65 saw him sign with Decca Records (later became MCA), and although he
didn't realise it straight away, he'd found a home. A move towards the
country sound was never far from his mind, especially after Ray Price had a
top 10 country hit with the Twitty penned, "Walk Me to the Door". The timing
was right and coincided with Conway working with a new producer, Owen
Bradley. Bradley was a legend in Nashville and was instrumental in making
the town such an important world market, producing Patsy Cline among many
In the spring of '66 Conway had his first taste of the country charts when
"Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart," peaked at number 18. The flood
gates weren't exactly open, but he could now see over the top with a helping
leg-up. Two years later he nudged into the top 10 with "The Image Of Me" and
a few months later finally went to number one with "Next In Line". The flood
gates weren't just open, they were off their hinges. Within the next four
years he eight number ones including "I Love You More Today," "To See My
Angel Cry," "Fifteen Years Ago," and "How Much More She Can Stand". Best of
all was "Hello Darlin', which was to become another career song and
signature tune, that although was penned in 1958 wasn't cut for a dozen
In late 1970, he started recording with Loretta Lynn, and the combination
hit number one five times in a row, starting with "After the Fire Is Gone,"
early in 1971. The others were "Lead Me On," "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi
Man," "As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone," and "Feelins'." Before the '70s
were over they'd had 14 Top Ten hits and won the Country Music Association's
Duo of the Year awards four times. They also won three Vocal Group of the
Year honours from the Academy of Country Music as well as a Grammy for Best
Vocal Performance by a Group for "After the Fire Is Gone").
His solo career continued to sore as he adopted a sexual nature to his
lyrics. He was starting to sound like a sort of cowboy Barry White,
recording saucy material like "You've Never Been This Far Before," which
topped the charts in 1973 despite being banned by several radio stations. He
was a ladies artist and the women were drawn to his lovely tight perm, his
adult lyrics, the deep come-to-bed vocals and his animalistic growl. It was
a deadly combination and saw him score no fewer than 40 number ones. They
included such stellar performances as "I See the Want To in Your Eyes,"
"Linda in My Mind," "Touch the Hand," "After All the Good Is Gone," "Happy
Birthday Darlin'," "Tight Fittin' Jeans," and "Red Neckin' Love Makin'
By the end of the 70's he owned the publishing firms, Hello Darlin' Music,
Neverbreak Music and Twitty Bird Music. He co-owned the United Talent Agency
with Loretta and part owned the Nashville Sounds, Southern League baseball
team. About the only bad choice he made around this time (apart from
dispensing the quiff for the curly hair) was changing the band's name from
the Lonely Blue Boys to the Twitty Birds. Oh I forgot the Twitty burgers,
which sold by the basket thanks to the slogan, "'Tweet Yourself To A
Twittyburger". Away from the kitch-en, Conway and his birds played an
average of 200 shows a year.
His spell at MCA was interrupted by a four year hiatus at Elektra Records
where he scored with a couple of pop covers, "Slow Hand" and "The Rose". He
also did well back in a straight country vein with "Somebody's Needin'
Somebody," "I Don't Know a Thing About Love (The Moon Songs)," "Don't Call
Him a Cowboy," and "Desperado Love".
He was back at MCA in 1987 and had consecutive number two hits in "Julia"
and "I Want to Know You Before We Make Love", but he was never to return to
the coveted top spot. By the '90s he had no chance. The charts were too
young, and besides, he sounded just a little too much like a damn country
singer! His last moment of greatness came during the recording of the Rhythm
'n' Country project where he was teamed up with soul singer Sam Moore.
Conway is stunning on Rainy Night In Georgia, head and shoulders above
anyone else on the album.
Country singers have always been renowned for their respect for the fans.
From the early days when Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys would play
baseball games against the locals before a show, the stars were always keen
to interact with the fans. None more so that Conway. He opened a theme park
at his home in Henderson called Twitty City. Whilst the public roamed his
grounds, he'd regularly mingle with them, sharing his time for photos and
chats. It sounds very twee, but compare it to someone like Tim McGraw and
Faith Hill who've even had the road near there property closed to public
access - Ernest Tubb would cringe.
Tragedy struck on 5 June 1993 when he was travelling back to Nashville from
a show in Branson, Missouri. His wife Dee discovered him doubled up in pain
and had him rushed to Cox Medical Centre South in Springfield. He passed
away from an abdominal aortic aneurysm twelve hours later. Amazingly,
Loretta Lynn was at the hospital visiting her husband Mooney who'd suffered
a heart attack on the same road.
His final album, "Final Touches" was released posthumously and was a fitting
way to bow out. The advent of time has seen his name fade from the spotlight
compared to some of country's other legends, but there aren't many of
today's new breed who could hold a candle to him. He was a prefect country
singer whose growl and playful nuances helped give an extra spice to a
massive catalogue of classic songs. One of the real greats who is sorely
missed. Goodbye Darlin'.
1958--Cashbox\Most Promising Top Male Vocalist
1970--NSAI\Certificate of Outstanding Achievement
1970--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Country Song\Hello Darlin'
1970--Billboard\Country Award\Best Single\Hello Darlin'
1971--NARAS\Grammy\After the Fire Is Gone\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1971--ACM\Top Vocal Duet or Group\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1971--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and
1972--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and
1972--CMA\Vocal Duo of the Year\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1972--Billboard\Country Award\Best Overall Singles Artist MCA\Decca
1973--Billboard\Country Award\Best Overall Singles Artist
1973--Billboard\Country Award\Best Duo-Albums\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1973--Billboard\Country Award\Best Male Artist
1973--Billboard\Top Country Single\You've Never Been This Far Before
1973--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and
1973--CMA\Vocal Duo of the Year\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1974--Billboard\Country Award\Best Duo-Albums\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1974--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Male Artist/Vocalist
1974--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and
1974--American Music Awards\Favorite Country Duo\Conway Twitty & Loretta
1974--CMA\Vocal Duo of the Year\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1975--ACM\Album of the Year\Feelin's
1975--ACM\Male Vocalist of the Year
1975--ACM\Top Vocal Group\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1975--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Male Vocalist
1975--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Single\Linda On My Mind
1975--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and
1975--CMA\Vocal Duo of the Year\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1975--Billboard\Country Award\Best Duo or Group-Albums\Conway Twitty and
1975--Billboard\Country Award\Best Male Artist
1975--Billboard\Country Award\Best Duo\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1975--Tree International\Golden Tree Award (writer)\Don't Cry Joni, Touch
the Hand, Linda On My Mind
1976--Tree International\Golden Tree Award (writer)\I Can't Believe She
Gives It All To Me
1976--ACM\Top Vocal Group\Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn
1976--American Music Awards\Favorite Country Duo\Conway Twitty & Loretta
1976--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Male Vocalist
1976--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and
1977--Tree International\Golden Tree Award (writer)\I've Already Loved You
In My Mind
1977--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Male Vocalist
1977--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and Loretta
1977--American Music Awards\Favorite Country Duo\Conway Twitty & Loretta
1977--American Music Awards\Favorite Male Vocalist
1977--Billboard\Country Award\Singles Artist of the Year
1977--Billboard\Country Award\Best Duo or Group-Albums\Conway Twitty and
1977--Billboard\Country Award\Singles Male Artist of the Year
1977--Tree International\Million Airs Club Award\It's Only Make Believe
1977--BMI\Special Citation of Achievement For Over 1,000,000
Performances\It's Only Make Believe, (Lost Her Love) On Our Last Date, Hello
1977--American Music Awards\Favorite Country Band, Duo or Group
1978--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\Male Artist of the Year
1978--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\#1 Duet\Conway Twitty and
1978--NSAI\Certificate in Honor of Creative Genius In Words and Music
1978--Tree International\Certificate of Achievement (writer)\It's Only Make
1978--American Music Awards\Favorite Country Band, Duo or Group
1978--American Music Awards\Favorite Male Artist
1980--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\Duet of the Year\Conway Twitty
and Loretta Lynn
1981--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\Duet of the Year\Conway Twitty
and Loretta Lynn
1982--Billboard\Country Award\Top Male Artist
1982--Billboard\Country Award\Top Singles Artist
1983--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\TV Special of the Year\Conway
Twitty on the Mississippi
1988--Music City News\Popularity Poll Award\Living Legend Award
1999--Elected to Country Music Hall of Fame
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