(Pictured: Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn at the American Music Awards in 1975.)
Unlike many radio stations, we take requests here. A reader asked about Conway Twitty: “One of the most successful country artists of all time. Now virtually forgotten. No legacy. How come?” What follows is my typical half-assed guess.
Harold Jenkins had an offer to play baseball from the Philadelphia Phillies, but he was drafted for service in Korea first. When he got home, he got a record deal from Sam Phillips, although nothing he recorded for Sun was released at the time. He became a rockabilly singer in 1956, changed his name to Conway Twitty (combining the names of two towns in Arkansas and Texas) and eventually hit the Hot 100 14 times between 1957 and 1962, including “It’s Only Make Believe,” which hit #1 in 1958 thanks in part to A) being a really good song and B) sounding remarkably like Elvis. Twitty was popular enough over the next couple of years to appear in three drive-in quickie films in 1960, including an appearance as himself in Sex Kittens Go to College starring Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.
In 1965, Twitty began working with Nashville producer Owen Bradley, and after a handful of chart-scrapers, started hitting the country Top 10 in 1968. Over the next 25 years, until his death in 1993 at age 59, he charted an astounding 84 singles on his own and as a duet partner with Loretta Lynn. Only eight of them—eight!—missed the country Top 10, and two of those were separately listed B-sides of Top-10 hits. Of those 84 charted singles, 40 hit #1 (only George Strait has more) and 12 more peaked at #2.
Successful? Ya think?
A few of Twitty’s biggest country hits crossed to the pop chart, including: “Hello Darlin’,” “Fifteen Years Ago,” “Linda on My Mind,” and “Don’t Cry Joni.” In 1973, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” became Conway’s biggest pop hit since 1960, reaching #22 on the Hot 100, although it’s pretty skeevy and hard to listen to now. His duet with Loretta, “After the Fire Has Gone,” also made the Hot 100, and you might recognize the duets “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone,” or “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” (Even though the latter was a B-side, it got a great deal of airplay in 1978.) For a stretch in the 1980s, Twitty scored #1 country hits with pop covers: “Rest Your Love on Me” (a Bee Gees song), the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand” (also kinda skeevy), “The Rose,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “Three Times a Lady.”
With such success—a solid four or five hits a year, every year, for over two decades—how come Conway Twitty isn’t an icon on the order of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, or Merle Haggard? Here’s my guess: outlaws will always be cooler than law-abiding citizens. Cash and Jones were famous for livin’ hard, and in Hank’s case, dying young; Haggard was famous for having done time. Outside of his music, Twitty was probably best known for Twitty City, a Nashville entertainment complex that was also his home from 1982 until his death. Some of his songs were pretty cheesy, and by the end of his career, his distinctive delivery, with the famous crack in his voice, sometimes seemed like a parody of itself. His inclusion as a running joke in the TV series Family Guy doesn’t help his dignity any either. Neither does that name, to be honest.
His lack of legacy is also a function of time and style. Today’s young country stars invoke Hank, Cash, Jones, and Haggard as little more than catch-phrases. The artists they emulate and recognize as icons are people like Keith Urban, who had his first American hit in 1999, and Jason Aldean, who came on the scene in 2005, and not a guy who’s been dead for nearly a quarter of a century. Today’s country music has far more in common with the stadium rock of Bon Jovi and the R&B stylings of Bruno Mars than it does with polyester-clad love men like Conway Twitty.
All of the songs mentioned in this post are worthwhile listening, but if you want to hear a particular favorite of mine, check out “I Am the Dreamer (You Are the Dream),” the charting B-side of the #1 hit “Rest Your Love on Me” from 1981. It’s Conway Twitty the way he most often sounded: the signature twang in his voice and the sensual lyrics, plus an uncommonly pretty arrangement.