Conway Twitty - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            Conway Twitty enjoyed one of the most extraordinarily successful country music careers of the twentieth century. From his start as a heavy-breathing, primitive Sun Records rockabilly through his transformation to, first, a hard country deity and then a risk taking stylist unafraid to bring in new, unorthodox sounds, Twitty's mixture of hyper-masculine swagger and soul-deep sensitivity created records of remarkable artistry. No one else could deliver a cheating song with the conviction and drama that Twitty instinctively manifested, and his romantic ballads throbbed with impassioned, erotically- charged realism. Along the way, he racked up a staggering fifty number one country hits and became one of the most beloved performers in America, replete with a legion of swooning female fans. An iconoclast who didn't even move to Nashville until 1975 and frequently incorporated both pop and blues influences in his music, Twitty was nonetheless Music City's acknowledged “High Priest of Country Music,” and when he died suddenly in 1993, most of the shocked nation seemed to throw on the brakes, lurching to a numb, unbelieving stand-still that was comparable only to that of the loss of Elvis Presley.


            Born Harold Jenkins on September 1, 1933 in Friars Point, Mississippi, he grew up in the severe poverty of the Great Depression, but also with a head full of music. He gorged on the Grand Ole Opry's weekly hillbilly broadcasts and the vibrant black spirituals which he would sit and listen to twice a week from outside a neighborhood church. Friars Point was a small town with a large black population, and the youth spent countless hours with his next door neighbor, a bluesman known as Uncle Fred, and with a homemade guitar of his own (whose strings were made from uncoiled window screen wire) the kid learned firsthand the power of the blues. He also spent a lot of time aboard his ferry captain father's vessel, drifting down the Mississippi and practicing his guitar skills. After the family re-located to Helena, Arkansas, the eleven-year-old and steel guitar playing pal, John Hughley, formed the Phillips Country Ramblers, and by age 12, they had their own regular Saturday morning radio show on local station KFFA . Drafted into the US Army in 1953, Jenkins formed another band, the Cimarrons, and began making extra money through gigs at servicemen's clubs and on the Armed Forces Radio's Far East Network.


            Discharged in early 1956, Jenkins returned to an America with a very different soundtrack--Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" had just hit number one on the pop charts, igniting the rock & roll revolution and setting the talented twenty-three-year-old on fire. Later that year, he made the pilgrimage to Memphis, Tennessee's Union Avenue mecca, Sun Records and was a convincing enough stylist that Sam Phillips encouraged him to try and come up with something significant. Jenkins spent two months there, luxuriating in that amphetamine-fueled Garden of Eden's wild atmosphere, buddying up with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and cutting a string of recordings that ultimately went unreleased (although Roy Orbison covered his "Rock House"). Jenkins knew he had to hustle, and began with his own name, finally settling on the out of this world attention-grabbing, “Conway Twitty,” and inking a deal with Mercury Records. He fizzled at Mercury, who dropped him quickly. Twitty hit the road and by late '58 finally came up with, "It's Only Make Believe," the song which put him on the map (legend has it that he and drummer Jack Nance wrote it between sets at an Ontario nightclub). Signed to MGM, Twitty's career exploded after they released it as a single.


            "It's Only Make Believe" was a perfected performance of aroused, groaning intensity. Framed as a tension-fraught bubblegum-rockabilly plea, and delivered with a wily combination of sexually frustrated overkill and delicate emotional nuance, the song resonated with both men and women. It sold over 8 million copies and charted in over twenty different countries. Twitty got so big, so fast that the smash hit Broadway (and Hollywood) rock & roll send up, Bye Bye Birdie, based it's Conrad Birdie character on the singer. He was an overnight archetype, playing to SRO crowds and pulling in tall stacks of serious coin, literally thousands of dollars a day. He toured Britain, had a string of top ten hits, made movies (such classics as Platinum High School, College Confidential, and Sex Kittens go to College) but was restless and, ultimately, dissatisfied with the whole bit. Conway Twitty realized that he wanted to be a country singer, not a teen idol. His mangers went crazy, but Twitty walked offstage mid-show one night in 1965, and never returned to rock & roll. Soon, he found himself--as management warned him--playing in beer joints and making $100 a night, but with the aid of legendary songwriter Harlan Howard, he still felt he'd made the right decision.


            After Howard took Nashville's top producer, Owen Bradley, a Twitty demo tape (but refused to tell the rock-loathing Bradley who was singing), the result was a five-year contract with Decca. The next few years saw a string of creditable top twenty country hits, but in 1968 he nailed it with his first country number one, "Next in Line." By the time his self-penned 1970 classic, "Hello, Darlin'," hit number one, Twitty was one of the  undisputed reigning heavyweight champs of Nashville. The song became his signature tune and remained the opening number of his show up until the end. Its international appeal was so pervasive that five years later, Twitty recorded it in Russian so it could be broadcast as a goodwill gesture from an orbiting American spacecraft to a crew of Soviet cosmonauts (that version--which must be heard to be believed-- was included on the  comprehensive box set, The Conway Twitty Collection, 1994 MCA Records).


            His 1970’s duets with Loretta Lynn opened another sublime chapter in Twitty's golden book, and with powerful songs like, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man“ and “There’s Nothing Cold as Ashes (After the Fire is Gone),” the pairing became the most awarded twosome in modern country music. They were awarded the Country Music Association’s Duo of the Year annually from 1972-1975, besting even George Jones and Tammy Wynette in that regard (interestingly, the CMA never awarded Twitty a single trophy of his own). Twitty was on a roll, churning out psychologically sophisticated and emotionally affecting masterpieces by the dozen--”The Games That Daddies Play,” “Play Guitar Play,“ “I  Can’t believe She Gives It All to Me”--each riveting, masterly performances that had a near mesmerizing force. Twitty was no stranger to controversy, though, when disk jockey’s first heard his 1973 single, “I’ve Already Loved You In My Mind,” many refused to play it. “The line that really got ‘em,” Twitty said, “was ‘as my trembling fingers touch forbidden places,’ but I still don’t think it’s a dirty song.”


            He also ruffled Nashville’s feathers by insisting on using members of his road band in the studio, notably lifelong friend and steel man John Hughley, rather than the tight-knit “A-team” of studio players who appeared on almost every session in Music City.  His free thinking choice of material, recording songs like Bee Gee Barry Gibb’s “Slow Hand,” Bette Midler hit, “The Rose,” and numbers by the Eagles and the Commodores rankled the old guard, but Twitty’s distinctive pipes and interpretive prowess re-defined each of these and guaranteed artistic ownership. By the late 1970’s, Twitty had ditched his sky-high pompadour and sideburns for a tight perm, another move that spoke to his innate realization that change was crucial to artistic longevity, and while he continually stretched in terms of image and material, expanding his audience at a time when his peers crowds were increasingly calcified, Twitty was never anything less than stone, hardcore country.


            Such vision and flexibility served him exceedingly well. Despite the roiling trends in 1980’s-era country (Urban Cowboy, the New Traditionalists), Twitty’s records, unlike those of contemporaries George Jones, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, kept topping the charts and receiving airplay. He was a tireless, entirely self-propelled phenomenon. He had not hired a manager since he quit rock & roll, and also oversaw a mind-bending array of entrepreneurial enterprises: a chain of Twitty Burger restaurants, a convenience store franchise, minor league baseball teams, a booking agency, song publish companies and perhaps the ultimate, his Twitty City theme park. His annual Country Explosion festival provided the origin for what has since become a Nashville tradition, the maximum meet-and-greet annual blow-out Fan Fair.


            With over twenty million records sold and his unrivaled tally of fifty number one country hits (not to mention no less than 78 top ten country hits), Twitty seemed unstoppable--until June 4, 1993, when he suddenly collapsed on his tour bus. Rushed to a Springfield, Missouri hospital, he was diagnosed with a ruptured abdominal aneurysm, and died the following day. Twitty was not even sixty-years-old and even today, his loss is still nothing short of unacceptable.

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