Tanya Tucker - Biography



By Jonny Whiteside

 

             When thirteen-year-old Tanya Tucker burst onto the country music scene with the 1972 hit, “Delta Dawn,” she was nothing short of a shock. Eschewing the gracious, lady-like demeanor of Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette, and ignoring completely the tame kiddie image of such predecessors as Lorrie Collins and Brenda Lee, Tucker’s explosive impact and crossover appeal positively rocked Nashville. It would not be the only time she did so.

 

            Born October 10th, 1958 in Seminole, Texas, Tucker had flabbergasted her family at age six with a spontaneous outburst of powerfully delivered song, and her working class parents actively encouraged Tucker’s evident interest in music. She naturally gravitated towards country songs and by 1967, now living in Phoenix, Arizona, had already formed a singing group, The Country Westerners, with her sister LaCosta and some neighborhood children. Tucker also exhibited another key skill: the fine art of sweet-talking touring musicians into letting her perform during their show, and at age eight she was sharing stages with such Grand Ole Opry stars as Ernest Tubb and Little Jimmy Dickens.

 

            For Tucker, marinated in country tradition and aflame with ambition, it all seemed perfectly natural, and nothing could hold her back. At this point, the family was based in Las Vegas (father Beau’s career as a construction worker accounted for their nomadic lifestyle) and had finally saved enough money for some badly needed studio time. While Tucker’s 1971 demo tape was circulated along the length of Nashville’s Music Row, executives were uniformly under-whelmed. Fortunately, another Las Vegas resident heard it and instantly recognized the child‘s potential. This was actress-songwriter Dolores Fuller, the widow of B-movie director Ed Wood, of  Plan From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda? infamy, and the writer responsible for Elvis Presley hits “Do the Clam” and “Rock-A-Hula Baby.” Fuller also had the ear of the brilliant Nashville producer Billy Sherrill and wasted no time in presenting him a copy of the demo.

 

            Sherrill was surfing the golden crest of an unprecedented wave of commercial and artistic success, producing a series of masterly classics with Epic Records’ stable of stars, including George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Charlie Rich, and he knew Tucker would make a worthy addition to parent company Columbia’s roster. When Sherrill got the husky-toned teenager into the studio, the results were extraordinary--their first session produced “Delta Dawn” (co-written, it is worth noting, by another former country child prodigy, the guitarist Larry Collins). Released that spring, the song was soon tearing up not only Billboard’s country Top Ten, but also rising into the pop chart's Top 75. By July of 1972, she was invited to appear on the Grand Ole Opry, and within months, the preternaturally gifted singer was a national sensation.

 

            Her next single “Love’s the Answer” cracked the Top Five, and in 1973, her single “What’s Your Mama’s Name” (also title track of her sophomore album) became Tucker’s first number one country hit. Her instinct in choice of material was seemingly infallible; Sherrill had initially offered her "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA" and while Donna Fargo's version was certified as BMI's most performed country song of 1973, Tucker knew the cute and cloying route was not for her. Her next single, the chilling honky-tonk melodrama “Blood Red and Goin’ Down” made it clear that Tucker was able to convincingly deliver a lyric so darkly hued that a less-confident artist might have balked at recording it. The song went straight to number one. She continued to exceed expectations with her third consecutive number one hit, her sultry, infamous recording of David Allan Coe’s “Would You Lay with Me (in a Field of Stone”). Delivered in smoldering style by the petulant, big-voiced Tucker, the song’s underlying eroticism raised more than a few eyebrows and was even banned at several country radio stations. The teenaged singer brushed controversy off, stating “I just think their minds were in the gutter.” Her next hit, “The Man that Turned My Mama On,” scarcely distanced her from such controversy. 

 

            Tucker’s artful disobedience to mainstream standards left no small impression on the rock & roll crowd and Rolling Stone featured her on the magazine’s cover in 1974. The counter-culture bible’s profile highlighted her strong will, nubile charms and flair for misbehavior (the reporter was duly impressed by Tucker’s pastime of  tossing lit firecrackers down the aisle of her tour bus) even as it lauded, in no uncertain terms, her natural trove of raw talent. Such beyond-Nashville recognition--quite unusual for a mid-70s country performer--taken with her high-powered brand of entertainment and steady commercial success, established Tucker as undeniable phenomenon.

 

            On her sixteenth birthday, Tucker signed a million dollar recording contract with MCA. The hits kept coming, but as she grew, the singer continually challenged her audience. Her 1978 TNT album, recorded in Los Angeles with a hard rocking band, featured cover art of the singer posing in front of a stack of high-explosives crates clad in a skin tight black spandex that seemed closer to the Runaway’s Joan Jett than a Grand Ole Opry sweetheart. In fact, Tucker was booed at an Opry appearance that year, while performing her version of Buddy Holly’s rock & roll anthem “Not Fade Away.” Tucker’s incendiary, strutting presentation, not to mention the song’s primitive jungle tom-tom rhythms, were just too far removed from the Opry’s rigid conservative orthodoxy. While she managed to transform the cat calls to cheers through sheer magnetism of personality, it was clear that Tucker’s taste for high-voltage rock music was creating a rift among her fans. Ultimately, not only her image but her sales suffered for it, but this, of course, did not bother her a damn bit. Tucker was a thrillingly untamed bad ass, one whose voracious appetite for the after-hours high life became legendary among country music insiders.

 

            Tucker kept busy on the road, tried acting in a couple of TV movies (one, opposite Don Johnson, was appropriately titled The Rebels)  and still managed to place several songs in the Top Ten. Not among these were her collaborations with crossover country pop kingpin Glen Campbell (“Dream Lover,” “Why Don’t We Just Sleep on it Tonight“), but a swiftly developing--and frequently stormy--romance between the two began to generate increasingly sensational headlines, particularly in the tabloids, when they publicly announced plans to wed. The 44-year-old Campbell, had spearheaded a burgeoning country-pop crossover in the late 1960s with a string of monster records like “Wichita Lineman,” and “Gentle on My Mind,” becoming so popular that over fifty million viewers regularly tuned in his 1968 CBS television variety series The Glen Campbell Good time Hour.

 

            By 1980, the thrice-married Campbell, like Tucker, was still registering Top Twenty country singles, but it seemed as if their greatest successes lay behind them. That was also the year that cocaine surged into Music City, becoming an eagerly welcomed addition to country music’s long-established staple diet of amphetamines, marijuana and alcohol, and Tucker and Campbell were at the forefront of the new chemical trend. It was an explosive combination, and press accounts of their oft-cruel battles threatened to overshadow their musical careers. By 1985, Tucker filed a three million dollar lawsuit against Campbell that charged him with battery, mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon and fraud, and although it never came to court, the pair were clearly headed to Splitsville (“I guess I got too old for him,“ she said).

 

            Tucker hadn’t scored a hit since 1983, but a move to Capitol proved she could still deliver the goods: her debut album there Girls Like Me (1986 Capitol) produced four hit singles and one of them, “Just Another Love,” became her first number one in a decade. She continued lodging singles in the Top Ten for the next few years, and the 1988 album Strong Enough to Bend  (Capitol) was presciently titled--that year, Tucker checked herself into the Betty Ford Center, got herself back together, and started a family, albeit out of wedlock, when she gave birth to daughter Presley, the first of three children, in 1989. Tucker never shed her alluring bad girl image (she was chosen as Black Velvet Canadian Whiskey’s spokeswoman in the early 1990s), and her drive and ambition continued unabated: in 1991 she won the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year (she had just delivered a second child, and watched the awards show on television in her hospital room). In 1997, her well-received autobiography, Nickel Dreams: My Life (co-written with Patsi Bale Cox) appeared, along with the critically acclaimed Complicated (Capitol) album. Nashville stills pulses with an endless stream of colorful, freshly-minted Tanya-tales, her recording pace has barely diminished and her greatest hits collections are chronically reliable sources of revenue. In 2007, still unmarried, still as salty and charming as ever, the hard-living, good-humored singer became the subject of a reality television show, and, clearly, Tucker still has plenty of kick to her.

Steve Earle and the Dukes
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