Huckleberry Finn Childhood
Speaking strictly in terms of Number One hits, Conway Twitty is the most successful recording artist in the history of country music. Twitty has reached the top of the charts with country singles no less than 50 times in a career spanning more than three decades. While other superstars have come and gone, he has maintained solid fan support and shown an almost uncanny ability to choose the most appealing material to record. As Alanna Nash put it in Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, Twitty “staked his claim at the pinnacle of the music business thirty years ago, and one way or another, he’s held it ever since.”
Twitty’s success in country music is all the more remarkable because he came to country from rock ’n’ roll. For almost ten years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Twitty was a teen idol who released hit after hit on the pop charts. His switch to country was a dramatic mid-career move, a decision he made against all advice simply because he had always loved country music. The singer-songwriter was quoted in The Country Music Encyclopedia about his dramatic switch in styles: “After I’d been [performing] for about eight years, I felt like I had lived long enough and had experienced enough of the things that a country song is all about to compete with the different country singers that I thought were great. Not taking anything away from the rock thing, but I feel like I started off with rock and worked my way up to country music, and I really feel that way. I don’t mean that to put rock-and-roll music down. But I love country music so much and I think it’s so much a part of everybody’s everyday life that it’s like Coke—it’s the real thing.”
Huckleberry Finn Childhood
Twitty was born Harold Lloyd Jenkins in the tiny Mississippi town of Friars Point. His father was a riverboat pilot and the family lived in a houseboat. Twitty told Nash that his early years were “kind of a Huckleberry Finn type of childhood.… My dad was a pilot on a Mississippi River boat. I used to sit up in the pilothouse and practice on the guitar and sing songs. Growing up there really helped make me turn out the way I am.” Twitty was picking guitar by the time he was five and had formed his first band at ten.
Twitty loved music, but saw performing strictly as a hobby. He had another profession in mind—baseball. At 18 he was offered a contract by the Philadelphia Phillies, but before he could sign he was drafted into the service. He spent most of his Army years in Japan,
For the Record…
Born Harold Lloyd Jenkins, September 1, 1933, in Friars Point, MS; son of a riverboat pilot; married first wife, Georgia, c. 1955 (divorced, 1985); married Dee Henry (a secretary and record producer), 1987; children: (first marriage) Conway, Jr., Cathy.
Singer, songwriter, guitar player, 1951—. Recorded rock songs with Mercury and MGM Records, 1957-65; had first Number One hit, “It’s Only Make Believe,” 1958. Moved to country music in 1965, signed with Decca Records and released more than 50 Number One country singles between 1968 and 1986. Has made numerous live tours in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has appeared as guest star on television variety shows. Star of syndicated television program, The Conway Twitty Show, 1966. Appeared in films Platinum High, Sex Kittens Go to College, and College Confidential
Awards: With Loretta Lynn, named vocal duo of the year by the Country Music Association, 1972-78, and 1980.
Address: Record company —UNI Distribution Corp. (formerly MCA records), 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.
where he performed in a country band to entertain the furloughed troops. When he returned to the States, Twitty was astonished by the first music he heard on the radio, Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train.” Later he was thrilled by the Carl Perkins hit “Blue Suede Shoes.” Twitty said in the Country Music Encyclopedia: “I thought this was a young type of music and I thought I could do this.… So I got a little group together … and we started playing in nightclubs and on street corners and under shade trees—anywhere they’d let us play down in Arkansas and Tennessee and the Mississippi area.”
Twitty auditioned at Sun Records for Sam Phillips—the legendary producer who signed Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison—but Phillips did not offer Twitty a contract. Instead, the singer found himself at Mercury Records with a producer who urged him to change his name. He was reluctant at first, because he wanted the folks in his hometown to see that “Harold Jenkins” had made the big time. Eventually, though, he became convinced that only a distinctive name would assure his singles air time in the competitive pop market. He used maps of the South to come up with his stage name—Conway, from Conway, Arkansas, and Twitty, from Twitty, Texas.
A Mercury single, “I Need Your Lovin’,” was Twitty’s first chart-making song. In 1958 the artist moved to MGM Records and released “It’s Only Make Believe,” a song he wrote himself. The record—a powerful vocal performance featuring Twitty’s trademark growl—became one of the biggest singles of the 1950s, selling in excess of eight million copies and topping record charts in 22 countries. In America “It’s Only Make Believe” reached Number One on the country, pop, and blues charts and made a star of its author. From 1958 until 1965 Twitty rode a crest of popularity as a rock ’n’ roll performer. He was such a phenomenon that he inspired the character of Conrad Birdie in the Broadway musical Bye Bye, Birdie.
Twitty’s young fans, however, were unaware of his discontent with rock music. In his spare time he wrote country songs and sold them to other artists; gradually he became determined to move into country himself. “I was thirty-two years old and still playing the rock shows,” he said in the Country Music Encyclopedia. “I wanted to get in the country thing so bad.” For a while Twitty was stymied by his contract with MGM and extensive entourage of agents and managers. Finally, he let his MGM deal expire and presented himself to Decca producer Owen Bradley in Nashville. Bradley signed Twitty as strictly a country performer, and the two men worked together for the next 20 years.
Twitty took a hefty pay cut when he decided to go country. He soon recouped his losses, though, scoring 36 consecutive Top Five hits between 1968 and 1977. Both as a solo singer and in duet with country superstar Loretta Lynn, Twitty was almost always represented somewhere on the country charts. His biggest hits include “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart,” “Next in Line,” “Hello Darlin’,” “She Needs Someone to Hold Her,” “The Games That Daddies Play,” and “Play Guitar, Play.” Occasionally he released songs featuring suggestive lyrics—“You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and “Slow Hand”—that sold all the more for the controversy they engendered. Remarkably, Twitty never won an award from the Country Music Association for his solo work, even though he and Lynn won best duo almost constantly throughout the 1970s.
Today Twitty is still one of the most popular country stars and is arguably the most popular in his age group.
The duration of his success is a result of his inspired choice of recording material and his extremely wise manipulation of the limelight. Twitty is not uncommonly handsome or vocally dynamic; but he recognizes the fact that country fans want good, meaningful songs, and a fantasy world into which they can slip, however briefly, during concerts. He has shunned interviews and television appearances over the years and does little talking on stage. “There may be ten thousand different people that think Conway Twitty is ten thousand different things,” he told Nash. “As long as you don’t get on some talk show and blow all that—say things that you shouldn’t say, and destroy that fragile little image in that one country music fan’s mind—then you can be all things to all people.… I respect that image that each fan out there creates individually. I try to never do anything that will destroy that image.”
Twitty knows it is the song, not the singer, that appeals to country fans. Women in particular love his work because his lyrics acknowledge both sensuality and the desire for respect and affection. Twitty feels that his deep love for country music gives him a charmed ear for hit songs; he will listen to as many as 3,000 tunes before choosing ten to record. “If there’s any so-called secret to my success and longevity in this business, it is that talent,” Twitty told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I can just tell [a hit] when I write one or when I hear one. That’s the one thing that’s sustained me down through the years.”
Hello Darlin, MCA, reissue, 1985.
Chasin’ Rainbows, Warner Bros., 1985.
Fallin’ for You for Years, Warner Bros., 1986.
Borderline, MCA, 1987.
Number Ones: The Warner Bros. Years, Warner Bros., 1988.
House on Old Lonesome Road, MCA, 1989.
Greatest Hits, MCA, 3 Volumes; Volume 3, 1990.
Crazy in Love, MCA, 1990.
25th Silver Anniversary Collection, MCA, 1990.
Number Ones, Capitol Nashville, 1991.
Hits of Conway Twitty, MGM.
Hit the Road, MGM.
Conway Twitty, MGM.
Honky Tonk Angels, MCA.
I’m Not through Loving You, MCA.
To See My Angel Cry, MCA.
Shake It Up, Pickwick.
Linda on My Mind, MCA.
You’ve Never Been This Far, MCA.
High Priest of Country, MCA.
Now and Then, MCA.
Play Guitar, Play, MCA.
Cross Winds, MCA.
Heart and Soul, MCA.
A Night with Conway Twitty, MCA.
Number Ones, MCA.
By Heart, Warner Bros.
Conway’s #1 Classics, 2 Volumes, Warner Bros.
Don’t Call Him a Cowboy, Warner Bros.
Dream Maker, Warner Bros.
Lost in the Feeling, Warner Bros.
Southern Comfort, Warner Bros.
With Loretta Lynn
Twenty Greatest Hits of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, MCA, 1987.
The Very Best of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, MCA, 1988.
Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man, MCA.
We Only Make Believe, MCA.
Country Partners, MCA.
United Talent, MCA.
Never-Ending Song of Love, Coral.
Diamond Duet, MCA.
Dynamic Duo, MCA.
Lead Me On, MCA.
Two’s a Party, MCA.
Brown, Charles T. Music U.S.A.: America’s Country and Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Nash, Alanna, Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, Knopf, 1988.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Philadelphia Inquirer, July 22, 1990.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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