Conway Twitty 1958- His music was as greasy as his hair.
Twitty re-invented as a country singer, pre-perm.
Conway Twitty, born Harold Jenkins, September 1, 1933 in Friar’s Point, Mississippi seems to have been written out of rock’n’roll history for some reason. Perhaps his rock’n’roll output was overshadowed by his incredible sucess as country singer, for from the mid-60’s until the late 80’s he was one of the biggest stars in country music history, he had something like thirty eight top ten country singles in a row, not even counting duets with Loretta Lynn (the best of those being You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly). His country records which included such monster hits as Hello Darlin’ (1970) You’ve Never Been This Far Before (1973), Slow Hand (1974) are likable, catchy, well made, countrypolitan schlock. They turned him into one of the oddest sex symbols in the history of popular culture, with permed hair and a glazed look in his eye. Compared to George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard who all made their best country sides during that same time period, Twitty’s country output is nothing special. But his rock’n’roll sides (1957-63), to my ears, are much better, in fact he cut out a pretty nice niche for himself as a rocker, with a penchant for making histrionic ballads sound just a tad sleazy. Best remembered for It’s Only Make Believe, a disc I can take or leave (for now, let’s leave it) his catalog if full of great rockers and sleazy ballads, issued on 45 and LP spread over six years and two labels (three if you count the un-issued Sun recordings) and are worth revisiting since I have no better ideas today. He charted at least half dozen times, starred in three fairly retarded but watchable teen exploitation schlock flicks– College Confidential (with Mamie Van Doren), Platinum Highschool (with Dan Duryea and Yvette Mimieaux!), and Sex Kittens Go To College (with Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld), all released in 1960, the year It’s Only Make Believe topped the charts, and made some excellent albums like R&B ’63, Saturday Night With Conway Twitty and Lonely Blue Boy (all MGM) at a time when very few artists really made good albums. Oddly enough, there’s not much of a story here, but there’s more than enough good music. Twitty was a notoriously private character, in fact he was almost paranoid, and left little hint as to just who he was. Nearly every interview I’ve ever read with him is full of easy to spot lies and misrepresentations. As Colin Escott wrote– “It’s unlikely that a full picture of him will ever emerge”.
Friar’s Point is just across the Mississippi River from Helena, Arkansas, where Twitty’s father worked for the WPA and on river boats. Twitty, who had begun singing country music at age eleven, was also playing baseball, at one point he was even drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies for their triple A farm team. Twitty, when forced to choose between music and baseball, picked the former after witnessing an early Elvis show and seeing the reaction of the girls. Northern Arkansas had it’s share of rockers– Sonny Burgess and the Pacers (Burgess and Jack Nance would both end up in Twitty’s band at various times), Billy Lee Riley, Andy Starr,
and Ronnie Hawkins were all doing well locally and Twitty figured if they could do it, so could he. Unfortunately for him, Uncle Sam stepped in and in 1954 he was drafted and sent to Yokohama. Upon his return he set out for Memphis with an eye on a contract with Sun Records.
Sam Phillips recorded two sessions with Twitty, producing three credible rockers and one ballad, none of which he released, my favorite of the lot being I Need Your Lovin’ Kiss, a straight ahead rockabilly number complete with hiccups. The only good thing for Twitty that came out his attempt at becoming a Sun artist was selling the tune Rockhouse (this is Twitty’s demo) to Roy Orbison, who’d record it as his second single and the title track for his first LP.
Around this time Twitty, still called Harold Jenkins, hooked up with a fast talking manager named Don Seat. Despite Twitty’s repeating over and over of the story of picking his name off of a map of Texas, Seat claims his girlfriend had come up with the name long before young Harold came into the picture. Either way, now renamed Conway Twitty, Seat put him on the road with his band the Rockhousers (here’s an early example of what they sounded like live, a version of Maybellene using the same arrangement as Elvis used on the Louisiana Hayride Broadcasts), and soon got him a deal with Mercury. At Mercury he cut three good singles, straight ahead rockabilly tunes like Shake It Up, Double Talk Baby, and I Need Your Lovin’, being the best of the batch, but by 1957 rockabilly had already peaked, and Twitty’s discs went nowhere. Seat took his young charge to MGM where he cut dozens of singles, EP’s and LP’s. The highlight of his tenure at MGM commercially being It’s Only Make Believe which topped the charts in 1960. Twitty would score lesser hits with Lonely Blue Boy, Dan Penn’s Is A Bluebird Blue, the goofy C’est Si Bon, rocked up versions of Danny Boy and Mona Lisa, all doing good business. Since they’re easy to find, I won’t bother posting them, instead I’d rather hip you to some of the oddball stuff buried in Twitty’s catalog, as some are truly fine records, and some records I just dig for whatever reason it is that makes somebody dig a record. One of the best, which he’d picked up while at Sun is Mack Self’s I Vibrate, then there’s non-chart singles like Hey Little Lucy, the Drifters’ Hey Miss Ruby (done before Dion’s hit version), Teasin’, Golly Gosh Oh Gee, Beach Comber, LP tracks like his sleazy reading of Fever, Long Black Train, Touble In Mind, Just Because and of course, the theme song to Platinum High School. Okay, not exactly Don & Dewey, but I like these sides, they prove Twitty was more than an Elvis impersonator, he was a rocker with his own unique style. Despite the goofy girlie chorus and the producer’s attempt to make them sound “teen”, Twitty sounds like a sleazy, lounge lizard trying to pass himself off as Troy Shondell. I find these discs tremendously likable, if not earth shattering.
Long after the hits dried up he kept rockin’, making records like the aforementioned R&B ’63. I found an odd bootleg on the Demand label many years ago at the old Rock On shop in Camden Town, London. I’ve never seen another copy. It’s Conway Twitty and his band Recorded Live At The Castaway Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio, 1963, and with thumpin’ versions of Money, Elmore James’ Shake Your Money Maker, Ain’t Goin’ Home, a killer reading of Is A Bluebird Blue that is way better than the string laden studio take, as well as many Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley tunes, we see that Twitty’s 1963 set list was pretty much the same as that of the Rolling Stones who were just learning to tune their guitars across the pond, and whose U.S. arrival on the heels of the Beatles a couple of years later would end Twitty’s career in rock’n’roll.
What I like about this album is that it’s a rare recording of rock’n’roll as it was heard in night clubs that served booze, not teenage package shows full of screaming kids. I can just see the crowd– bikers, blue collar workers, beehive hair-do’s and capri slacks on the women. Twitty knew how to play for these folks, they like their music raw and greasy, and that’s just how Twitty played it for them.
The British Intrusion sealed his fate, and by 1965 Twitty was a dead issue as a rocker, he hadn’t had a hit in years and MGM dropped him. Soon Owen Bradley signed him to Decca as a country singer and the rest is history. Millions of records later, Twitty would be a country music icon. He would earn and lose huge sums of money, investing in such sure fire losers as Twitty Burgers, a mobile home business, a resort in Mississippi and Twitty City, his amusement park, Twitty blew through millions. Only his music publishing company Twittybird made any money.
In 1993, just 59 years old, he was en route from a gig in Branson, Missouri when he had a brain aneurysm and dropped dead, taking with him a lot of good stories he never got to tell. I know, it’s not much of a story, except the part about the Twitty Burgers. Anyone every try one?