Conway Twitty (September 1, 1933 - June 5, 1993) was one of the United States' most successful rock and country music artists of the twentieth century. He had more singles (55) reach Number 1 on various national music charts than any other performer.
Born Harold Lloyd Jenkins in Friars Point, Mississippi, Twitty moved with his family to Helena, Arkansas, when he was ten. After serving in the U.S. Army, Twitty played both country and rock, scoring his first hit with the Elvis Presley-influenced teen ballad, "It's Only Make Believe." He had several other rock and roll hits.
Eight years later, Twitty began his country recording career with MCA/Decca, and by the early 1970s, he had scored four straight Number 1 hits, including "Hello Darlin'." In 1971, he released his first hit duet with Loretta Lynn. Together, they won four consecutive CMA awards for vocal duo. In 1982, Twitty moved to Warner Bros. (then Elektra) and reached Number 1 with remakes of the Pointer Sisters' "Slow Hand" and Bette Midler's "The Rose." In 1987, he returned to MCA, where he co-produced his albums with his wife, Dee Henry.
Twitty became ill while performing in Branson, Missouri, and died on June 5, 1993. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
Conway Twitty was born Harold Lloyd Jenkins on September 1, 1933, in Friars Point, Mississippi. He was named after his great uncle's favorite silent movie actor, Harold Lloyd. Twitty's father, a riverboat pilot, taught him his first guitar chords when he was four years old. He heard the sounds of gospel music from a black church in town, and every Saturday night the family gathered around the radio to listen to Grand Ole Opry. When he was ten, his family moved to Helena, Arkansas, and there he established his first band, the Phillips County Ramblers. Two years later, he had his own local radio show every Saturday morning.
After his discharge from the Army, he again pursued a music career. After hearing Elvis Presley's song, "Mystery Train," he began writing rock 'n' roll material. As a matter of course, he headed for the Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and worked with Sam Phillips, owner and founder of the legendary Sun Studios—where Presley and other early rock stars had been discovered—to get the "right" sound. There, he worked with artists such Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and others.
Jenkins felt that his real name was not marketable. He changed to his show-business name in 1957, but Harold Lloyd Jenkins would always remain his legal name. Looking at a road map, he spotted Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas. His professional name thus became "Conway Twitty."
However, instead of playing rockabilly like some of the other Sun discoveries, he tried his hand at the less country style that had come to be called Rock and Roll. For more than a year, he was unable to score a hit, when his fortunes suddenly changed in 1958, while he was with MGM Records. An Ohio radio station played the "B side" of Twitty's lack-luster single "I'll Try," a song called "It's Only Make Believe." The song was written by Conway and drummer, Jack Nance. It soon became popular in Ohio, and gradually reached the top of the national charts.
For a brief period in Twitty's early career, especially in the case of "It's Only Make Believe," many believed that this previously unknown singer was actually Elvis Presley recording under a different name. The record took nearly one year in all to reach the top spot in the charts. It went on to sell over eight million records and to reach Number 1 in 21 different nations.
Twitty would also enjoy Rock and Roll success with a rock version of "Danny Boy" and "Lonely Blue Boy."
Following three gold records in eight years, Twitty began his country career with MCA/Decca in 1965, and by the early 1970s, he had scored four straight Number 1 hits. Country DJs refused to play his first few country albums because he was too well known as a rock singer. He finally broke free from the rock stereotype in 1968, with his first Number 1 country song, "Next In Line." Then, in 1970, Twitty recorded and released "Hello Darlin'," a major country hit. His growling, personalized, and occasionally raunchy style was a big hit with country fans eager for a sound with more edge than Nashville was producing in those days.
Twitty also produced some of the finest country duets on record. In 1971, he released his first hit duet with Loretta Lynn, "After the Fire Is Gone," followed by "Lead Me On," also in 1971, "Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man," in 1973, and "As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone," in 1974. Together, they won four consecutive CMA awards for Vocal Duo, but Twitty never won a CMA award by himself.
In 1973, Twitty released "You've Never Been This Far Before," which was Number 1 for three weeks that September. Some disc jockeys refused to play the song because of its suggestive lyrics, but it, too, became a hugely popular hit.
While Twitty has been known to cover songs—most notably "Slow Hand," which was a major pop hit for the Pointer Sisters—his own songs have not been covered that often. However, three notable covers include George Jones' rendition of "Hello Darlin'," Blake Shelton's "Goodbye Time," and Elvis Presley's version of "There's A Honky Tonk Angel."
Twitty married three times. He lived for many years in Hendersonville, Tennessee, just north of Nashville, where he built a country music entertainment complex called Twitty City. Its lavish displays of Christmas lights were a famous local sight. It was sold to the Trinity Broadcasting Network and converted to a Christian music venue in 1990.
In 1993, Twitty became ill while performing in Branson, Missouri, and was in pain while he was on the tour bus. He soon died of an abdominal aneurysm. Shortly before his death, he had recorded an appropriately titled new album, "Final Touches."
Twitty's widow and his four grown children from previous marriages engaged in a publicly visible dispute over his estate. His will had not been updated to account for his third marriage, and Tennessee law reserves one third of any estate to the widow. A public auction of much property and memorabilia was held due to the fact that his widow refused to accept their appraised value. The sale did, in fact, net more money than the appraised value of the items in question.
Twitty was often noted for being "The Best Friend a Song Ever Had," and to his fans, the statement rang true after his passing. A story from Tennessee illustrates the power of Conway's music. A man had left his house, his wife, and children and had been absent for quite some time. When asked if she thought he was going to come back the woman replied "I know he'll be back; he didn't take his Conway records." A few days later, her husband indeed returned.
Conway Twitty built an astounding musical legacy that spanned five decades, including being one of the earliest artists to successfully cross over from Rock and Roll to country music. However, the best measure of Twitty's legacy is how he touched everyone who heard his innovative, compelling music that spoke to the heart. Whatever the style—rock and roll, R&B, rockabilly, or his beloved country music—Twitty invested himself fully, and made the music his own. This is his enduring legacy for listeners and fellow musicians, alike.
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