The late great country crooner Conway Twitty had one of the oddest career trajectories of any major act in the country field. With 23 top ten hits in the late ’70s to early ’80s, including 13 number one country singles on Billboard, he was significant indeed.
Twitty (born Harold Lloyd Jenkins) first broke through with the pop classic “It’s Only Make Believe,” which hit number one on the charts in 1958 and led to his burgeoning career as a pop rocker, as well as providing inspiration for the name of the main character, Conrad Birdie, in the hit 1960 Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie.”
But Twitty never rivaled Elvis, the star he was most often compared to, and his real artistic and commercial success arrived more than a decade later when his self-penned country hit “Hello Darlin’” took him to the top of the country charts, a lofty spot he came to inhabit for much of the next 15 years.
The hits are too numerous to mention, but “Play Guitar Play,” “Linda on My Mind,” “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” and “I’d Love to Lay You Down” are prime examples of his sultry, even lurid lyrical excursions into hard-core romantic country balladry. Some deejays of the ’70s, especially in the Bible Belt, felt “Never Been This Far” went a little too far into the territory of explicit sexual subject matter.
Had Twitty not died while still very much in his touring prime, at only 59, from an aortic aneurysm, it’s possible that his reputation as one of country music’s true greats might today burn just a bit brighter.
That he never became inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in his lifetime (he made the cut posthumously in 1999) rankled the superstar, according to his biographer, country music historian, Michael Kosser, who has also authored music industry tomes such as “How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A” and the recent “The Jordanaires: The Story of the World’s Greatest Backup Vocal Group.”
Recalling the mid-’80s, when Kosser and Twitty were toiling on “The Conway Twitty Story: The Authorized Autobiography,” Kosser says, “Conway had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about this. He thought that because he wasn’t from Nashville, because he started in Oklahoma, the insiders in the town never took to him as if he were one of the locals.”
But Kosser never saw it that way. “Most of his country career,” he recalls, “most people considered Conway Twitty to be a very important singer. He was up there with Merle Haggard or Charlie Pride and the others.”
Kosser, however, acknowledges that Twitty’s career did go through a downturn after “Make Believe” and the astounding country success was the result of hard work and… the right hairstyle.
“The first one was traditional country,” notes Kosser, which for the uninitiated could be described as “more Bryl Creem, less hairspray.” “The second,” says Kosser, “was more sophisticated, stretching the image a little bit. It made a big difference. It sort of announced that had become more contemporary and it was important that his fans accepted that he had. It was a big sartorial step forward.”
For the die-hard country fans of the era, changes in style were scrutinized and careers were often affected by perceptions of disloyalty to the true country music cause.
“Conway shifted his image without a problem,“ explains Kosser, “but singers like Ray Price or Eddie Arnold country got a different reaction when they became more cosmopolitan in their dress and image. Fans felt they were abandoned. Conway remained ‘country’ and he never lost the fans’ loyalty.”
Reflecting on the many days and nights spent on the road with Twitty, his band and road crew, Kosser still speaks fondly of a country music superstar who, Kosser says, “didn’t get very high or very low. It was a business to him.”
Speaking of Twitty’s youth in the ‘50s, before “Make Believe,” Kosser says the simple way he charted his course pre-stardom became the singing legend’s modus operandi for the rest of his career.
“He was quite a good baseball player,” Kosser recounts. “The Phillies were interested in him and wanted him to go to spring training, but he decided to do his music. One day I asked him why he chose music over baseball. He told me while he was in the military out in California, he heard Elvis for the first time, on the radio in a U.S. Army barracks. Now, this is Conway, in a good way. He said he figured, ‘I can do that.’ I have to say it was all pretty blasé with him. It was what he did. ‘That’s my job.’ The charts mattered, the career mattered, but it was just his job.”
Kosser got a little insight into the star’s deeper feelings and bigger hopes, when he chatted with Twitty about his 1978 ode to the Grand Ole Opry, “The Grandest Lady of Them All,” which turned out to be the only single in the middle of nearly 30 top five hits to not even break into the top ten. It peaked at number 16 at a point in his recording career when almost half of all those other singles topped the charts.
“I asked him,” remembers Kosser, “Did you think ‘Grandest Lady’ would be a big hit?’ and he said, ‘No. I knew it wouldn’t.’ So, I asked him, ‘Then why did you put it out?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, you can’t have all number ones one after another. You have to give radio a break. Every so often, you need to put out a non-hit and then come back with a hit.’ I didn’t say it, but I thought ‘That’s bullshit.’ He hated that it dropped after number 16, but he wanted to maintain control. He needed to present the image like he was in control.”
Looking back on Twitty’s feelings of being an outsider to the Nashville establishment, even after all the SRO tours and chart-topping hits, Kosser suspects a musical love letter to the famously revered heart of the local music scene might have been Twitty’s way of courting favor.
“For all I know, he might have done that record in order to put himself in their good graces, to make sure the Nashville bigshots liked him. It might have had a political dimension, if you will. But in my view, it wasn’t needed. He was loved and respected and Conway is where he belongs, in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”