Born Harold Lloyd Jenkins, 1 September 1933, Friars Point, Mississippi
During his lifetime, Conway Twitty had more # 1 country hits (40) than any other artist, until George Strait broke the record in 2006. However, this biography will concentrate on his years as a rock n roll singer (1956- 1964), as I'm not too familiar with his country recordings.
Harold Lloyd Jenkins was born in Mississippi, but grew up in Helena, Arkansas. Named after silent screen actor Harold Lloyd, he was taught guitar by his grandfather and a neighbourhood blues singer. He wrote his first song when he was ten and in 1945 or 1946 he put together a hillbilly band called the Phillips County Ramblers, who played on KFFA radio in Helena and stayed together until 1953. Also a talented baseball player, Harold was scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies, but was unable to accept a contract because he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1954 and sent to Yokohama, Japan. When Jenkins got out of the army in March 1956, he noticed that the music scene had changed drastically. Inspired by Elvis Presley, he formed a new band called Harold Jenkins and the Rockhousers and tried his luck at Sun Records in Memphis. Though he recorded several sessions for Sun, nothing was issued at the time. But Sam Phillips saw some potential in Harold's song "Rockhouse", acquired it for his publishing company and released it as Roy Orbison's second Sun single in September 1956.
Under the wings of a new manager, Don Seat, Harold signed a contract with Mercury in early 1957. With his name changed to Conway Twitty, the first Mercury single, "I Need Your Lovin'", reached # 93 on the Billboard charts in May 1957, about ninety places shy of what Twitty had hoped for. His approach to rock 'n' roll was always marked by an arsenal of vocal gimmicks, and they were never more obvious than on the Mercury sessions. He was trying too hard. After a second session in October 1957, Mercury dropped him. By then, Twitty and his band had found employment at the Flamingo Lounge in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. When he returned there for a second stint in mid-October 1957, he had recruited a new band : Joe Lewis (guitar), Blackie Preston (bass) and Jack Nance (drums). Lewis and Nance had previously played with Sonny Burgess's Pacers. Nance was also a songwriter and, together with Twitty, he co-wrote "I'll Try" and "It's Only Make Believe". While still in Canada, Twitty sent a demo of the two songs to Don Seat, who pitched the tapes around town and found a taker in MGM Records. Both songs were recorded on May 7, 1958, in Nashville, and released some six weeks later with "I'll Try" as the A-side. It was a local hit in Ontario, but in the States nothing much was happening until a deejay in Columbus, Ohio (Doctor Bop) started playing "It's Only Make Believe". Soon Conway Twitty had the biggest record in the country and on November 10, 1958, "It's Only Make Believe" reached the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100. Within a space of weeks, Twitty had gone from the Colonial Tavern in Toronto to the Perry Como Show and American Bandstand. The record also topped the UK charts for five weeks and was a hit in many other countries as well.
In late 1958 and February 1959 Twitty went back to Nashville to record an album and a follow-up single, "The Story Of My Love", which only got to # 28. (The flip, "Make Me Know You're Mine", would have made a better A-side.) The third MGM single, "Hey Little Lucy", barely scraped the charts (# 87), but next came a rocked-up arrangement of "Mona Lisa" (borrowed from Carl Mann), which returned him to the Top 30, scoring a # 5 UK hit in the process. It was followed by a rock 'n' roll version of "Danny Boy", which went to # 10 in the USA, but due to publishing problems, Twitty had to re-record the song as "Rosaleena" for the British market. Next, "Lonely Blue Boy" became the second biggest hit of Twitty's career (# 6, early 1960) ; this was an unissued Elvis Presley recording from January 1958 (then titled "Danny"), intended (but not used) for the "King Creole" soundtrack. Then Hollywood came calling. In 1959-60 Conway appeared in "Platinum High School", "College Confidential" and "Sex Kittens Go To College" (the last two starring Mamie Van Doren) - "three of the cheesiest movies of the Fifties", according to Colin Escott. The "Conrad Birdie" character in the Broadway musical "Bye Bye Birdie" parodied Twitty.
There were further Top 40 hits in 1960-61 with "What Am I Living For", "Is A Bluebird Blue" and "C'Est Si Bon", but gradually Twitty's hits were tailing off. Already in 1960 he expressed his desire to record country music, but his producer at MGM (Jim Vienneau) and his manager (Don Seat) wouldn't hear of it. "Portrait Of A Fool" was his last chart entry on MGM (# 98, January 1962). Early in 1963, Conway's composition "Walk Me To the Door" became a # 7 country hit for Ray Price, which strengthened his pressure to switch to country. But when his MGM contract ran out later that year, he did not sign with a country label, but with ABC-Paramount, a label with even less presence in country music than MGM. Twitty was in a financial mess, which Sam Clark (the president of ABC Records) promised to clean up. Two ABC singles were issued in 1964, including a good version of "Such A Night", but then RCA decided to issue Presley's version from the 1960 LP "Elvis Is Back" as a single and that competition proved too much for Twitty. Ironically, Conway's record was produced by Felton Jarvis, Elvis's future producer.
In June 1965 Twitty signed with Decca as a country singer and moved to Nashville. At first country deejays were skeptical of the former pop star, but in 1966 he scored his first country hit and in 1968 his first country number one ("Next In Line", not the Johnny Cash song). He was the most successful country artist of the 1970s and the second most successful (after Willie Nelson) of the 1980s. The recipient of many CMA awards, Twitty recorded for Decca (later absorbed by MCA) until 1981, then for Warner / Elektra (1981-86), but he returned to MCA in 1987. Of his forty # 1 hits, eleven were self-penned. Thirty-two of the 40 were number one for only one week and in Joel Whitburn's "Most Weeks At # 1" survey, Twitty ranks no higher than # 11, with 52 weeks. (Eddy Arnold is at # 1 with 145 weeks.)
On June 4, 1993, Twitty became ill while performing in Branson, Missouri, and was in pain while travelling to Nashville on the tour bus. He was taken to Cox South Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, and died there the next day from an abdominal aortic aneurysm, aged 59. He was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1999. In the years since his death, his widow, Dee Henry Jenkins, has kept his legacy alive. On the basis of his MGM catalog, Conway Twitty must be regarded as an important rock n roll artist, in spite of his vocal mannerisms. Between 1958 and 1961 there were very few duds among the MGM recordings, all of which were made in Nashville, with the famous A-Team, supplemented by Al Bruno (an excellent guitarist) and Jack Nance of Twitty's own band.
More info : http://www.allmusic.com/artist/conway-twitty-mn0000780451
Book : Wilbur Cross and Michael Kosser : The Conway Twitty Story : An Authorized Biography. Garden City, NJ : Doubleday, 1986. Out of print.
Sessionography / discography :
Acknowledgements : Colin Escott, Tony Wilkinson, Robert Oermann.
Dik, September 2012
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