My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Country Heritage: John Conlee

john conleeDuring the 1980s there was considerable confusion among casual listeners due to the presence of three male singers with somewhat similar names: Earl Thomas Conley, Con Hunley and John Conlee. All three had distinctive voices, all three emerged during the late 1970s, and all three had chart runs that basically died out by the end of the 1980s (although Earl Thomas Conley had one last burst of success in 1991).

This article is about John Conlee, who ranks with Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins among my wife Kay’s favorite country singers.

John Conlee was born on August 11, 1946 in Versailles, Kentucky, the son of a tobacco farmer. As a child John learned to play the guitar, and by age 10 he was appearing on a local radio show. Although interested in many styles of music (he also performed with a barbershop quartet), John did not start out as a professional entertainer, instead becoming a licensed mortician, a trade he worked for six years. From there he worked as a disc jockey at local area radio stations, eventually moving to Nashville in 1971. In 1976, Conlee’s demo tape secured him a contract with ABC Records.

The first few singles failed to chart on Billboard, including the initial release of “Back Side of Thirty” (which, however, reached # 83 on Cashbox). These initial singles did well enough in some local markets to keep ABC issuing singles on him.

The big breakthrough came in the late spring of 1978 when ABC released “Rose Colored Glasses,” a song Conlee wrote. The song peaked in different markets at different times during its 20 week run resulting in it reaching only #5 on Billboard and #3 on Cashbox on its way to becoming one of John’s signature songs. The follow up “Lady Lay Down” reached #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox. Then, striking while the iron was hot, ABC re-released “Back Side of Thirty” which this time reached #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox. Subsequent singles were issued on MCA which had absorbed ABC and Dot, but Conlee’s success continued with 14 of the next 17 singles reaching Billboard’s top ten and seven of the singles reaching #1 on one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World’s country charts. Included in this list of singles were such memorable tunes as “Miss Emily’s Picture,” “I Don’t Remember Loving You” and John’s other signature songs “Common Man” and “Working Man.”

After “Blue Highway” failed to hit the top ten in 1985, Conlee rebounded with “Old School” which reached the top five and was Conlee’s swan song with MCA. “Old School” is said to have introduced the phrase “old school” into the popular vernacular.

A switch to Columbia in 1986 kicked off four more top ten tunes in “Harmony” (#10), “Got My Heart Set On Your (#1), “The Carpenter” (a fine Guy Clark tune that went to #6) and “Domestic Life” (#4). After that, there were to be no more top ten tunes for Conlee, although “Mama’s Rocking Chair” reached #11 in 1987. Subsequent singles failed to crack the top forty. By the end of 1987, John Conlee was off Columbia, by now 41 years old and not what Columbia was looking for to compete with the next generation of singers.

No singles were issued by Conlee during 1988, during which time John signed with 16th Avenue Records, a short-lived independent label. None of John’s four singles on 16th Avenue reached the top forty, although his final single “Doghouse” had ‘hit’ written all over it–had it been issued on MCA during John’s hot streak of the early eighties, it would have been a sure-fire top ten and likely #1 record. Still as Jerry Reed once put it “when you’re hot, you’re hot, when you’re not, you’re not …

When 16th Avenue went under, John Conlee’s career as a charting artist was over. The final tally for John’s career was thirty-two chart records with twenty-two reaching the top ten and eleven songs reaching #1 on either the Billboard, Cashbox and/or Record World charts.

John Conlee continues to perform to this day. He was one of the initial supporters of Farm Aid, and has been a supporter of Feed The Children–when John performs his hit “Busted”, his fans usually throw money onstage, with John collecting the money to donate to Feed the Children. At last count more than $250,000 had been collected and donated. For John’s schedule of upcoming tour dates you can check his official website http://www.johnconlee.com/index.html

Discography

Vinyl

As always, all vinyl is out of print but available through a number of sources. John was recording during the time when albums had ten songs, consisting of two or three singles plus some filler. Since John had a very distinctive voice, if you like his voice you’ll probably like his albums. John issued seven albums of new material plus two Greatest Hits collections on ABC/MCA. After John left ABC/MCA several other samplers and hit collections were issued.

Two Columbia albums and one album on 16th Avenue complete the vinyl story for John Conlee.

CD

The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has five CD titles available:

1. Classics – 23 of John’s ABC/MCA recordings, including all of the biggest hits.

2. Live At Billy Bob’s – live recordings covering a cross section of John’s career. Until recently, this was the only place to obtain a recording of “Doghouse,” initially released only as a cassette single.

3. Rose Colored Glasses – this album is a straight reissue of John’s debut album on ABC.

4. Country Heart– these are 16th Avenue recordings. Many of these songs were previously unreleased as the label folded before a second album could be issued.

5. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus – religious recordings of unknown origins.

In the past, various other MCA and Columbia titles have been available. John’s website sells merchandise including CDs but has no other CDs available for sale other than the titles listed above. You can also purchase hats, tea shirts, key rings, photos and, of course, rose colored glasses.

Happy hunting!

Advertisements

12 responses to “Country Heritage: John Conlee

  1. Ken Johnson February 26, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    As a country radio music director during the late 1970’s I found very few surprises in the mail from record labels. Most new songs even from formerly traditionally-based acts bore no semblance to what I considered “real” country music. To be sure there was some good new songs but most of the voices were essentially smooth, middle-of-the-road singers without a hard country edge. Male artists like Eddie Rabbitt, Ronnie Milsap, Johnny Duncan, Kenny Rogers, Larry Gatlin, Don Williams and Billy “Crash Craddock” dominated the country chart with recordings that would have sounded equally at home on adult contemporary radio. Even Mel Tillis who could be depended upon for solid country singles in the early 70’s had traded his Statesiders band for an orchestra. When I first put the needle on “Rose Colored Glasses” I was instantly amazed that there was an unmistakable COUNTRY sounding voice coming out of the speakers and became an immediate fan of John Conlee. Thanks to Paul for the throwing the spotlight on one of country music’s most distinctive voices (and a truly nice guy!)

    I highly recommend the “Classics” CD that you listed. Gotta give John a lot of credit for not re-recording new versions of his songs as has been the case for many other veteran country acts. In 2002 he remastered 20 of his original recordings and issued this CD. They did an excellent job transferring the masters as the songs have never sounded better. All of his significant ABC & MCA singles are included except for 1985’s “Working Man.” Three new songs round out the disc and if you like John you’ll enjoy these too. “She’s Mine” is especially good and would likely have been a big hit too if it had been released in the ‘80’s.

    John’s gospel disc “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” was released in 2006 and features superb arrangements of sacred classics. The power in John’s voice has not diminished a lick. One of the best religious albums I’ve ever heard from a country performer. Grab this one while you can.

    Still waiting for Sony to reissue a “best of” compilation of John’s Columbia singles. (It would be great if they could include the hit single re-mix version of “Got My Heart Set On You”) Both of his original Columbia albums were only briefly available on CD and now bring obscene money on the used market.
    A word of caution: Last year the British “T-Bird:” label reissued “Harmony” & “American Faces” as a “two-fer” CD. That label is notorious for issuing needle-drops (copying vinyl albums) rather than licensing original master tapes. Haven’t spoken to anyone who has purchased one, but consider yourself warned.

    • Paul W Dennis March 5, 2013 at 8:04 pm

      Ken – I just obtained the T-Bird label two-fer of HARMONY & AMERICAN FACES. I don’t mind needle-drops, if they are done with care, but this disc definitely is NOT needle-drops, but was done with the cooperation of Sony-UK. I was a bit disappointed that T-Bird didn’t do any digital remastering but simply leased the 1986 & 1987 digital masters. The sound is very good, but with the improvements in dgital technology, it could have been even better . Still, I’m glad to have the disc.

      • Ken Johnson March 5, 2013 at 9:23 pm

        Paul
        Glad to hear it’s not a needle drop. T-Bird is an inconsistent label. Sometimes they use tapes but other times it’s direct off the turntable. I bought Conway Twitty’s first two Decca albums from one of their “sister” labels Poker and both albums were recorded from worn scratchy vinyl. Horrible. Yet they still gave label credit to Universal UK for licensing. So go figure. A friend of mine purchased the next Poker Conway CD with his 3rd & 4th Decca albums and it was just as bad.
        I complained to Cherry Red/Poker via their website and no reply. Poor customer service.
        If you’re gonna sell needle drops at least TELL the customer up front. And don’t charge FULL PRICE for poor audio quality either.

        Happy to hear that you didn’t get hosed.

        • Paul W Dennis March 5, 2013 at 10:45 pm

          I purchased the Poker CDs, although not when they first came out so maybe they improved the sound some on the second pressings (actually I purchased all four Poker Twitty two-fers. They are not great but not really that bad. The Decca albums that came out in the late 1960s – early 1970s weren’t always pressed on good quality vinyl – I purchased Conway’s first eight albums new at the Navy Exchange and the quality of the vinyl used was variable – some sounded pretty good, some not very good

  2. Michael A. February 26, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    What a nice surprise today. John Conlee is one of my favorite artists from that era and, unfortunately, so underrated and seemingly forgotten today. I’ll second the recommendation of the Classics CD. My iTunes library has that album in its entirety plus a handful of additional tunes not on that one (Domestic Life, Lifetime Guarantee, Got My Heart Set on You).

    • Luckyoldsun February 26, 2013 at 7:05 pm

      It’s remarkable that this bizzaro character had so many no. 1 hits–more than Gene Watson, Moe Bandy, and Vern Gosdin combined.

      • Ken Johnson February 26, 2013 at 8:05 pm

        Obviously he was not a “bizzaro character” after all . John selected GREAT songs and was rewarded with significant airplay and sales. You might want to re-think that.

        • Luckyoldsun February 27, 2013 at 9:44 am

          I seem to remember that when I first started listening to country radio, they would play these paeans to suburbia John Conlee–one where he reveled in cub scout meetings and his cocker spaniel “always having puppies”; another where he sang about wanting to drink “Budweiser Beer” and take his woman to McDonald’s. If those were the prime cuts, it’s scary to imagine what the album filler must have sounded like–if anyone was actually buying the albums. I suppose it might be worth getting one of those CD’s (they probably go for a penny plus shipping) as a goof–or to torture someone who asks for a ride in my car.

  3. southtexaspistolero February 27, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    So much fail packed into two comments that I hardly know where to begin. Suffice it to say that thinking “Domestic Life” was representative of John Conlee’s oeuvre is akin to thinking “I’m A People” was representative of the oeuvre of George Jones.

    • Ken Johnson February 28, 2013 at 10:38 am

      Southtexaspistolero is absolutely right. Every artist has recorded songs that were not among their best work. At the time they did them they had reason to believe the song had merit. George Jones had more than a few clinkers in addition to the one mentioned above – Old King Kong, The King Is Gone and High-Tech Redneck to add a few more. However it doesn’t detract from all of the great songs that he turned into classics – He Stopped Loving Her Today, Window Up Above, She Thinks I Still Care & Walk Through This World With Me. Same can be said for Merle Haggard (The Bull & The Beaver, I’m A White Boy) and Johnny Cash (The Chicken In Black & Boa Constrictor)

      John Conlee has many great songs in his repertoire. His entire body of work can’t be disregarded for one that falls short in some folks estimation. By the way “Domestic Life” was indeed a hit rising to #6 so it obviously found appeal with a significant number of fans.

  4. Trey December 19, 2017 at 9:00 pm

    Any idea why albums such as Busted and With Love are not available in a digital format ? Thanks.

    • Occasional Hope December 20, 2017 at 2:54 am

      Not specifically, but some record labels are better than others about this. It would be great if more was available.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: