For the last twenty years of his life, Conway Twitty was introduced on stage as “The Best Friend A Song Ever Had”. The conceit was not new to Conway – during the 1960s classic pop singer Jerry Vale was frequently called “A Song’s Best Friend” – and Ray Price and Gene Watson certainly could make a case for being called that – but certainly few artists were as versatile singers as Conway Twitty.
Conway Twitty was born as Harold Lloyd Jenkins ( September 1, 1933 – June 5, 1993) was born in Friars Point, Mississippi. His family moved to Arkansas when he was ten, and he grew up listening to country and rhythm & blues music, and eventually becoming a performer. After a hitch in the army, Conway (as we shall refer to him) mde his way to Memphis where he worked with Sam Phillips but did not record any records for commercial release
In 1957 Conway selected his stage name with the aid of a road atlas using Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas as his inspiration. In the interim, Conway has been signed to Mercury Records where several rockabilly singles were released without much success (“I Need Your Lovin’” reached #93)
Moving over to MGM in 1958, Twitty released his signature song “It’s Only Make Believe”. The song, a powerful ballad that many assumed was an Elvis Presley recording, broke out first in Canada where Conway was working road dates. In the US it took longer for the record to hit as MGM has initially pushing “I’ll Try” as the A side but eventually the record broke out in Columbus Ohio, ultimately becoming a #1 pop hit in both the US and Canada, It also reached #5 in Australia.
During his tenure with MGM, Conway continued to issue rockabilly records, some of which charted, but his bigger successes were with ballads pointing the way for his later country music success. In 1959 “Danny Boy” (#10) and “Lonely Blue Boy” (#6) reached the top ten, the only other MGM singles to do so, although a rocked up recording of “Mona Lisa” would become a number one record in Australia.
The ‘British Invasion’ is often blamed for the demise of many American artists’ chart careers, but the truth is Conway’s major pop success ended in 1959. Six singles were released in 1960, but none of them cracked the top twenty, and the four MGM singles released after 1960 failed to crack the top sixty.
Conway and his band (“The Lonely Blue Boys”) continue to tour, but Conway , who claimed that his heart was always in country music, shifted his focus toward Nashville, where he was met with some skepticism. His songwriting skills got his foot in the door when Ray Price took “Walk Me To The Door” to #7 on the country charts in 1962. From there Conway eventually got Owen Bradley on his side and signed a contract with Decca in 1965. The first Decca album was released in 1966 and throughout 1966 and 1967 Conway’s singles also charted with four of the five singles reaching the top forty.
In 1967, “The Image of Me” reached #5, starting a string in which 52 of 53 solo singles reached the top ten (and of those top tens only three missed the top five).
Conway Twitty was nothing if not adaptable, being able to adjust to the changing trend in music. When rockabilly died out as a chart force, Conway switched to more conventional rock and roll and pop ballads. As country grew less traditional, Conway changed with it. At various points in his country career Conway changed producers, labels and even his appearance to avoid become dated.
During the periods 1985-1986 and 1989-1990, Conway’s records were charting minimally but he was able to re-gear and achieve more top tier hits. Toward the end of 1991 Conway realized that he had again lost traction with radio and spent the next year searching for material to take him to the top again. His final album, fittingly titled Final Touches, was released after his death in June 1993 – it probably would have taken him back near the top again if Conway had been around to promote the record. As it was, MCA was not interested in promoting n artist who was no longer around to tour and help push album sales
Conway Twitty’s career is sometime compared to that of George Strait, the man who surpassed the number of #1 chart recordings that Conway achieved. It really isn’t an apt comparison as Strait was basically a singer who found a groove and stayed there, but for most of his career didn’t write his own material, and whose singles never reached the top twenty of the Billboard Hot 100.
In contrast, Twitty wrote many of his album tracks and some of his biggest singles including “It’s Only Make Believe” and “Hello Darlin’”. The variety of types and tempos of songs that Conway Twitty took to number one is staggering plus Twitty has a number of successful singles as a duet partner. Moreover, many artists raided Conway’s albums for singles material. For instance the following:
1 – Oak Ridge Boys – “I Wish You Could Have Turned My Head (And Left My Heart Alone)”, originally from Twitty’s 1979 album Crosswinds. The song went #1 Cashbox/#2Billboard
2- Statler Brothers – “You’ll Be Back (Every Night in My Dreams)”, from Twitty’s 1980 album Rest Your Love On Me. This song reached #3
3 – Lee Greenwood – “It Turns Me Inside Out”, from Twitty’s 1982 album Southern Comfort – this was Lee’s first hit reaching #17
4 – John Conlee – “In My Eyes”, from Twitty’s 1982 album Dream Maker – this reached #1
5 – John Schneider – “What’s a Memory Like You (Doin’ in a Love Like This?)”, from Twitty’s 1985 album Chasin’ Rainbows – #1
There are other examples of artists snatching hit songs off Conway’s albums, something which did not happen much with Strait’s albums.
Our November Spotlight Artist is one of the most open-minded, capable and enduring artists in the history of the genre. If you’ve not encountered Conway Twitty before prepare to be amazed. If you are familiar with his material you may find yourself surprised by the breadth and depth of his recordings. Either way you may find yourself agreeing that Conway Twitty was indeed” the best friend a song ever had”.