NASHVILLE — My memories of legendary Conway Twitty aren’t always happy ones, as I felt family and the industry muddied up the Mississippi native’s true legacy. What brings him to mind now is “Timeless,” a 14-song Twitty retrospective released by the indie Country Rewind (CR) label that recently came across my desk. When you know the back story to this work, you’ll understand why I was hesitant about reviewing this previously-unreleased performance by Conway. Remember, upon his death 25 years ago, he held the modern record on #1 Billboard singles – 41 – more than Eddy Arnold, Merle Haggard, Aretha Franklin, and yes, The Beatles and Elvis.
According to the new album liner notes, these were produced in May 1972 by the late Scotty Moore at his Music City Recorders Studio here. Conway played guitar, backed by touring bandsmen Joe E. Lewis, bass; John Hughey, steel; Tommy (Pork Chop) Markham, drums, and Moore’s pianist-buddy Hargus (Pig) Robbins. Their original target audience consisted of some 2,000 radio stations across the nation, which back in the day chalked up the country champ’s record number of chart-toppers, before conglomerates bought ’em up, issued strict playlists and pre-taped DJs (exhibiting make-or-break broadcast power, capable of zapping political non-conformists, a la the Dixie Chicks!).
I’m amazed to think this was recorded only a month after my first interview with Twitty, during London’s then annual Wembley Country Music Festival in April ’72, for the daily military newspaper Stars & Stripes. Earlier, as a Marine Corps recruiter, I welcomed artists volunteering their talents for such transcriptions, aired with an objective of helping the military attract enlistees; however, those hastily-produced tapes were generally not studio-caliber. Aware of all this, I listened with trepidation to “Timeless.”
Much to my pleasure, the near-33 minutes of music heard proved Scotty (Elvis’ guitarist) also an incredible engineer and mixer, who thankfully kept this treasure, passing it on to CR’s Thomas Gramuglia. In liaison with CR, Conway’s daughter Joni (remember “Don’t Cry, Joni”) and musician-hubby John Wesley Ryles (“Kay”), served as co-producers, with adept engineering aid from Mark Capps.
According to Preshias Harris’s CD liner notes, John Jungklaus also flawlessly transferred the original tapes, while Joni and John added acoustic guitarist Kevin Williams, pianist Ron Oates to the mix, and for two tracks, “Fifteen Years Ago” and “Crazy Arms,” the playing of guitarist Tony Durante (hubby to Kathy, Joni’s sister).
Joni said that John himself “stepped up to the mic and just as I knew he could, he added the perfect harmony to each song. Lord, it put a lump in my throat to hear him, Dad and Big Joe (Lewis) singing together. It was like magic!” Hard to believe it was 50 years ago – at age 17 – that Ryles recorded his own unforgettable Top 10, Hank Mills’ ballad “Kay,” the first of 27 singles J.W.R. charted before devoting himself primarily to behind-the-scenes studio sessions.
In selecting songs for Scotty’s session, Conway chose six chart-toppers, notably “Our Last Date,” for which he created the lyrics to Floyd Cramer’s instrumental “Last Date,” and now it’s this CD’s lead track. There’s also his first country #1 “Next In Line,” which during our London chat, Twitty noted, “It’s been a long, hard climb, making my career in country music, and took 10 years, almost to the day, from my first (pop) #1 ‘It’s Only Make Believe,’ in November 1958, until my first #1 in country, ‘Next In Line’ (November 1968). There were those who said don’t change direction, but that was my decision to make and you know, it feels just right.”
Who from that era can forget Conway’s self-penned “It’s Only Make Believe,” delivered in full two-octave range, along with his sexy little growl, quickly turning it into a classic. Have always admired his artistry immensely, but when he decided his heart was in country, there was an element wanting to deny him that dream, deriding him as “countrypolitan.”
Conservatives felt he was merely slumming in country, because his hits dried up in the pop genre, but they failed to recognize this Southern boy’s heart was always in country, the music he performed in his youth and during his Army stint overseas. Then when his songs became more sensuous, old schoolers resented success of seductive titles like “Lead Me On,” “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” “I See the Want To In Your Eyes” and “I’d Just Love To Lay You Down,” blinded to the fact music was maturing to keep abreast of the times, and Conway was ahead of the curve.
Oddly enough, despite 76 Top 10s and all those #1 songs – 12 of which he wrote or co-wrote – Twitty never won a solo CMA award, like best male vocal or entertainer of the year, though he shared best duo honors with Loretta Lynn four times (1972-’75). There were also nine #1 country albums, but none cited as best by CMA.
Make no mistake about it, “Timeless” is country all the way, with perhaps one exception: “Proud Mary.” That upbeat, hard-driving John Fogerty song, initially a #2 smash for his Creedence Clearwater Revival group in ’69, reminds us Conway could rock. Attesting to that, too, are his early MGM pop cuts “Mona Lisa,” “Lonely Blue Boy,” “C’est Si Bon” and some 116 million records sold, thanks too, to a trio of Twitty singles that charted R&B, prior to his conversion to country.
Even as a country crooner, Conway paid homage to such across-the-board faves as the Bee Gees, Bob Seger, The Eagles, Lionel Richie, Sam Moore and Pointer Sisters, via covers. On this collection, he’s singing “Crazy Arms,” Ray Price’s all-time top tune which charted an astounding 45 weeks for the Cherokee Cowboy. Better believe Twitty couldn’t forget Price, who gave him credibility back in ’63 by cutting Conway’s “Walk Me To The Door,” making it a strong Top 10 country disc, and a strong argument for a country-oriented Conway.
Yet another hardcore country cut Twitty tackles is the Rose and Joe Maphis co-write (with Max Fidler) “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music),” giving it all the grit and passion needed for that honky-tonk standard. It appeared first as a B side to Twitty’s Top Five breakthrough tune “Image Of Me,” from the pen of Wayne Kemp.
Third track is the stylistic “Hello Darlin’,” his signature song, which he actually wrote a decade before hitting #1 with it in 1970, while the LP of that title gave Twitty his first #1 album on Billboard. The single, which became the most played that year, was later voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Henry Compton’s slick weeper “How Much More Can She Stand” gets savvy treatment, reminding us it reached #1 status one year before this track. It served as another album title, as well. In real life, he had just reconciled with wife Mickey, mother of his three younger children, though they would divorce for good in 1984, after 28 years’ togetherness.
Conway’s superb, singing “Working Girl,” a Wes Buchanan composition he recorded first in 1967 for “Conway Twitty Country” (Decca LP). Hmm, initially wondered if it was about a procurer (a.k.a. pimp) and his mistress as he sings,“Working girl/You’ve got money all of the time/Working girl . . . Pay my debt and treat me fine/Ah, I don’t know if I could take it/If she should up and go . . . I love you so . . . working girl.” But gave up that notion when heard on his and Loretta’s duet album “We Only Make Believe” (1971).
Lyrically strong, as well, is the melodic “I Can’t See Me Without You,” which Twitty penned and recorded in 1971, an easy Top Fiver. Thanks to his powerful vocals, brought up-close in the new production, Conway’s awesome performance seemingly outshines the original studio rendition, tagged with a cumbersome choral accompaniment.
The romantic #1 ballad “I Love You More Today,” track seven, was written by a favorite writer of his, L.E. White, the first of several hit contributions he made to Conway’s discography. Another 1970 #1, Raymond Smith’s “Fifteen Years Ago,” a personal favorite of this writer, doesn’t disappoint either, nearly fifty years later.
Yet another “Timeless” cover is the 1956 Johnny Horton hit “Honky-Tonk Man,” a twangy, two-stepper Twitty tackles with equal fervor. Every bit as infectious as applauded covers by the likes of Buck, Dwight or Bob Luman.
Conway’s creation (though credited to wife Mickey Jaco) “If You Were Mine To Lose,” played second fiddle to its uptempo flipside “Look Into My Teardrops,” a fine Harlan Howard-Don Bowman collaboration, that nonetheless failed to launch Conway’s country career switch in ’66. A true heart-tugger, “If You Were Mine To Lose,” offered ample opportunity for soulful, heartfelt vocals radio surely could’ve picked up on way back when. Indeed a spellbinder.
Conway’s final marriage in 1987 to ex-secretary Dee Henry, closer in age to his son Michael, caused friction both in the family and among co-workers, including boyhood pal John Hughey, his veteran steel guitarist, who up and quit The Twitty Birds.
Following a Branson gig, Twitty suffered a stomach aneurysm aboard his tour bus, and was rushed to a hospital in Springfield, Mo., where following surgery, he died June 5, 1993, at age 59.
Subsequently, there ensued a lengthy series of court cases pitting widow Dee against his daughters Kathy and Joni, regarding a will that was either missing or unsigned, dependent on your source. Nor was there any trace of a prenuptial document some believe she signed. Dee opted to follow Tennessee law that decrees a third of the husband’s estate – in the absence of a will – is reserved for his widow. A public auction determined the value of remaining property and artifacts, after Dee rejected an appraised value.
Following years in probate, Twitty’s children – Michael, Joni, Kathy, Jimmy – were assigned rights to the artist’s music, name and image, though another lawsuit between the estate and Sony/ATV Music emerged over Twitty royalties and copyrights, which the company reportedly purchased earlier from Conway. No doubt this would not have been how the artist would want his name to be remembered.
Thanks to more than 50 music performance awards from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, however, Conway Twitty was posthumously enshrined in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1993; and finally inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999. Still no recognition from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though he has been rightly honored posthumously by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in Jackson, Tenn.
“Timeless” is a fitting title for this previously thought lost performance by a country king. Thanks to masterful crisp and clear re-recordings, it doesn’t sound dated, and deserves to be heard by new generations, and is an essential collector’s item for all the Twitty fans still out there. – Walt Trott
That’s Kathy and Joni, Twitty’s daughters, in this Patricia Presley photo.