Death of 1970s’ balladeer Tommy Overstreet . . .
NASHVILLE – There was a time when Tommy Overstreet’s winning formula of name songs about gals doing him wrong, made him one of country music’s top stars, thanks to “Gwen (Congratulations),” “Ann (Don’t Go Runnin’)” and “(Jeannie Marie) You Were a Lady.” Sadly, on Nov. 2, time ran out for Tommy, 78, who died at his Hillsboro home, west of Portland, Ore.
First interviewed Tommy when he was in Wiesbaden, Germany, to entertain American forces, backed by his Nashville Express band. This was shortly after scoring introductory back-to-back 1971 Top Five singles “Gwen” and “I Don’t Know You (Anymore),” while celebrating a near #1, “Ann,” in ’72.
The decade would proclaim him a smooth ballad singer, no doubt heavily influenced by ancestral cousin Gene Austin, a 1920s’ pop singer whose 39 Top 10 discs included nine classic chart-toppers, among them “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” “My Blue Heaven” and a pair of “name” songs “Ramona” and “Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time).” Their younger cousin is folk singer Susan St. Marie (“All Or Nothing With Me”), who never attained the impressive chartings of her famed relatives.
Although born Sept. 10, 1937 in Oklahoma City, Tommy’s family moved to Abilene, Texas, when he was a youngster. He took up the guitar, and initially enjoyed playing pop tunes, confiding, “My mother said I started singing when I was born. Anyway, I always wanted to be a singer from as long ago as I can remember.”
At 17, Tommy landed a semi-regular gig on Abilene-TV’s The Slim Willet Show, Willet being the writer and first to hit #1 country with his song “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes” (also a 1952 #1 pop cover for Perry Como). After moving to Houston, a Lamar High School classmate was Tommy Sands, future singer-actor (“Sing Boy, Sing”), who would later be managed by Colonel Tom Parker, but helpful in bringing about an introduction to then Parker-client Elvis Presley, whom Overstreet greatly admired.
In retrospect, sandy-haired Tommy was as handsome and rugged as the Colonel’s two talents, and might well have made the trek to Hollywood himself, given the right backing. Meanwhile, however, Overstreet’s primary credit was performing on radio in Houston, and having formed his own band, The Shadows. He went on to study broadcasting at the University of Texas there, but was in a stage musical, “Hit The Road,” as well. While playing area clubs, he was announced as “Tommy Dean From Abilene,” sometimes appearing with Gene Austin, whom he called “Uncle,” a fixture at Houston’s elite Shamrock Hotel.
Following service with the Army, Tommy settled briefly in Los Angeles under his real name, honing his talents as a writer, recording and “pitching” his songs to no less than perennial pop favorite Pat Boone. Reportedly, Overstreet’s own first professional recording stint came at Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, with Jimmy Gilmore & The Fireballs. In 1960, Tommy recorded for Roulette Records in New York City, reportedly with The Ray Charles Singers supplying backing vocals.
In 1967, Dot Records’ Randy Wood engaged Tommy to manage the label’s Nashville branch. He was also signed to record, his first charting being “Rocking a Memory (That Won’t Go To Sleep),” lasting a scant two weeks in ’69. Three years later, Tommy hit paydirt with a strong ballad “Gwen,” co-written by his producer Ricci Mareno and Jerry Gillespie, writers who proved prolific in his career.
“Gwen” was also the title of his debut album, charting 12 weeks and hitting Top 40, as the single crossed over into the pop Top 100 list on Billboard. A proud Overstreet pointed out, “The single hit #1 in the other trade weeklies, Cash Box and Record World, but Billboard kept it #3, as they regarded Randy Wood’s (Dot) an indie label.”
A year later, “Heaven Is My Woman’s Name” scored #3 country and also hit the pop Top 100 chart. That song, written by Bonnie Dobbins, was not one his producer sought as a single, so Tommy went to his Dot boss, pleading to release it post-haste – and it became his longest-charting single (18 weeks) and the title track for his most successful LP (#9, 1972). Tommy also enjoyed successes with producer Ron Chancey on ABC-Dot.
Overstreet’s Billboard chartings totaled 11 Top 10s, six of which went Top Five. Included are “Send Me No Roses,” “I’ll Never Break These Chains,” “I’m a Believer” and “Don’t Go ‘City Girl’ On Me.” His run at Dot ended in 1978, with two near-Top 10 singles: “Yes M’am” (#12) and the upbeat “Fadin’ In, Fadin’ Out” (#11). He would record with Elektra, his best showing being the Top 20 “What More Could a Man Need” (1979), and indies such as AMI, Gervas and Silver Dollar, where he had his 34th and final Billboard charting, “Next To You” (1986).
~During the 1980s, he performed several years in the tourist mecca Branson, Mo., before making his move to Oregon. Still, he continued to tour and record CDs, such as “Tommy Overstreet’s Country Gospel” (2006) and “Welcome To My World of Love” (2008). He was also seen guesting on such TV series as Hee Haw, The Midnight Special and In Concert.
Among Tommy’s great regrets were his failed first marriage and the loss of his only son, but he remained proud of his more than 30 overseas tours, and performing across the U.S. and Canada. In 2013, his auto-biography “A Road Less Traveled” was published, and on his Facebook page, this is Overstreet’s final posting, Aug. 26, 2015: “Howdy, howdy everyone! Hope you’re doing well today, and I’ve been worse, but I’m doing good today. Hangin’ in there, as the old saying goes. Working on a new CD that I hope my friends will enjoy. I have a new CD of a fairly old LP, we released quite a few years ago, but I felt it worthy of re-releasing as a CD. The title is ‘Nuggets,’ a 10-song collection my friends in country music had hits with, and they asked me to do an album of these great songs.”
One of his peers, buddy Rex Allen, Jr., wrote on Facebook, Nov. 3: “Tommy Overstreet has passed away at his home. Tommy was a great guy and headlined the first tour I ever worked. So sad.”
Survivors include his widow Diane Overstreet and daughters Amber, Aeriel and Lisa. A memorial service was scheduled on Nov. 22 at Evergreen Christian Center, in Hillsboro.