NASHVILLE — “Come as you are E.T., but leave all the magical music you made for others to enjoy and remember you by,” might’ve been the call Earl Thomas Conley heard after seasons of suffering forgetfulness, prior to his April 10, 2019 passing in Hospice care here. According to devoted brother Fred Conley, E.T. died at age 77, shortly after midnight from a condition not unlike dementia (cerebral atrophy).
Five Top 10 RCA albums, including the 1985 #1 “Earl Thomas Conley’s Greatest Hits,” which charted nearly 90 weeks contain some of those magical #1 songs such as “Fire and Smoke,” “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong,” “Your Love’s On the Line” and “Holding Her and Loving You,” truly unforgettable.
As I recall our previous interviews, one charting fact stands out that’s really quite impressive. Once his career kicked-off in 1980, with a self-penned Sunbird Top 10 release “Silent Treatment,” the artist scored a string of 18 #1 singles every year in that decade, starting with “Fire and Smoke” (1981) and including such titles as “Nobody Falls Like a Fool,” “I Can’t Win For Losing You,” “What She Is (Is a Woman in Love)” onward to “Love Out Loud” (1989). There was even a haunting 1988 #1 duet with Emmylou Harris, “We Believe In Happy Endings.”
Actually, this artist’s emotional vocals have attracted duets with other terrific talents, notably Gus Hardin (“All Tangled Up in Love,” #8), Anita Pointer of the soulful Pointer Sisters (“Too Many Times,” #2), and Keith Whitley (“Brotherly Love,” #2). Yet success didn’t come easy for this Portsmouth, Ohio native, born Oct. 17, 1941 to railroad worker Arthur and Ruth Conley, the third of their eight children. In his poverty-stricken teens, he moved to Dayton to reside with his sister, who worked in a bank. But he proved to be a rebellious brother, who passed up on an art scholarship, ran away and then decided to join the Army (“I was hoping to find a new responsible me. I guess that meant I wanted to be a man.”). Soon he found himself serving two years in Germany (1960-’62). During his military days, E.T. entertained himself and buddies pickin’ and singin’ with a second-hand guitar.
Being from the Ohio-Kentucky region, Conley said he was first inspired by bluegrass and listening to WSM’s Opry on an old upright Philco radio: “You see I was born in 1941 and raised up on that early stuff of Bill Monroe’s. Coming out of those mountains, there’s a different soul and a different feel and a whole different deal than what it would be like to come from the city.” Another early influence he said was Hank Williams, Sr.
Following discharge, Earl worked in an Alabama steel mill to support himself and wife Sandra, his high school sweetheart, whom he wed on a 30-day leave. “Actually I worked in bars around Huntsville from 1970 to 1973 and liked to starved to death.” Mainly, he was singing other people’s songs: “I didn’t have much confidence in doing my own stuff.”
It was in Alabama that he connected with producer Nelson Larkin, then assisting brother Billy Larkin, hoping to establish a country music career. Nelson and E.T. soon collaborated musically on Billy’s behalf, after Conley decided to concentrate primarily on writing for others. He supplied Billy’s 1975 breakthrough Top 20s, “Leave It Up To Me” and “The Devil in Mrs. Jones.” Conley also furnished songs to Bobby G. Rice (“Make It Feel Like Love Again”), Mel Street (“Smoky Mountain Memories,” “This Ain’t Just Another Lust Affair”), and Conway Twitty (“This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me”).
The latter, a 1975 co-write with Larkin, hit the magical #1 mark for MCA, Twitty’s label, and helped open the door for singer-songwriter Conley. Incidentally, Freddie Hart recorded Conley and Larkin’s co-write “Sure Thing” (#15, 1980), and later Conley co-wrote “All Over Me” with then-newcomer Blake Shelton, as a Top 20 follow-up to “Austin,” Blake’s #1 breakthrough tune.
E.T.’s philosophy as a writer was being introverted, “to get totally inside myself,” adding “part of the fun of being a writer is having an impact. That meant you have to keep some mystery, keep it to yourself until it’s done.”
One of his favorite co-writers was Randy Scruggs and with good reason, their partnership produced such #1’s as “Angel in Disguise,” “Chance Of Lovin’ You” and “Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart It Breaks).” These songs showed the depth of Conley’s artistry and his versatility as a vocalist.
“When we did the ‘Don’t Make It Easy For Me’ album (1983) and the one after that, Randy and I sat down and wrote every other night. We wrote seven or eight songs, really good songs and all of them went to number one . . . We wrote because we were writers. You can’t take that hat off and put it back on too fast. It takes time.”
Conley scored his first ever Billboard charting as an artist in 1975, via the self-penned “I Have Loved You Girl (But Not Like This Before),” initially ear-marked for Twitty, but that and its follow-up “It’s the Bible Against the Bottle” on the indie GRT label, each stalled at a dismal #87. A developmental deal with Warner’s resulted in a trio of charters, the best of which was the prophetic “Stranded On a Dead-End Street” (#26, 1979).
From there, E.T. signed with Sunbird Records, another indie, reuniting him with Nelson Larkin, resulting in an impressive Top 20 E.T. album: “Blue Pearl.” In retrospect, Conley grinned: “Nelson and I were green as gourds. Everything I’ve learned since, comes from having done things wrong the first time. From then on it’s been a learning process. The road I’d been walking on had been a real gradual incline. Nothing had satisfied the creative urge inside me like music had.”
Fortunately, both “Silent Treatment” and “Fire & Smoke,” came off “Blue Pearl” and prompted major label RCA to sign Conley, and his career was finally off and running in a big way.
In our first interview for The Capital Times newspaper in Madison, Wisc., in 1981, Conley confided this truth about his then-family, Sandra, his wife of 19 years, and their youngsters, Tyrone, 17 and Amy, 12: “They’re such beautiful people. I can’t tell you what they’ve been through, but they’ve always stood by me.”
The couple guarded their own privacy through the years, until finally divorcing. Later, E.T. partnered with Carole Scates for some 20 years. My last project with E.T. concerned a 2002 benefit of sorts at a Printer’s Alley country cafe for which Larkin helped convince Conley and Johnny Rodriguez to be our drawing cards. We had some quite reliable AFM union Local 257 tunesters backing them up for the show.
Johnny was being a gadabout during soundcheck and following his set, hung around to see what Earl planned, and it became apparent he’d been a long-time fan of Conley’s catalog. After hearing E. T. enlighten the bandsmen as to what his line-up would be that night, Rodriguez butted in to offer suggestions, feeling his co-star was missing a bet by not including some of his other #1 songs.
Conley cooly glanced over at Rodriguez with a somewhat withering stare, sternly implying back off, and surely Johnny got the message, thus scooting off towards the exit. Incidentally, both proved excellent entertainers and were pleased to see Larkin there that evening in the company of Lynn Anderson, another artist also working with the producer again.
On social media, superstar Shelton wrote, “My heart is absolutely destroyed today. I’m sad to report that Earl Thomas Conley passed away very early this morning. Earl was my all-time favorite singer, hero and my friend. Prayers to his family.We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest.”
Conley’s longtime booking agent Rob Battle said E.T.’s declining health stopped the singer from touring about two years back. Former RCA honcho Joe Galante remembers working with the artist, too: “There was such soul in everything he did and he stood out from a lot of other singer that were around at that time. You always talk about finding something unique, and his voice certainly did that.” Galante called his style a mix of being very country, very sensitive, rendering an intimate approach to his music: “You could hear the ache in everything that he did. Then at the same time, he’d come rocking out on something else and there was this guy who just loved to have a good time. You could just hear it in the music.”
“Earl and I grew up about 30 miles down the road from each other. We’ve been good friends for many years,” stated Bobby Bare, “and I’ve always loved his records and I’m gonna miss him.”
Mickey Gilley mused, “Earl Thomas Conley, great country music star; I never had the pleasure of working with Earl, but I have always admired his talent and his love for country music.”
Carole Scates stated E. T. did not desire a funeral. His body was donated to Vanderbilt University Medical Center at his request to help others. Still survivors include son Ty Conley, daughters Amy Edmisten, Kat Scates, Erinn Scates, brothers Fred and Steve Conley, sisters Ronda Hodges, Becky Miller, and his five grandchildren. – Walt Trott