Monday, April 19, 2010

Conway Twitty- The Rock'n'Roll Years

Conway Twitty & the Rockhousers: Limbo rock or just bad breath?
Conway Twitty 1958- His music was as greasy as his hair.
Twitty re-invented as a country singer, pre-perm.
Conway Twitty, born Harold Jenkins, September 1, 1933 in Friar's Point, Mississippi seems to have been written out of rock'n'roll history for some reason. Perhaps his rock'n'roll output was overshadowed by his incredible sucess as country singer, for from the mid-60's until the late 80's he was one of the biggest stars in country music history, he had something like thirty eight top ten country singles in a row, not even counting duets with Loretta Lynn (the best of those being You're The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly). His country records which included such monster hits as Hello Darlin' (1970) You've Never Been This Far Before (1973), Slow Hand (1974) are likable, catchy, well made, countrypolitan schlock. They turned him into one of the oddest sex symbols in the history of popular culture, with permed hair and a glazed look in his eye. Compared to George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard who all made their best country sides during that same time period, Twitty's country output is nothing special. But his rock'n'roll sides (1957-63), to my ears, are much better, in fact he cut out a pretty nice niche for himself as a rocker, with a penchant for making histrionic ballads sound just a tad sleazy. Best remembered for It's Only Make Believe, a disc I can take or leave (for now, let's leave it) his catalog if full of great rockers and sleazy ballads, issued on 45 and LP spread over six years and two labels (three if you count the un-issued Sun recordings) and are worth revisiting since I have no better ideas today. He charted at least half dozen times, starred in three fairly retarded but watchable teen exploitation schlock flicks-- College Confidential (with Mamie Van Doren), Platinum Highschool (with Dan Duryea and Yvette Mimieaux!), and Sex Kittens Go To College (with Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld), all released in 1960, the year It's Only Make Believe topped the charts, and made some excellent albums like R&B '63, Saturday Night With Conway Twitty and Lonely Blue Boy (all MGM) at a time when very few artists really made good albums. Oddly enough, there's not much of a story here, but there's more than enough good music. Twitty was a notoriously private character, in fact he was almost paranoid, and left little hint as to just who he was. Nearly every interview I've ever read with him is full of easy to spot lies and misrepresentations. As Colin Escott wrote-- "It's unlikely that a full picture of him will ever emerge".
Friar's Point is just across the Mississippi River from Helena, Arkansas, where Twitty's father worked for the WPA and on river boats. Twitty, who had begun singing country music at age eleven, was also playing baseball, at one point he was even drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies for their triple A farm team. Twitty, when forced to choose between music and baseball, picked the former after witnessing an early Elvis show and seeing the reaction of the girls. Northern Arkansas had it's share of rockers-- Sonny Burgess and the Pacers (Burgess and Jack Nance would both end up in Twitty's band at various times), Billy Lee Riley, Andy Starr,
and Ronnie Hawkins were all doing well locally and Twitty figured if they could do it, so could he. Unfortunately for him, Uncle Sam stepped in and in 1954 he was drafted and sent to Yokohama. Upon his return he set out for Memphis with an eye on a contract with Sun Records.
Sam Phillips recorded two sessions with Twitty, producing three credible rockers and one ballad, none of which he released, my favorite of the lot being I Need Your Lovin' Kiss, a straight ahead rockabilly number complete with hiccups. The only good thing for Twitty that came out his attempt at becoming a Sun artist was selling the tune Rockhouse (this is Twitty's demo) to Roy Orbison, who'd record it as his second single and the title track for his first LP.
Around this time Twitty, still called Harold Jenkins, hooked up with a fast talking manager named Don Seat. Despite Twitty's repeating over and over of the story of picking his name off of a map of Texas, Seat claims his girlfriend had come up with the name long before young Harold came into the picture. Either way, now renamed Conway Twitty, Seat put him on the road with his band the Rockhousers (here's an early example of what they sounded like live, a version of Maybellene using the same arrangement as Elvis used on the Louisiana Hayride Broadcasts), and soon got him a deal with Mercury. At Mercury he cut three good singles, straight ahead rockabilly tunes like Shake It Up, Double Talk Baby, and I Need Your Lovin', being the best of the batch, but by 1957 rockabilly had already peaked, and Twitty's discs went nowhere. Seat took his young charge to MGM where he cut dozens of singles, EP's and LP's. The highlight of his tenure at MGM commercially being It's Only Make Believe which topped the charts in 1960. Twitty would score lesser hits with Lonely Blue Boy, Dan Penn's Is A Bluebird Blue, the goofy C'est Si Bon, rocked up versions of Danny Boy and Mona Lisa, all doing good business. Since they're easy to find, I won't bother posting them, instead I'd rather hip you to some of the oddball stuff buried in Twitty's catalog, as some are truly fine records, and some records I just dig for whatever reason it is that makes somebody dig a record. One of the best, which he'd picked up while at Sun is Mack Self's I Vibrate, then there's non-chart singles like Hey Little Lucy, the Drifters' Hey Miss Ruby (done before Dion's hit version), Teasin', Golly Gosh Oh Gee, Beach Comber, LP tracks like his sleazy reading of Fever, Long Black Train, Touble In Mind, Just Because and of course, the theme song to Platinum High School. Okay, not exactly Don & Dewey, but I like these sides, they prove Twitty was more than an Elvis impersonator, he was a rocker with his own unique style. Despite the goofy girlie chorus and the producer's attempt to make them sound "teen", Twitty sounds like a sleazy, lounge lizard trying to pass himself off as Troy Shondell. I find these discs tremendously likable, if not earth shattering.
Long after the hits dried up he kept rockin', making records like the aforementioned R&B '63. I found an odd bootleg on the Demand label many years ago at the old Rock On shop in Camden Town, London. I've never seen another copy. It's Conway Twitty and his band Recorded Live At The Castaway Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio, 1963, and with thumpin' versions of Money, Elmore James' Shake Your Money Maker, Ain't Goin' Home, a killer reading of Is A Bluebird Blue that is way better than the string laden studio take, as well as many Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley tunes, we see that Twitty's 1963 set list was pretty much the same as that of the Rolling Stones who were just learning to tune their guitars across the pond, and whose U.S. arrival on the heels of the Beatles a couple of years later would end Twitty's career in rock'n'roll.
What I like about this album is that it's a rare recording of rock'n'roll as it was heard in night clubs that served booze, not teenage package shows full of screaming kids. I can just see the crowd-- bikers, blue collar workers, beehive hair-do's and capri slacks on the women. Twitty knew how to play for these folks, they like their music raw and greasy, and that's just how Twitty played it for them.
The British Intrusion sealed his fate, and by 1965 Twitty was a dead issue as a rocker, he hadn't had a hit in years and MGM dropped him. Soon Owen Bradley signed him to Decca as a country singer and the rest is history. Millions of records later, Twitty would be a country music icon. He would earn and lose huge sums of money, investing in such sure fire losers as Twitty Burgers, a mobile home business, a resort in Mississippi and Twitty City, his amusement park, Twitty blew through millions. Only his music publishing company Twittybird made any money.
In 1993, just 59 years old, he was en route from a gig in Branson, Missouri when he had a brain aneurysm and dropped dead, taking with him a lot of good stories he never got to tell. I know, it's not much of a story, except the part about the Twitty Burgers. Anyone every try one?

21 comments:

Jordi said...

Thanks again for your posts!
i also love 'go on and cry' from 1963, i guess.

Gene Casey said...

Thanks for this. In many ways, Conway's early stone country, hard honky tonk hits like "To See an Angel Cry" and "The Image of Me" are more raw and greasy than his pop sides. The live LP from '63, of course puts it all in perspective. COOL!

vabeach said...

Never had a Twitty Burger; are they like Krystals? Good show JM; I always loved Lonely Blue Boy and that crackly voice is perfecto!

Gyro1966 said...

OK Hound- You are making me pull out my Bear Family CD Box set of Conway Twitty and upload it to my iTunes for the iPod. I can't remember when I last played it.

Billy said...

What about "Crazy Dreams?" Great lazy loping tune from a Pickwick 70's cash-in w/ Johnny Cash, David Houston, Conway and The Killer called "Born to be Country Boys."

I think he did "Crazy Dreams" for Sun.

A great recent find was "The Conway Twitty Show" a self-released record from 1975 featuring his band and the four Twitty children, who sing about as good as you would expect.

Daughter Kathy sings "Linda On My Mind"!! Maybe Conway was more open-minded than we knew. One of his boys, who looks to be about 14, sports a Boone's Farm Wine tee-shirt.

The cover is priceless: the band, decked out in Sansa-belt slacks and leisure suits, in front of the tour bus on what looks to be a smoke break.

The Hound said...

"I think he did "Crazy Dreams" for Sun."

He did indeed cut it for Sun, unfortunatly I can't find my copy which is buried on one of the hundreds of Sun compilations LP's I've bought over the years.
When it turns up, I'll add it to the post, it's one of his best...

Donna Lethal said...

Here's another strange thing: TBN (yes, the Trinity Broadcasting Network) bought Twitty City. I stopped into their headquarters down in Orange County last year and in the gift shop was a slew of Twitty City postcards. I couldn't figure out why they were stuck in there with all of the God stuff but of course I bought them.

Charlie B said...

Hi, Hound!!! Long time listener first time caller!!! I interviewed CT in 1970 in Ann Arbor, MI, where he larned me 'bout the Twittyburger: Available in three sizes. The Papa Twitty for the large appetite, the Mama Twitty for the normal appetite and for the kids the (you guessed it!!!) the "Itty Bitty Twitty." You took pure ground beef, put a slice of pineapple on it, two strips of bacon, cheese, dipped it in onion ring batter, deep-fried it, and served it with garnish on a toasted sesame seed bun!!! The Twittyburger!!! The real shocker isw that with a diet like that he lived to be 59!!!. Also interesting from that show is tha at that time he did not speak to the audience between songs but left that patter to his then-drummer Porkchop!!! It was weird!!! Anyway, The Hound said it, I believe it, that settles it!!! Charlie in NE

flamingo said...

Beautiful! Thanks for another great post! Charlie B: thanks for the Twitty burger info - they seem a lot cooler than George Jones' sausages!
BTW, Mack Self's "Vibrate" and Conway's "I Vibrate" are great, but different songs...

Jumpy said...

About 2 years ago, several dozen copies of the double album of Twitty's duets with Loretta Lynn were in my local thrift store.
They quickly sold out.
PJL

Artie Mondello said...

Among my fave Conway sleazers: "Halfway to Heaven", one of the most blatant, unsubtle, single-entendre pleas for entry into a girl's pants ever waxed by a white boy. Never have blue balls ever been so faithfully translated into sound...

dbutz said...

Great post! How about posting all of "Recorded Live At The Castaway Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio"? I'd love to hear the whole thing!

dbutz said...

Great post! How about posting all of "Recorded Live At The Castaway Lounge, Cleveland, Ohio"? I'd love to hear the whole thing!

Dark said...
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Anonymous said...

Love me some Conway! Can anyone explain to me the album 'You Can't Take Country Out Of Conway' LP? Sources say it's from '69, but it's an MGM LP and all the tracks appear to be early 60's. Was this just an MGM ploy to cash in on his new found popularity as a country artist? It is absoulutely criminal that the vast majority of his Decca and MCA coutry releases are not available on CD. Most of the things you can find on the web, ripped poorly from vinyl, do him an injustice. I've started to correct this by doing my own rips from pristine vinyl and hope to be done by 2015. LOL. Conway rules!

barry said...

I grew up in oklahoma city in the 50's listening to conway at springlade. conway started what i suspect was the first twittyburger in south oklahoma city. he use to come to the place and occasionally come close to running you over in the parking lot.
the twitty burger had a breaded pineapple ring on it with an explanation of his inspiration for it: http://www.recipesecrets.net/forums/recipe-exchange/13934-twitty-burger.html
the better item was the first breakfast biscuit with ham in it.

jeannine said...

Great post! I esp. enjoyed the songs-had not heard Platinum high b4!
two corrections: first, I believe that that particular recording of Maybellene was with the Cimaroms, the group he formed in the Army. (a ship is mentioned, and an officer is in the band; other members are refered to as 'fly boys', etc.)
Also, Conway died of a stomach aneurysm, had a successful operation, then died the next day of heart failure.
Thanks for the great info!!
Jeannine--Conway's biggest fan in Springfield, MO!!!

Dark said...
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