To hear Conway Twitty talk about it, he started as a rock and roll singer, then saw the light and turned country. What really happened is a little more complicated. A country music superstar by any measure, Twitty – whose first recordings were for the Sun label -- is a 2005 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee.
As a teenager, Twitty – b. Harold Lloyd Jenkins in Friar’s Point, Mississippi – performed in The Philips County Ramblers, a country band. Headquartered in his home town of Helena, Arkansas, they had a regular radio program on KFFA in the late ‘40s. Stationed in Japan during the Korean War, Jenkins was in another country band, the Cimarrons. Upon his return to the United States, he and some other musicians formed a rockabilly band, Harold Jenkins and the Rockhousers, and auditioned for Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Phillips didn’t bite at first, but he liked Jenkins’ original composition, Rockhouse, enough to acquire the publishing, and then pass the tune on to Roy Orbison. Orbison rewrote some of the lyrics and recorded it. Jenkins recorded several songs for Sun, but none were released until well after his later success on other labels.
Jenkins signed with a new manager, Don Seat, who convinced Mercury Records to sign him. Two singles were released; the first such under the name “Conway Twitty,” whose origins are in dispute. Twitty said that it was drawn from the towns of Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas; Seat claims that his girlfriend had come up with the name. In any case, nothing happened. with Mercury records, and Twitty was dropped form the roster.
Seat took advantage of some connections and sent Conway and his band to play a small club in Ontario, Canada, where they polished their act and soon began attracting around-the-block crowds. Somehow, Seat persuaded MGM Records, then largely in the soundtrack business (though they had Hank Williams, several years earlier) to become involved in recording Twitty, and the first session included two original songs: the Elvis-sounding I’ll Try, and a ballad Twitty had written with drummer Jack Nance, It’s Only Make Believe.
It’s Only Make Believe became a No. 1 single, and Twitty’s career had begun. Some of Twitty’s notable hits on MGM included rocking versions of Mona Lisa and Danny Boy, the sinister-sounding Lonely Blue Boy (originally written for Elvis Presley), and a tongue-in-cheek Dan Penn composition, Is a Bluebird Blue. (MGM also arranged for Conway to appear in the low-budget films Platinum High School, Sex Kittens Go to College and College Confidential). But it was in his many albums for the label that Twitty demonstrated his range, lending his distinctive voice to both country and rhythm and blues songs as well as rockers and rocked-up pop standards. His material for the label, all recorded in Nashville, was of a remarkably consistent quality, and his distinctive voice, with its unique growl, was firmly in place.
Still Twitty’s string of hits was drawing to a close, and MGM let him go in 1962. After a brief stand with ABC-Paramount Records, Twitty seemingly disappeared from the recording scene.
In late 1965, Twitty signed to Decca Records, whose Nashville chief, Owen Bradley, clearly heard something that the executives that MGM and ABC-Paramount hadn’t. Bradley and Twitty aimed straight for the country market, though in retrospect it’s hard to tell the difference between his new material and much of what he’d been recording. He even used many of the same Nashville session musicians. In any event, his first “country” singe, Guess My Eyes Were Bigger than My Heart, reached the country Top 20; two years later, he crashed the Top 10 with The Image of Me, followed by his first No. 1, Next in Line. Conway Twitty had found a home, in country music.
For the next several years, he accumulated an unprecedented string of No. 1 hits on Billboard’s country chart, among them Sixteen Years Ago; How Much More Can She Stand; (Lost Our Love on) Our Last Date; I Can’t Stop Loving You; I See the Want to In Your Eyes, You’ve Never Been This Far Before; Play, Guitar, Play;…you get the idea.
Beginning in 1970, Twitty began recording duets with Loretta Lynn (they had a business relationship as well), resulting in No. 1 hits including After the Fire Is Gone; Mississippi Woman, Louisiana Man; and As Soon as I Hang Up the Phone.
Somewhere along the line, he opened his home and the surrounding grounds as Twitty City, and invested in a chain of Twittyburger stands (place a slice of pineapple on a cheeseburger and you’ve got the idea). The ersatz Graceland – Twitty was never very far from Elvis -- fared far better than the burgers.
Twitty moved, briefly, to the Elektra label in 1981, followed by a stint with Warner Bros. (the two were under the same corporate umbrella; Elektra had folded its country division into WB), with hits including Slow Hand, The Rose, Heartache Tonight, and Three Times a Lady – previously hits for The Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler, the Eagles and the Commodores, but now unmistakably Conway Twitty. Country, or pop? He’d have said "country.”
Twitty returned to Decca (by then named MCA) in 1987, and remained there until his death in Branson, Missouri, of an abdominal aneurysm on June 5, 1993.