Conway Twitty Biography

Harold Lloyd Jenkins, 1 September 1933, Friars Point, Mississippi, USA, d. 5 June 1993, Springfield, Missouri, USA. His father, a riverboat pilot, named him after a silent-film comedian and gave him a guitar when he was five years old. The family moved to Helena, Arkansas, and Twitty’s schoolboy friends - Jack Nance, Joe E. Lewis and John Hughey - have since played in his professional bands. In 1946, he recorded a demo, ‘Cry Baby Heart’, at a local radio station, although he was convinced that his real calling was to be a preacher. He was drafted into the US Army in 1954 and worked the Far East service bases with a country band, the Cimarrons. He hoped for a baseball career, but when he returned to the USA in 1956 and heard Elvis Presley’s ‘Mystery Train’, he opted for a career in music. Like Presley, he was signed by Sam Phillips to Sun Records, although his only significant contribution was writing ‘Rockhouse’, a minor US hit for Roy Orbison. His various Sun demos are included, along with later recordings for Mercury Records and MGM Records, in the eight-album, Bear Family Records set, Conway Twitty - The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years.

In 1957, while touring with a rockabilly package, Twitty and his manager stuck pins in a map and the pairing of a town in Arkansas with another in Texas led to ‘Conway Twitty’, a name as memorable as Elvis Presley. Twitty then moved to Mercury where ‘I Need Your Lovin’’ made number 93 in the US pop charts. He had written ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ with his drummer Jack Nance in-between sets at the Flamingo Lounge, Toronto, and he recorded it for MGM with the Jordanaires. Memorable for its croaky vocal and huge crescendo, the record became a transatlantic number 1, and subsequent UK Top 10 versions of ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ appeared by Billy Fury (1964), Glen Campbell (1970) and Child (1978). Twitty’s record sounded much like an Elvis Presley parody, so it was ironic that Peter Sellers should lampoon him as Twit Conway and that he became the model for Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. Twitty, unwisely but understandably, followed ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ with more of the same in ‘The Story Of My Love’, while the b-side, the harsh and sexy ‘Make Me Know You’re Mine’, remains one of the ‘great unknowns’. His debut, Conway Twitty Sings, includes a beat treatment of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which was undoubtedly heard by Gerry And The Pacemakers. Twitty came to the UK for ITV’s pioneering Oh Boy! and his presence eased his rock ‘n’ roll version of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘Mona Lisa’ into the Top 10.

Twitty’s US Top 10 recording of ‘Lonely Blue Boy’, a song that had been left out of Elvis Presley’s film King Creole, led to him naming his band the Lonely Blue Boys, although they subsequently became the Twitty Birds. Another US hit, ‘Danny Boy’, could not be released in the UK because the lyric was still in copyright; however, this did not apply to its melody, ‘The Londonderry Air’, and so Twitty recorded a revised version, ‘Rosaleena’. While at MGM, he appeared in such unremarkable movies as Platinum High School and Sex Kittens Go To College, which also featured Brigitte Bardot’s sister. Twitty continued croaking his way through ‘What Am I Living For?’ and ‘Is A Bluebird Blue?’, but was also recording such country favourites as ‘Faded Love’ and ‘You Win Again’. After being dropped by MGM and having a brief spell with ABC -Paramount, Twitty concentrated on placing his country songs with other artists, including ‘Walk Me To The Door’ for Ray Price. He began recording his own country records for producer Owen Bradley and US Decca Records in Nashville, saying, ‘After nine years in rock ‘n’ roll, I had been cheated and hurt enough to sing country and mean it.’ In March 1966 Twitty appeared in the US country charts for the first time with ‘Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart’. His first US country number 1 was with ‘Next In Line’ in 1968 and this was followed by ‘I Love You More Today’ and ‘To See An Angel Cry’.

Twitty became the most consistent country chart-maker of all time, although none of his country records made the UK charts. His most successful country record on the US pop charts is ‘You’ve Never Been This Far Before’, which made number 22 in 1973. ‘Hello Darlin’’ was heard around the world when he recorded a Russian version for the astronauts on a USA/USSR space venture in 1975. His records, often middle-of-the-road ballads, include ‘I See The Want To In Your Eyes’, ‘I’ll Never Make It Home Tonight’, ‘I Can’t Believe She Gives It All To Me’, ‘I’d Love To Lay You Down’ and ‘You Were Named Co-Respondent’. He has recorded several successful duet albums with Loretta Lynn, and also recorded with Dean Martin and his own daughter, Joni Lee (‘Don’t Cry, Joni’). His son, who began recording as Conway Twitty Jnr., changed his name to Michael Twitty, while another daughter, Kathy Twitty, had minor country hits both as herself (‘Green Eyes’) and as Jesseca James (‘Johnny One Time’). Through the 70s, Twitty expanded into property, banking and fast food, although his Twittyburgers came to a greasy end. His wife Mickey, whom he married and divorced twice, published What’s Cooking At Twitty City?, in 1985, and his tacky museum and theme park, Twitty City, was put up for sale. Despite new successes, the focal point of his stage act was still ‘It’s Only Make Believe’, right up until his death in June 1993. His tally of country chart-toppers stands at 40, eclipsed only by George Strait, and in all he had 55 singles reach number 1 on various music charts. Twitty was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1999.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.