Obituary: Conway Twitty
Monday 07 June 1993
My name should be Trouble,
My name should be Woe,
For trouble and heartaches
Are all that I know.
Oh, oh, oh, Lonely,
Lonely Blue Boy is my name.
CONWAY TWITTY, with his band the Lonely Blue Boys and backing singers the Twitty Birds, sold more No 1 hits than anyone in the history of Country music.
He was a quiet, guarded man, born plain Harold Jenkins within 70 miles of Memphis, and started as a rockabilly singer and Elvis soundalike. Searching for a more charismatic name, he found Twitty, Texas, on a road map; looking over Arkansas he found Conway, mercifully rejecting Smackover and Bald Knob. This was the first thing that drew me to him. Any man who can call himself something as monumentally silly as Conway Twitty is OK in my book. His masculinity could hardly be challenged if he could cope with a name like that.
In the Seventies I was a member of the CTAS - the Conway Twitty Appreciation Society - and devoured every word of the society's organ the Lonely Blue Boy News. The best of it was an impassioned specialist debate that filled the letters page year after year, an esoteric tussle between fans of Conway's 'croak' and his 'groan'. Both sides were entrenched and could never be reconciled. To me his groan seemed like an extended version of his croak, but many of my fellow CTAS members got worked up into such a lather I knew there was something from the other side of the veil that I had still not grasped. In truth, Conway had a fine virile Country voice. His warm, throbbing, emotional delivery would crack into what he called his 'little growl thing' when the anguish or longing got too much for him, right from the beginning with 'It's Only Make Believe' (1958), the archetypal Twitty ballad.
His duets with Loretta Lynn are legendary. With songs full of guilt and remorse, the combination of Loretta, feisty and independent and Conway, weak but sensitive, is explosive. Wracked with internal conflict, he can't resist temptation. He knows he shouldn't but he can't help himself. It is a potent mix, Conway's aching vocals making it hard for his women fans to resist as he surrenders to the inevitable. He has a huge and loyal female following. I saw him in his fifties in Nashville, reassuringly chubby in a jogging suit, driving 8,000 mature women knicker-throwing wild.
Conway took the Nashville sound to its limit. Weaving through all his songs is the weeping, plangent sound of John Hughey's pedal steel guitar, as emotional as Conway's anguished vocals. Together all their lives, they are Country's equivalent of Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Hughey also represents Conway's commitment to Country which gave all his songs their hard edge. It was only when he returned to Country that he really developed a sense of dynamic. His ballads would start low with his groan woven round with the steel guitar, building in intensity to a climax then a release.
His songs, many self-penned, were built on the contradictions of a yearning for security with a wandering eye. 'Lying Here Beside You With Linda On My Mind', 'You've Never Been This Far Before' (with controversial lines like 'I feel your body stiffen as my trembling fingers touch forbidden places'), 'I see the Want To in your eyes' and the classic 'How Much More Can She Stand?'
I try to stay at home, love only her and watch
But then my mind becomes unsure about the
kind of love I need.
My reasons for cheating, they're as good as lies
How much more can she stand and still stand
Not for Conway the attempt at crossover, the jump at the Pop market which left so many Country stars stranded in the Middle of the Road. He didn't need to worry.
Twitty fact one: he sold 16 million rock records before returning to his Country roots.
Twitty fact two: he had over 50 No 1 hits by the mid-Eighties.
Twitty fact three: somewhere out in space is a version of Conway singing his hit 'Hello Darlin' ' in Russian. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission took him out there croaking 'Privyet Mladost' with an Arkansas accent.
Twitty fact four: I called my son Conway Wangford.
Conway went through an incredible succession of hair cuts, from Pompadour to semi-Afro. My favourite was the Roman Centurion look, a Brylcreem-heavy helmet-style cut. Way back at early Wangford gigs in the heady days of Punk, we ran Conway Twitty Lookalike contests. Punters were invited to smear themselves with the white stuff until one night it splattered all over the drummer's cymbals. When he hit them, shards of Brylcreem flew into the air and hung there like the Northern Lights. We decided then a George Hamilton IV Sincere Eyebrow competition was safer.
The great man has gone now but at least he has gifted the world with a shrine. Just outside Nashville, a scoot down Johnny Cash Boulevard, glistens Twitty City, a leisure park surrounding the homes of his mother, four children and himself. I am sitting on my Twitty City prayer mat as I write this.
I was lucky enough to interview Conway in his colonnaded reproduction plantation-style mansion. I had seen the audio-visual display of his life in which his parents and their log cabin ascended through the clouds in the style of a religious 3D postcard, crossed the Hall of Gold Discs where a storm of gold records sliced out of the night sky like a fall of holy meteorites and had been through the gift shop to buy not souvenirs but 'tangible memories'.
Conway was wearing his favourite Hawaiian shirt with a recurring parrot motif. What was the greatest moment of his life?
Looking me dead in the eye, a whisper of that famous croak in his voice, he said:
'Hank, I hope I haven't had it yet.'
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