Thursday, July 07, 2011


’"Conway Twitty, ... 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 success as country singer. ... 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. "’
A blogger who calls himself Hounddog and is responsible for my title.

When Conway Twitty opened his Twitty Burger restaurant in 1970, he was 36 years old , a resident of far south oklahoma city, and an established country music star, and he had settled comfortably into life under a stage name like few others. [Check out: TWITTY BURGERS, ROCK N ROLL, POETRY AND THE LAW - PART 1.] By 1975 he had moved on to Nashville, and our local memories had begun to get more remote, particularly after his death in 1993.
What had also disappeared was the story of his transformation from a small town country boy talented in country music and baseball to a career as an early years rock and roller with a new name, records, movies and a life living and performing all over the country. In fact the story really lasted less than 10 years but it was full of action and featured his performing music in a way his later country career belied. I continue to write so we won't forget either part of the Conway Twitty story.


Conway Twitty was born Harold Jenkins 1933 in a town called Friar's Point, Mississippi, some 70 miles down the Mississippi River from Memphis. His family moved across the river to the Helena, Arkansas area. The area up to Memphis along the delta was a musical hotbed for the beginning intertwining of black and white country music that would become rock and roll and rockabilly. Harold had his own country band by the age or ten, performed regularly in the area as a teen-ager and even had a radio show. At 21 his career was interrupted by the Army which sent him to Japan until 1956 where he managed to play a lot of music and a little baseball. [1] The Army had taken him away from the delta area right when Sam Phillips and Sun Records were overseeing the real beginnings of rock and roll. Harold /Conway was never known to be slow and he turned his life over to rock and roll in the next 5 years with such speed and gusto that I’m hard put to actually assign dates to the happenings except as dates on his pictures give clues.
1] As Harold he formed a rockabilly band called the Rockhousers.
2] He took his band with him to audition for Sam Phillips and placed himself under the wing of Sam Phillips who, no doubt, did help train him:
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.

3] He recorded a small number of songs for Sun but they didn’t pass sam’s tests and Sun didn’t release them. He never appeared in publicity with Sun’s big boys. But later when his career took off with other labels Sun released the songs and included them in compilations. I played history detective and found a picture of a wall in sun with various sun performers’ pictures. ‘On closer inspection’ I found that they did have a picture of conway but it was in fact a photo of him from another label.
4] He acquired a manager Don Seat who may or may not been responsible for Harold officially changing his name to Conway Twitty, using the names of small towns in Arkansas and Texas, which was officially adopted in 1957.
5] Seat got Conway a deal with Mercury Records which went nowhere. Then he sent Conway to play at a club called the Flaming Lounge in Ontario, Canada where he polished his act and became a local star. He also spent similar time in Des Moines, Iowa., somewhere along the way.
6] And then Seat managed to get him a deal with MGM records where his career as a successful rocker began with his first national hit “ It’s Only Make Believe” in 1958. [1] Check out Danny Boy from the MGM years and tell me doesn't sneak up on you and get you rockin along.
7] Seat even steered Conway into hollywood and 3 unexceptional teen movies. In one of them "College Confidential', he got to 'neck' with Mamie Van Doren, a sex symbol of the time. And there was one story from along those time that produced a truly singular item on Conway's resume. His name was adapted for a musical based on elvis’ going into the army. The main character was called 'Conrad Birdie', and the musical, which later became a movie, was entitled 'Bye Bye Birdie'. I didn't research whether he got credit or remuneration
8]. Conway continued to travel and perform, even in Oklahoma City. But in 1960 he began writing country songs again and sang a variety of songs. In 1962 MGM let him go and in 1965 at Tony Mart's nightclub in Summer's Point, NJ, Twitty ‘put down his guitar, walked off stage, and made his move full time into the "Country" arena. It wasn’t too hard because he had been recording under a new label’s Nashville branch anyway.

Levon Helm, later of fame with 'The Band' backing up Bob Dylan gave us a personal vision of conway/harold and the delta rockabilly days. I was lucky enough to borrow his 1994 autobiography, This Wheels on Fire”. [2] There Helm tells of the local music scene that included ‘Elvis, Jerry Lee and ‘our own Phillips County hero Harold Jenkins, before he was known under his stage name: Conway Twitty.’ He also tells of then Harold and his Rockhousers performing at a local store opening where he and his sister sang a few songs before the rockhousers kept the crowd dancing with rockabilly. More importantly for Levon that turned into his first real public performance when Conway let him play a song when was appearing at a West Helena club and includes the following:
One night I'm in there listening to Conway Twitty and the Rock Housers, who were the best band around. Oh boy, were they. Conway was from Friars Point, Mississippi, but moved to Helena when he was about ten so his daddy could pilot Charlie Halbert's ferry. His first band was the Phillips County Ramblers, a country-style group but that changed when Elvis's "Mystery Train" inspired young Jenkins to begin writing rockabilly songs. He went Add Imageup to Memphis worked with some of the Sun musicians, like Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, and often came through our area with a series of good bands. ...
So I'm in the Delta Supper Club, and Conway's doing "Jenny, Jenny," and the place is just going nuts. He had all the rock moves—the stutter, the twitches, the strut—and the band, ..., provided a raw rockabilly jolt. Girls loved Conway's big, heavy-lidded good looks and long hair reminded 'em a little of Elvis.”
The next day Conway left for his Canada adventure.


Harold was Conway Twitty when he came to OKC to play at the old Springlake Amusement Park back then and gave me one of my few tastes of real rock and roll. I’m not sure if I was there for the time he caused a mini-riot there 1961. His friend Gene Jones tells the story and provides these two picture of one of the quiter moments.

When Conway appeared at the Springlake Amusement Park Amphitheater in 1961, a riot resulted with fans mobbing the stage and Conway retreating to a small building behind the stage that served as a dressing room. The band and other Members of the show barricaded the doors to keep fans away for fear of harm to him until Park Security arrived to restore order. After that show the Park installed an eight foot cyclone fence between the stage and the audience to keep that from happening again. From that time until the Park was closed several years later, the fence was known as the "Conway Twitty Fence.

So truth is Conway's rock and roll years are worth viewing and listening to, both for the music and to watch his hair style evolve.

[1] His Army music days were documented by Gene Jones who played with him in the army in stories and photographs including one of Conway playing with legendary Kiowa guitar player Jesse Ed Davis. His website is good for stories and pictures. I have also used photographs from an 8 CD set which in fact has all of Conway's rock time music. The photos were provided to a newfound internet friend in Finland, Marko Velijalainen, who used some of them in some youtube videos of Conway's rock songs. I have these and a number of other links as a word perefect file if anyone wants to check it out.
2] From Gary Ackley, a long time Assistant District Attorney in oklahoma county, who, much to my pleasure, has always been willing to discuss much more than just the law. He and I both recommend the book for a wonderful range of stories from the front lines of the best of the rock world.
3] The later picture in bad color of Conway at springlake was provided by Kitty Houston who apparently is still singing around the city. She tells stories in her website about hanging out with him because she was married to one of his players.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home