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Archive for December, 2011

Conway Twitty – “Conway Rocks”

Conway Twitty - Conway Rocks (Bear Family Records, 2003)

Here are three words I never thought I would write or utter: Conway Twitty rocks. That’s right, the country crooner that churned out (million-selling) edge-less and saccharine pablum like “Tight Fitting Jeans,” “Slow Hand,” and “I’d Love to Lay You Down” began his career as a “Go, Cat, Go” rebel rousing, rockabilly greaser. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?

I discovered the semi-secret past of the founder of Twitty City when I picked up Bear Family Records’ 2003 disc “Conway Rocks,” a thirty-song excerpt from their eight-CD box set, “Conway Twitty: The Rock ‘N Roll Years.” That’s right, there are eight CDs worth of rock and roll material from the king of Brylcreem.

Here’s the story. Twitty, born a much more pedestrian Harold Lloyd Jenkins, found himself back in Helena, Arkansas with time on his hands in 1956 after a two year stint in the U.S. Army. While he was in the service, a dude with an unusual first name, Elvis, had cut a number of unusual and unusually successful sides for Sun Records in nearby Memphis. After hearing “Mystery Train,” the story goes, Conway decided what he wanted to do with his life – he wanted to be Elvis. So he formed a band and headed to Sun Studios.

There isn’t a lick of originality in the two songs Conway cut for Sun in 1956 show.

Conway Twitty – “Rock House

He sounds like Elvis’ drunk third cousin on his mother’s side. For obvious reasons, Sun dropped Conway and his band immediately after they recorded there in 1956.

Two years later, Twitty signed with MGM and had his first number one single – “It’s Only Make Believe,” a complete rip-of of “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings.” The rawness and energy of the Sun sides are gone and replaced by a spare instrumental arrangement and polished backing vocals. The song is fascinating because it seems like it will fall apart at any moment because Twitty can barely pull off the high parts of the song.

Conway Twitty – “It’s Only Make Believe

Twitty found his style with “It’s Only Make Believe” – it was a polished, Nashville-tamed rock and roll that differed considerably from the Johnny Burnette Trio, Gene Vincent or even early Elvis. I prefer raw, classic rockabilly but songs like 1959’s “Foggy River” surprised me because I had no idea Conway played rock before “Tight Fitting Jeans.” (In fact, if you want some crazy rockabilly, check out Bear Family’s “That’ll Flat Git It” series).

Conway Twitty – “Foggy River

By 1963 when his MGM contract ran out, Twitty could see the handwriting on the wall that the rock and roll he was pedaling was on the way out in favor of the pop-like country sound known as the “Nashville Sound.” In 1965 Twitty reinvented himself as a country crooner and racked up hits for the next three decades.