Twitty's success topped even make-believe RETROSPECTIVE

June 07, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Most singers count themselves lucky to have had even a single stab at success. But Conway Twitty, who died Saturday of heart failure at age 59, hit the jackpot not once but twice -- first as a rock singer, then as a country star.

Although he had grown up with country music, by the time Twitty got out of the Army he wanted to rock. Awed by the adrenalin and excitement being injected onto vinyl by the likes of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, he took his band, the Rockhousers, to Sun Studios in Memphis in 1956, hoping to cash in.

Unfortunately, the closest he got to recording for Sun was when Roy Orbison agreed to cut "Rockhouse" -- Twitty's band's theme -- as his second Sun single. But manager Don Seat got Twitty a deal with Mercury, and within a year, Twitty cut his first single.

"I thought I'd be as big as Elvis in two or three weeks," Twitty laughed later. "I thought that was all it took -- put out a record."

Actually, it took a couple tries before Twitty clambered onto the hit parade, and his earliest efforts -- the singles "Your Lovin" " and "Maybe Baby" -- were solid, though derivative, rockabilly.

But Twitty's third effort took him all the way to the top of the charts. "It's Only Make Believe" was a classic rock and roll romancer, with Twitty singing in a voice that was part croon, part growl; in some ways, it was a better Elvis Presley ballad than anything Elvis had cut at that point. It spent two weeks at No. 1, and remained the biggest hit of Twitty's career.

In fact, "It's Only Make Believe" was such a smash that when Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Michael Stewart were looking for a singer to build a rock and roll musical around, the one they invented for "Bye, Bye Birdie," turned out to be Conrad Birdie, a not-too-subtle copy of Conway Twitty.

That Twitty was unable to duplicate that success hardly kept him off the charts. Although he recorded all kinds of material during the rock segment of his career, including a credible cover of Muddy Waters' "Got My Mojo Working," Twitty's greatest success came with schlock -- rock remakes of middle-of-the-road fare like "Mona Lisa," "Danny Boy" and "C'Est Si Bon."

Still, when Twitty decided to bail out of the rock scene in 1961, he was advised against it by his manager, who pointed out that while popular rock acts could gross thousands a night, only the most successful C&W performers could make more than a couple hundred a week.

Twitty was unperturbed. Hooking up with producer Owen Bradley -- known for handling most of Patsy Cline's hits -- Twitty threw himself into his new work. But almost seven years went by before the singer paid $500 to a near-bankrupt songwriter for dTC "The Image of Me" -- Twitty's first big country hit.

From there, it was a short climb to the top. "Next in Line" was the first of nearly 50 country chart-toppers for Twitty, a string that stretched well into the '80s and ran the gamut from heavy-breathing love songs to gimmicky novelty duets with Loretta Lynn.

As a singles artist, Twitty considered himself a ladies' man. That's not to say he was flirtatious; rather, he made a point of going after the women's market. "I pick a song a woman will like for sure," he once said. "Women are more sensitive and get the point quicker. I like a song that says things a man wants to say and doesn't know how to say it."

In 1967, he tried to parlay his fame into fast-food success, forming a consortium with Merle Haggard, Sonny James, Harlan Howard and former Oklahoma Gov. J. Howard Robinson to sell burgers. But not just any burgers -- Twitty Burgers. While the chain was a flop, his other commercial venture, an amusement park-cum-fan haven called Twitty City, was far more successful.

Mostly, though, Twitty just made music, recording regularly and touring relentlessly. In fact, he was on stage the night before he died, working a nightclub in Branson, Mo. And though many in the country music were shocked and saddened by his unexpected death, they at least had the comfort of knowing that Twitty was doing what he loved best to the very end.

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