Early rock ‘n’ rollers in the country market

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Sep 2019 Early rock ‘n’ rollers in the country market

By Pat Murphy

GIVEN the origins of rock ‘n’ roll, you’d expect its early exponents would’ve got some traction in the country market. But that wasn’t generally the case.

Elvis Presley was an exception. In fact, he cracked the country charts a good half-year before making it in the pop world. And between 1957 and 1961, the Everly Brothers racked up several country hits, including four chart-toppers.

However, the likes of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Roy Orbison had no impact. Holly and Orbison may have been Texans, but that cut no ice with country radio.

Ricky Nelson was oddly – and briefly – different. Although singing out of Hollywood, California, he scored three country Top 10 entries in 1957/58. Perhaps it was the rockabilly sensibility of his early records, or maybe it was a function of his strong national TV profile. Whatever the reason, it ceased to work after Poor Little Fool.

Elvis aside, there were two other early rock ‘n’ rollers who ultimately made their country mark – Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty.

Born and raised in Louisiana, Lewis registered strongly in the country market with his early rock ‘n’ roll hits. Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire went to No. 1 and Breathless and High School Confidential made the Top 10.

But it was the late 1960s when things really clicked. By then played out as a pop star, Lewis reinvented himself as a significant country name. The transformation, though, didn’t happen overnight.

The 1965 album Country Songs for City Folks garnered some respectful attention – including from Tom Jones who plucked Green Green Grass of Home from it – but attention and success aren’t necessarily the same thing. The latter had to wait until 1968.

Released in June of that year, Another Place, Another Time was a substantial country album seller, shifting in excess of a quarter-million copies. It also produced two big country singles, the title track and What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).

The album’s musical ambience has been described as “stripped down” and “hard-core country.” Commercially, Lewis had found his way back into the country market, this time as the real thing.

The streak continued for more than a decade. There were seven more country Top 10 singles in 1968/69 and another dozen in the 1970s. From rock ‘n’ roll ‘has been’ Lewis had migrated to bona fide country stardom.

But however impressive the Lewis reinvention may have been, it palled beside that of Conway Twitty. Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, Twitty hit the jackpot in 1958 with the trans-Atlantic chart-topper It’s Only Make Believe. He even had a co-writer credit on it.

There were two other US Top 10 hits – a raucous 1959 remake of Danny Boy and 1960’s Lonely Blue Boy, the latter a redo of an Elvis song originally intended for the King Creole movie. In the UK, there was just one big hit after It’s Only Make Believe, a 1959 cover version of Carl Mann’s Mona Lisa revival.

None of these, however, garnered any recognition in the country market. And by the end of 1960, Twitty’s chart career was more or less washed up. So he rebooted in the mid-60s and made his country breakthrough in 1968.

Twitty’s statistics are staggering. Between 1968 and 1991, he scored 75 country Top 10 hits. And 40 – yes, that’s 40 – of these went to No. 1! Along the way, he formed an effective occasional duet partnership with Loretta Lynn. A dozen of his Top 10 hits and five of his chart-toppers emanated from that partnership.

To get a sense of Twitty’s comparative status in the country market, consider the research of chart guru Joel Whitburn. Using a points system based on peak position and longevity, Whitburn has compiled decadal rankings. Twitty shows up as the No. 1 country artiste of the 1970s (ahead of Merle Haggard) and the second most popular artiste of the 1980s (behind Willie Nelson).

What then was the basis of Twitty’s appeal? Much of his music mined traditional country territory. Take, for instance, some of his self-written chart-toppers.

Hello Darlin’ (1970) is a ballad where the narrator wishes his ex-lover well, except that he really doesn’t. Struggling for a way to lose his memories, he’s actually asking for forgiveness for having done her wrong. Hope springs eternal.

You’ve Never Been This Far Before (1973) has a twist on the man/woman theme that generated some controversy when first released, being deemed overly “suggestive” by some. And with a lyric that talks about how his “trembling fingers touch forbidden places,” you can understand the argument. Still, it spent three weeks atop the country chart and it’s easy to see why. It has a nice rhythmic vibe.

Linda On My Mind (1975) is about the eternal triangle. The narrator is lying in bed beside his crying wife – “my soon to be, the one I left behind” – with Linda on his mind. And yes, Linda is/was his wife’s friend.
Play, Guitar, Play (1977) is an interesting tune taken at mid-tempo. The theme is regret about not being able to go home because of the “awful thing I done.”

But Twitty didn’t confine himself to his own compositions. Far from it. Mike Huffman’s Tight Fittin’ Jeans (1981) is an excellent example. An attractively rhythmic piece, it’s about a wealthy married woman who goes out for a night on the pull because she’s always fancied being “just a good ol’ boy’s girl.” Afterwards, she returns to her mansion and the narrator is left with his memories of having once “had a millionaire’s dream.”

The pop world often nicked songs from country, so it’s only fair that Twitty reversed the process with a couple of covers. Slow Hand (1982) and The Rose (1983) both made it to the top. They’re excellent songs and his reading of Slow Hand is particularly effective.

As for his hit duets with Loretta Lynn, After the Fire is Gone (1971) was the first. It’s a classic country tale, neatly encapsulated by the couplet “Love is where you find it, when you find no love at home.”

In contrast, Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man (1973) is a jolly piece. The Mississippi may be a mile wide and populated by alligators but that’s no barrier to true love.

If you fancy a slice of country style Twitty, try the 2006 MCA Nashville double CD Conway Twitty Gold. With the best of his country heyday, you’ll also get four of his rock n’ roll hits including, of course, It’s Only Make Believe.

A native of Ireland, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.