Conway Twitty began his performing career in Helena during World War II while still a child. From these early days, he would eventually sell more than 50 million albums and become one of the most popular stars of country music.
Twitty was born Harold Lloyd Jenkins in 1933 in Friars Point, Mississippi. His father worked as a ferryboat captain, and the family moved across the Mississippi River to nearby Helena in the early 1940s. As a youngster, he began learning to play the guitar, guided by his grandfather and a local blues musician. At the age of ten, he formed his first band, the Phillips County Ramblers. Soon, he was performing on local radio.
As a young man, life pulled him in many different directions. The Philadelphia Phillies, impressed with his baseball skills, reportedly scouted him and nearly signed him to the team. However, the Korean War intervened, and he was drafted into the Army instead. Shortly after his tour of duty and one divorce later, he returned to his passion for music.
He worked as a songwriter and performer before finding any success. Deciding on a new angle for his career, he adopted the stage name Conway Twitty, supposedly combining the names of Conway, Arkansas, and Twitty, Texas, but other legends have since circulated in the country music world. In 1958, he scored his first hit on the early rock and roll charts with “It’s Only Make Believe” and even appeared in a handful of low-budget movies.
By the early 1960s, he wanted to change directions artistically. However, Twitty found it difficult to move into country music until Ray Price made one of the songs he wrote into a top-ten hit.
Not long afterward, Conway Twitty began releasing his first country albums. His first single to top the country charts was “Next in Line” (1968). His fifty-five number one singles would become a record in country music, a feat topped only by George Strait in the 1990s.
In 1970, he released “Hello Darlin’,” the title track of what would become one of his most popular albums. “Hello Darlin’” topped the country music charts for four weeks, beginning his most successful decade as a musician.
He soon teamed up with Loretta Lynn to produce one of the most successful duos of the 1970s. In 1971, the two won a Grammy Award for “After the Fire is Gone.” The Country Music Association awarded them the Top Vocal Duo of the Year Award four times straight between 1972 and 1975. The two also sang such hits as “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” (1973), “Feelins’” (1975), and “I Can’t Love You Enough” (1977).
Twitty was known for many love songs, but the suggestive themes in “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” (1973) caused some radio stations to balk and refuse to play it. Nevertheless, it too became part of a long string of #1 hit singles. He followed up with such hits as “Linda on My Mind” (1975), “I May Never Get to Heaven” (1979), “Slow Hand” (1982), “Desperado Love” (1986), and “Crazy in Love” (1990).
Sometimes called the “High Priest of Country Music,” he continued to play to sold-out crowds, writing songs and making albums into the 1990s. Tragically, in June 1993, while performing a series of shows in Branson, Missouri, he suffered what doctors called an abdominal aneurysm. He died just a few months before his sixtieth birthday and a few weeks before the release of “Final Touches,” what became his final album. Six years later, the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee, inducted him. To this day, millions of his fans still know his songs by heart.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.