Born in Friar’s Point as Harold Lloyd Jenkins, son of a ferryboat captain, Conway Twitty (1933-1993) first achieved stardom as a bluesy rockabilly singer. Beginning in the 1970s, he became one of country’s bestselling balladeers ever, with fifty-five No.1 singles, many self-penned and five of them duets with musical partner Loretta Lynn. He brought a new level of sensuality, drama, and emotional directness to country, live and on record, developing a huge following so fervent that he was dubbed “The High Priest of Country Music.”
Born September 1, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Harold Jenkins, the boy who would become Conway Twitty was playing guitar by the age of four, learning music from local blues musicians and Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. He would form a country band, The Phillips County Ramblers, by the age of ten, as the Jenkins family relocated across the river to Helena, Arkansas. The Ramblers, which also included steel guitar great John Hughey, soon won a regular radio slot on KFFA, home of blues legends the King Biscuit Boys.
After high school, Harold worked as a radio D.J. and played semi-professional baseball, then was drafted into the U.S. Army. While stationed in Japan, his uniformed country band The Cimmarons played Army bases and appeared on Armed Forces radio. As Harold left the army in the mid-fifties, he briefly found work at rockabilly home Sun Records in Memphis, recording without success but writing “Rock House” for Roy Orbison before being signed by MGM Records and changing his name to “Conway Twitty,” derived from the town names Conway, Arkansas, and Twitty, Texas. In 1958, Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” was a worldwide rock smash. Beginning in the early 1960s, Twitty’s parents, Floyd and Velma Jenkins, operated “Conway’s,” a popular supper club on Moon Lake, where bluesmen Sam Carr and Frank Frost ‘s Jelly Roll Kings were the house band, and Conway himself regularly appeared.
Twitty had moderate success on rock charts for a decade, before deciding to turn his attention back to country—as would soon seem pre-ordained. Beginning with “Hello Darlin’” on Decca records in 1970, Conway Twitty amassed the greatest string of hits any country artist had yet seen, including fifty consecutive No. 1 hits, eleven of which he wrote himself. “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” “I See the Want to In Your Eyes,” “Linda on My Mind,” and “Slow Hand” changed the scope of country music with their sexual frankness and unbridled emotion, as he expressed things on record and in his frenzied live shows the women in his audience very much wanted to hear and the men wished they could say. When he teamed with Loretta Lynn after finding their voices highly compatible on tour, the chemistry produced another string of top hits, including the Grammy-winning “After the Fire is Gone,” and “As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone.” Married three times and the father of four children, Twitty’s ties to his original home were highlighted in 1982 with the national television special On the Mississippi, which featured a visit with his mother Velma Jenkins in Friars Point. An aneurysm caused Twitty’s sudden death en route to a show in 1993. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
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