It seemed like a joke in the fall of ’58 when disc jockeys started playing a song entitled It’s Only Make Believe by someone with the make-believe name of Conway Twitty. He had noodled the tune in seven minutes between shows at a place called the Flamingo Lounge somewhere in Ontario. Even after Make Believe sold eight million platters and reached No. 1 on the charts in 22 countries, it could be fairly assumed that if ever there was a one-shot hit, it had to be someone named Conway Twitty.
But it turned out to be no joke, son, and no one-shot, either. In the next seven years the man with the funny name rolled out some 20 rock hits, then turned to the flip side of his repertory, country, and did it again, with such solos as Hello Darlin’ and How Much More Can She Stand? and his hugely popular duets with Loretta Lynn, including After the Fire Is Gone and Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.
Now it is 21 years and many millions after Make Believe, and the man still known to the IRS as Harold Jenkins is wearing a brown warm-up suit and soft leather slipperettes and sitting in the living room of his sprawling V-shaped ranch house at his lakeside estate near Nashville. Harold Jenkins is, of course, the same Conway Twitty, one of the most durable performers in the world—a calculated, dependable country slicker, 46 years old this week, whose ongoing success is based on an almost eerie ability to understand himself and his limits.
What you must understand first about Conway Twitty is that the only intemperate thing he ever did in his life was to name himself Conway Twitty (after Conway, Ark. and Twitty, Texas, names he picked from a map). He did not take up his only vice, smoking, until he was 29. He has been married to the same woman (who still calls him Harold when she is mad at him) for 22 years. Until he finally revised it eight months ago, he had kept the same hairstyle, a lubricated d.a. pompadour, for a quarter century. He still carries from his childhood two abiding faiths: the Baptist church and baseball. Commercially he bats 1,000. Every record he has cut since 1968 has been a country hit and, at one incredible stretch, 32 in a row made No. 1.
“The artists in country music who stopped having hits are the ones who were led into something that wasn’t them,” says Twitty, jamming another Vantage into a long plastic filter. “You got to do what’s right for you. It’s like, I used to go to parties. But I hate ’em. They drain me. And so I don’t go to parties anymore. I don’t go to fancy restaurants,” he continues. “And it’s the same with the business. I pick the songs I like, and that’s 99 percent of it, because I know where the power lies, and it doesn’t lie with Conway Twitty. It lies with the fan, and I’ve never ceased being a fan myself. Sure, I can sing a country song, but so can a lot of people. It’s my instinct more than my voice that keeps me on top.”
Twitty had started singing country as a little boy in Friars Point, Miss.—100 miles from Elvis’ hometown. His father, a ferryboat skipper, taught him to play the guitar when he was 4, but the boy did not enter the country music field professionally until 1965, when he was 32. His work until then was all in rock, or rockabilly, as it was rather desperately labeled by people who weren’t sure what the devil Presley had wrought. Twitty’s reason for not venturing into country may sound like a put-on to those who don’t know him, but the fact is he grew up adoring country music and was intimidated by its glory and heritage. “I couldn’t imagine competing with my heroes on the stage,” he says, meaning the likes of Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. “And,” he adds, “college was a jillion miles away for kids from my side of the tracks. So I was going to be a baseball player.”
He coughs a little from the smoke. He says it doesn’t hurt his singing—and maybe it adds to the true grit of his voice. He is still trim at 5’10”, 175 pounds, and has the moves of a born athlete. The summer he was 19, he hit .459 in an industrial league, and the Phillies offered him a minor league contract. Then the Army drafted him.
By the time he got out of the service, though, the Presley phenomenon had begun to sizzle. “Hey, I think I can do that,” Harold Jenkins said when he heard his first Elvis record, That’s All Right. And he tried, starting out in the juke joints around Memphis, where Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Phil and Don Everly, Roy Orbison and Charlie Rich were all imitating Elvis and adding what new licks they dared. Twitty put in his growl and added drums to the mandatory two guitars and bass deployed by Presley. “It was really exciting,” says Twitty. “Everything was new. You didn’t have a thing to draw from. But it was basically country, the same beat.”
Within a few years, though, Twitty yearned to return to his musical moorings, to country. “I thought I’d lived long enough then to go be with my heroes,” he says. At the time he was a rock star of the first rank, making big money. To a man, the people making money off his success told him he was “stone crazy” to quit a good thing. But he made up his mind. One evening in the summer of ’65, before he went out to perform at a club on the Jersey shore, his agent handed him a whole bunch of new appearance contracts. He thought about that when he was singing and all of a sudden, dead in the middle of a song, Conway Twitty stopped singing rock and walked off the stage. “I never looked back at them people,” he says.
Before another year or so had passed, he was accepted as a genuine country artist, and his unsurpassed skein of hits had begun. It continues today, though he is well into middle age and more than the pompadour has changed. There is gray creeping into his temples, lines on his pleasant workingman’s face. Only the last of his four kids still has some college left, and the Twitty Birds’ tour bus has been redesigned so that Mrs. Twitty, Mickey, can travel with him more now that all the child-raising is done in her life. (Michael, 25—his son from a brief earlier marriage—has a music shop in Hendersonville, Tenn.; Joni, 22, and Kathy, 20, are housewives, and Jim, 19, is a student at Memphis State University. None has any musical ambitions.)
Their dad, however, may not yet have peaked, for like an athlete who takes care of his body, Twitty has tended his image. Besides, country is a place where mature entertainers rule the roost. Country songs are never just about falling in love. They are about falling in love with the wrong (e.g., married) person, or about drinking, making a living, and movin’ on. Country songs require grown-up singers. “You seldom hear any young artists in country music,” he observes. “Very few Tanya Tuckers. Country deals in the real, everyday problems of life, and some kid of 19 or 20, no matter how good he is, how much emotion he puts into singing about cheating—it just wouldn’t be accepted.”
But on the other hand, once you make a name as a country artist—country singers always refer to one another as “artists,” like it was Rembrandt and El Greco chatting about one another in heaven—you have a home. “When I was in rock, a large part of my audience turned over every year,” says Twitty, “and a kid at 16 is an entirely different person at 17. It’s like Alice Cooper told me once: ‘What more can I give them?’ But if you stay in country and stay yourself, an artist can keep the same fans for 20 years.”
Unfortunately, there is a kicker. The country performers have the same basic problem as the plain people they sing about: infidelity. The country euphemism used for musical cheating is “crossover,” but the meaning is the same: Nashville is the little high school sweetheart the star outgrows when he or she crosses over to the sirens called Hollywood or Vegas.
It is no surprise, then, that the singer who is so durably married, who drives a little Pacer and whose fan club dutifully reports his favorite reading is “spiritual” and his favorite color is “brown” (brown a favorite color?) is the artist most faithful to country. What is sadly ironic is that Twitty has been bypassed for the industry’s Oscars, the Country Music Association Awards. Twitty has been honored for his duets with Loretta Lynn, but he has never been named the male vocalist or entertainer of the year.
Twitty acknowledges that this seeming injustice is “ridiculous,” but he’d rather talk about baseball. He is the prime of 16 owners of the Nashville Sounds, which just happens to be the most lucrative minor league franchise in the sport. Twitty’s financial advisers pleaded with him not to get involved. Sorry, he said, he loved the game, and it was great for families and his community. That was his instinct. The team netted more than $300,000 last year and led the minors at the turnstiles. This year it is on the way to an all-time minor league attendance record, and there is even talk now of putting a major league franchise in Music City, where the Twitty Birds’ flag flies over the stadium along with Old Glory.
Twitty does not get to see his Sounds as much as he would like, because he is on the road for as many as 200 appearances a year. His onstage demeanor is stripped to the essentials. Until recently he went six years in a row without ever uttering a spoken word during his act. He almost never appears on television or grants interviews. It is his philosophy that he is a country singer, and that the more the man Conway Twitty is fused to his music, the more lasting remains his image—he even calls it “my mystique. I don’t want to break the spell,” he explains, “to say hell no, I don’t live the songs I sing. I want people to think I have experienced my songs.”
Twitty’s lyrics—and he writes the great majority of his works—are indeed much racier than the man. He is still dismayed that his 1973 hit You’ve Never Been This Far Before was not only grossly misunderstood, but also, he feels, the unwitting trend-setter toward even more salacious lyrics to other songs. It is true that before that composition the cheating in country lyrics was largely confined to husbands. After This Far Before, the wives started slipping rings off their fingers too.
But Twitty, who preached at Baptist revivals as a boy and might have become a minister but for his lack of education, still believes that the song was misconstrued. He swears that the most controversial line—”As my trembling fingers touch forbidden places”—meant only holding the hand and putting an arm around the shoulder of a separated wife. “The women didn’t take the song wrong. It was only the men disc jockeys,” he says. “But, as a country artist, I’m not proud of a lot of things in my field. There is no doubt in my mind that we are contributing to the moral decline in America. The language you hear now, what we see in the movies, out there”—he waves at the TV set—”I’m sad to say I was a part of the start of all that. Once rock’n’roll caught on, you could see kids changing for the worse month by month. Of course, I’m not saying that music is to blame for all that has happened to this country, but I am saying that those of us in music started the snowball. The worst is the women,” he preaches on. “I don’t know what to expect from them anymore. The way they talk, the way they more and more take the man’s role. They come up to me, and I just don’t know what to do. Well, it turns me plumb off, I’ll tell you that.”
Conway Twitty lights another Vantage and looks out the picture window toward the pool and the lake and the dock and the boats and the flagpoles. There has just been a midsummer thundershower, and if it weren’t for the air conditioning you could smell the clean green grass and the Tennessee trees. He turns back, smiling, and shakes his curly new hair. “I’m really very old-fashioned,” says Harold Jenkins.