If country music has ever had its own answer to Pete Rose, it is surely Conway Twitty.
To expand upon the baseball metaphor, Twitty has never been a great home-run hitter in the same league with, say, Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard. But since the mid-1960s, Twitty has battled his way into the record books with 50 No. 1 singles (including some wildly successful duets with Loretta Lynn). And that's far more than anyone else has had in country music history. And his journeyman talents have always been fired by the natural aggressiveness of the semiprofessional baseball player that he once was, and tempered by an unerring commercial instinct.
His slightly wacky-sounding stage name (which he came up with nearly 30 years ago, when he was desperately trying to break into the rock 'n' roll field), like his public image of the darkly mysterious (albeit middle-aged and ever-so-slightly chunky) libertine from a country and western romance novel, is all part of his ingenious flair for self-invention.
And his image -- or that "Conway Twitty mystique," as he himself sometimes refers to it -- is as immaculately groomed as the 1950s-style pompadour hairdo he only recently abandoned in favor of the modified blow-dried look.
Those who actually keep tabs on such things claim that Twitty, who will be appearing at the Patriot Center next Saturday, has not uttered word one on stage for nigh unto seven years now. Preferring instead to remain a tabula rasa for his female fans' lustful and romantic imaginings, he simply lets that mesmerizing buzz-saw baritone of his, so full of floozy, diphthong-twisting slurs, stentorian growls and sensual innuendo, do the talking for him.
With almost metronomic efficiency, he prefers to telegraph those dozens of salaciously romantic hits of his -- "Hello Darlin'," "You've Never Been This Far Before," "I'd Love to Lay You Down," "I See the Want-To in Your Eyes," etc. -- straight to the heartstrings and libidos of that thriving constituency of fans that has kept him atop the country charts for the better part of two decades.
"I believe in just keeping my mouth shut and singing my songs," Twitty explains cheerfully, revealing himself to be a bit of a countrified Machiavellian. "Those songs are what built up that Conway Twitty image, that mystique. Each person out there has an image of me that they've gotten from those songs, since that's the only way they know me. So I learned a long time ago not to try and interject myself in that image. That way, you can be all things to all people."
Almost from the beginning, Twitty has built his career on such sheer calculation and an almost seamless consistency. With the media-shrewdness of a TV evangelist and the image-consciousness of a 1930s matinee idol, he has managed, as few others have, to modify and institutionalize the droopy-eyed, small-town Lotharion teen-screen appeal of the 1950s rock sensation that he once was.
His message and his stage delivery may indeed be a bit mellower than they were in the late '50s, when he was all over the national charts with a self-penned piece of rock history called "It's Only Make Believe" (which is still the centerpiece of his live show). And similarly, those fans who now pine for him out in the balcony are no longer adolescent bobby-soxers, but the middle-aged housewives they have become. Even so, that old audience-performer bond is still strong as ever for country music's most gracefully aging, 52-year-old sex symbol.
"Oh God!" Twitty groans comically when confronted with the sex symbol suggestion. "That's something I just never think about! I mean, I never go out there on stage and try to be sexy . Never in my life!"
But if there was ever a doubt as to Twitty's enduringly high box scores in the sex appeal department, it was dispelled a few years ago, on a day of reckoning that will long be remembered by his faithful fans. That was the day when he finally abandoned that venerable Waikiki-waved, slicked-up hairdo.
For Twitty himself it may have represented only a brief, flickering moment of personal loss -- like trading in the trusty old big-finned '59 Plymouth for a new Volvo. ("I certainly did give it a lot of thought, because I am well aware of that image.") But to his fans, it was almost like a day of national mourning; the event itself was rife with symbolism signaling the end of an era, the moment in which country music went certifiably uptown.
Twitty (real name: Harold Lloyd Jenkins -- named by his parents, Floyd and Velma, after the famous silent screen comedian) was born near the tiny hamlet of Friars Point, Miss., just a stone's throw from Memphis, Tenn. His father labored for the Work Projects Administration and was, for a time, the captain of a Mississippi ferry boat. By age 12, young Harold, who spent part of his formative years living on a houseboat moored to the Mississippi's shores, was already performing on radio with his own band, in nearby Helena, Ark.
By age 15, however, he'd temporarily surrendered his life to the Baptist ministry and embarked on a brief career of preaching the full gospel at tent revival meetings there in a land of tenant farms and cotton patches.
sk But even the power of organized religion paled beside the personal changes he felt come over him in the mid-1950s when he heard Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train" on the radio for the first time. Determined to get a berth of his own on the fast-moving train of rock 'n' roll, Twitty quickly made his way up to Memphis and the legendary Sun Studios. There, he talked producer Sam Phillips, who was already busy making hits with the likes of Presley, Johhny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, into giving him a shot at making some records of his own.
"It was a real exciting time," he recalls with unbridled nostalgia. "You knew you were on the leading edge of this tremendous musical explosion. You had this tremendous high from just being a part of it."
Twitty pauses for a moment, then reigns himself in with the close-to-the-vest caution of a politician who fears he may have just "misspoken" himself: "Now when I say 'high,' I want to clarify that," he adds carefully, ever mindful of tarnishing the high gloss of that carefully polished mystique. "I've never had a drink in my life, and I've never taken a pill in my life."
Despite all his clear-headed intentions and youthful enthusiasm, however, Twitty's brief association with Sun did not result in any hit records. After a similarly short-lived stint with Mercury, he was dropped by that label. And after a couple more singles released on the MGM label also flopped, he ended up back on his father-in-law's Arkansas farm, driving a combine.
It was some weeks later that he got a call informing him that "It's Only Make Believe," which he'd hurriedly written one night while stuck in a dingy hotel room on tour in Canada (and which MGM had shortsightedly released as the B side of a long-forgotten song called "I'll Try"), had broken loose in the charts. The record went on to dislodge Tommy Edwards' "It's All in the Game" as the No. 1 song in the national top 40, and one of the biggest sellers of 1958.
The years that immediately followed were heady ones for the former teen-aged revivalist. He toured with Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Jackie Wilson. He twisted on "American Bandstand" with Dick Clark and Chubby Checker. He vamped his way through a short-lived series of eminently forgettable teen movies, including "College Confidential," with Jayne Meadows and Mamie Van Doren; "Platinum High School," with Mickey Rooney and Dan Duryea; and "Sex Kittens Go to College," with Tuesday Weld. He even became a model for the hit Broadway musical, "Bye Bye Birdie," whose leading man was a singer named Conrad Birdie.
But by the mid-1960s, the steam had run out of Twitty's rock 'n' roll career, as well as his enthusiasm for the medium.
Then in 1965, he began working with veteran country producer Owen Bradley (to whom he was introduced by noted country songwriter Harlan Howard). That was when he finally came home to roost in country music, which, he claims, is exactly what he'd been shooting for all along.
"Once I made that decision to switch to country , I never looked back," he adds proudly. "I went from having million-sellers and making thousands of dollars a night, to making $200 a night, and selling 15- to 20,000 records. But even so, I can't explain to you the kind of feeling it was. It was a tremendous feeling, and I still have it today."
There is no one in country music who has kept as open a line to his fans as has Twitty. Nor is there anyone who has sacrificed greater chunks of his personal life to further advance the concept of the entertainer as a one-man corporation, and to further capitalize on that good old "mystique." (He was recently divorced from his second wife, Mickey, of nearly 25 years, and now keeps constant company with his coproducer and longtime office manager, Dee Henry.)
Twitty, after all, is one old country boy who, more than likely, still has the first dollar he ever made. Currently he sits atop a tightly run business empire fueled by the revenues from his hit records and about 200 personal appearances a year; and which includes music publishing companies, a booking agency, and majority stockholding in four minor league baseball teams throughout the Southeast. The centerpiece of his extensive holdings, however, is "Twitty City," his massive, solely owned entertainment complex just outside Nashville, which draws about a million paying visitors a year.
Twitty City is nothing less than a secular shrine to the enduring power of celebrity worship in our contemporary culture. The elegantly landscaped nine-acre complex features a large, multimedia museum that traces the Twitty legend in great detail, several gift shops where tourists can buy "Twitty Bird" dolls and similar paraphernalia, and a state-of-the-art 1,700-seat theater where Twitty himself often performs.
Twitty City is also the singer's year-round home, as well as the home of his mother and four grown children and their families. Just making the 100-yard trek across the courtyard from his office to his Colonial-style manse can involve up to an hour and a half of glad-handing and autograph-signing for the star. What it amounts to is that he's on stage all the time, in a gilded cage of his own invention.
"Nashville has this image all over the world, and people come here and just hit the ground runnin', lookin' for a little piece of the magic they get from that image," he explains. "They come here expecting to see a Merle Haggard or a Loretta Lynn or a Conway Twitty on every corner. I mean, a lot of 'em, if they even find a parking space that has some entertainer's name on it, they'll stand there all day long, thinking that maybe that entertainer might drive by, and they'll get a glimpse of him. Needless to say, a lot of 'em go home disappointed.
"What I did, after talkin' to a lot of the fans about this, was to take all the things that they come here lookin' for, and put it all in one complex."