The Story Behind the Song ... Page Three

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A lot of hit songs became hit songs because someone sat down to write a hit and that was that. But a lot of songs became hits because of some very unusual and unforeseen circumstances.  In December of 1955, a former radio disc jockey was on his way to topping both the country and pop music charts for 18 weeks because of a song written about  Kentucky coalmining. “Sixteen Tons” became one of the most popular songs of its day because Tennessee Ernie Ford was “behind schedule.”

The song was written by Merle Travis in 1947. Capitol Records had asked him to include some songs about “mining” in a new album he was recording. When he couldn’t locate any such songs, he wrote some including a tune he titled “Sixteen Tons. ”Ford had been so busy with a five day a week television program that he fell behind on his recording schedule for Capitol Records. After several reminders from the record label, Ford agreed to go into the studio and record two songs for a new release. He had been performing “Sixteen Tons” on his television program and picked it as one of the songs to record.

Tennessee Ernie Ford

Merle Travis

During rehearsal for the record session, Ford was snapping his fingers to the rhythm and record producer Lee Gillette liked the effect. He told Ford to include his finger snapping in the recording. "Sixteen Tons” entered the country music charts November 12th, 1955, and climbed to number one where it stayed for 21 weeks. It was Ford’s 18th charted country hit. The song was also number one on the pop music charts for seven weeks, beginning on November 28th, 1955.




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Conway Twitty’s life and career would make a great movie!

During his career, Conway remained a major force in the music business through five decades of changes and upheaval! During his lifetime, he had more number one hits than any other country artist in history. He also wrote eleven of his number one hits.

Conway, who was born Harold Lloyd Jenkins, was he son of a Mississippi riverboat captain. His grandfather taught him to play guitar and he performed on KFFA Radio in Helena, Arkansas at the age of 12. Conway (or Harold-as he was known back then) was also a talented baseball player and was even scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies, but was drafted into The Armed Forces during the Korean War. After being discharged, he took off for Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee after hearing Elvis Presley records on the radio. Sun Records did record him but his recordings sounded more like an imitation of Elvis and were never released.  He then signed to record rockabilly music for Mercury Records. It was then that Harold Jenkins became Conway Twitty—taking his names from the cities of Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas.

He later signed to record for MGM Records and it was then that he and a band member named Jack Nance wrote a song titled “It’s Only Make Believe” during a break in one of their concerts.  Although “It’s Only Make Believe” was a pop music hit- it was number one the week of November 10th, 1958 for two weeks- the record did not score in country music.  During that time, Conway was writing country songs and scored one when Ray Price recorded his “Walk Me To The Door” in 1963.  Owen Bradley signed Conway to record for Decca Records in 1965 and he made the country charts in 1966 with “Guess My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Heart.”

Conway Twitty, left

From 1966 thru 1993-Conway Twitty placed 97 songs on the country music charts-including 40 number ones.  Nine of those 93 country hits also scored on the pop music charts.  In January 1971, Conway and Loretta Lynn recorded what was to become their first number one as a duet team. Their single, “After The Fire Is Gone” entered the country music charts February 6th, 1971 and slid up the charts to number one, where it stayed for two weeks.

Conway Twitty died suddenly of a stomach aneurysm while on the road  between Branson, Missouri and Nashville, Tennessee in 1993.


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Very few songs have the distinction of scoring a number three on the country music charts and seven years later---making it to number two on the pop music charts—by another artist.  One of the few songs to accomplish that feat was a song titled “Now And Then-There’s A Fool Such As I.”  The song was written by Bill Trader and Dave Stafford. It was submitted to Hank Snow in 1952 and he recorded it for RCA Victor Records.  The song became his 13th chart single, peaking at number three and was on the charts for 18 weeks.

Then in June of 1958, while on a two week leave from the U.S. Army, Elvis Presley came to Nashville, Tennessee and between June 10th and 11th---recorded, “Now And Then-There’s A Fool Such As I,” along with “I Got Stung” and “I Need Your Love Tonight.”  “Now And Then-There’s A Fool Such As I” was planned as the “B” side of the next record, but it jumped on the pop charts first at # 64. The following week, it skipped up to # 26, while the flipside “I Need Your Love Tonight” came on the pop charts at # 33. Both sides of the record seemed to race each other up the hit list, exchanging lead positions every other week until “Now And Then-There’s A Fool Such As I’  stopped at number five, while the flipside, “I Need Your Love Tonight” settled in at number 4—which was as high as it made it.

Hank Snow

Elvis Preslley

But, “Now And Then-There’s A Fool Such As I” slipped up to number two on April 27th, 1959.  The RCA single was also played on several country music radio stations but never made the country music charts.




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According to Lynn Anderson, if there had not been some time left on a 1970 recording session, her million seller, “Rose Garden,” might never have been recorded!  Lynn had heard the song on Joe South’s 1969 “Introspect” album. She repeatedly asked her husband and record producer Glenn Sutton, to let her record the song and he repeatedly turned her down.  Lynn said, “There were lines in the song which  the record company thought weren’t right for me—lines like “I could promise you things like big diamond rings.” A woman just wouldn’t say that to a man-so they thought a female singer singing those lyrics just wouldn’t work.”  But fate intervened and a Nashville recording session finished 15 minutes early and they didn’t have any other songs scheduled to record.

Again Lynn suggested “Rose Garden” and since they had nothing else to work on—she finally recorded the song! But the first take was a flop! It was then that musicians Charlie McCoy and Jerry Kennedy came up with a different rhythm pattern which came to be known as “The Rose Garden shuffle.”  According to Jerry Kennedy, “the pattern was actually “the old blue beat” from a record he did in the early 1950’s called “Blue Beat” which had that same rhythm pattern.

Columbia Records had planned another song for Lynn’s next release-but label head Clive Davis happened to hear the tape of “Rose Garden” and decided it would be the next Lynn Anderson single.  According to Lynn, “I believe that “Rose Garden” was released at just the right time. People were trying to recover from the Vietnam years. The message in the song that—if you just take hold of life and go ahead—you can make something out of nothing—people just took to that.”

Lynn Anderson

“Rose Garden” entered the country music charts November 7th, 1970 and it was number one on December 26th. It was Lynn’s 19th country chart single and was on the list for 20 weeks. It was also her first number one.  “Rose Garden” also peaked at # 4 on the pop music charts on February 13th, 1971.Both the single and the album sold over a million copies and also yielded Lynn Anderson a Grammy and a Female Vocalist Of The Year Award from The Country Music Association.




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Think of the weirdest scenario possible for the story line for a TV movie about the music business!

Start with the story of a song that already made the top of the country music charts AND was on its way to the top of the pop charts as well BUT was kept out of that number one slot by another recording of THE SAME SONG---by another artist?  Well as weird as that story sounds---all of that did happen in 1956 to a young singer named Sonny James.  Capitol Records’ Ken Nelson has just received a tape of a song in the mail titled “Young Love” and he decided the song would fit Sonny James (real name: James Loden). Sonny didn’t really care for the song but agreed to record it.

“Young Love” was recorded with only a straight brush on the snare drum, Sonny’s acoustic flattop guitar and a standup bass. The lead guitar part was added later by Pete Wade.  “Young Love” entered he country music charts December 22nd, 1956 and made its’ way to number one-where it stayed for nine weeks. It was on the country charts for 24 weeks.  And it looked like Sonny’s record would also conquer the pop music charts as well but Dot Records’ Randy Wood thought Sonny’s record success would only shine on the country charts, so he signed teen-age idol Tab Hunter to a recording contract and rush-released his version of “Young Love” on Dot Records for the pop music market!

Sonny James

In those days, music publishers tried to get as many artists as possible to cover their tunes. This would mean more income from the same song and sometimes-more than one version and popular that often resulted in even more income.  The Sonny James version of “Young Love” jumped on the pop music charts as # 22-then skipped to number 12—then all the way to number three.  But about that time, Tab Hunter’s version entered the pop charts. Hunter’s record popped up to number four as James’ record made it to number two.

Tab’s single came up to the number 4 slot-and then number three and then fell back to number 4, before jumping to number one-while Sonny James’ version was held to number two.  Tab (real name: Arthur Andrew Kelm) Hunter’s recording career was short lived—while Sonny James went on to place 72 songs on the country music charts—21 of which also scored on the pop charts.




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A famous philosopher once said that adversity is the key to success.

In the case of songwriters, that philosopher might have added-"adversity-plus talent-breeds success."  And in the case of Willie Nelson-all of the above certainly applies.  Willie has proven-more than once-that he has enough talent for an entire
neighborhood and he could write a book on adversity.  Most songwriters have a reason for writing their songs. A lot of songs are pages from the lives of writers-about his wife-or his ex-wife-his love life-or the lack of a love life-or a million and one other stories. But most of those stories-and songs---have to do with love-at some stage in their life---in one form or another.

Willie Nelson said he never really had a reason for writing "Crazy," a song that became the signature song for Patsy Cline and a country music standard.  But "Crazy" could have been a reflection of Willie's place in life at the
time he wrote it.  It was one of those songs he wrote soon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee. And as the story goes in the business of songwriting, the first several artists Willie pitched to song to were not the least bit interested in recording it. Willie was in Nashville without his family and with very little money. He could barely afford to move himself-much less bring his family with him. He had hoped to make enough money from his music to relocate his family to Music City but things just weren't working out.

In the eyes of his critics, Willie must have been "Crazy" to keep trying the "Crazy" music business!  Soon after finishing the song, he gave a tape copy to Patsy Cline's husband, Charlie Dick. Although Dick loved the song, Patsy thought it was the worst song she had ever heard and there was no way she'd ever record it!  Later, Willie personally pitched the song to Patsy and again, she flatly refused to have anything to do with it.

Willie Nelson

Patsy Cline

But as in the music business-as in life in general-all things are subject to change and sometimes when you least expect it.  "Crazy" was pitched to Patsy's record producer, Owen Bradley, who thought the song was made for Patsy and he informed her that she WOULD record the song.  As was he case of most Patsy Cline recording sessions, the battle between she and Bradley was on - but Owen  being the boss - he had the final say - and he finally said that Patsy Cline  WOULD record "Crazy."

Patsy was unable to perfect her voice on the first record session, as she was still healing from broken ribs suffered in a car crash several weeks earlier.  But a week later, she was back in the studio  and this time her vocal version of "Crazy" was heard round the world!  Willie Nelson said that "Crazy" went from being a song that he never really cared for to being his favorite of all the songs he'd written! And his critics no longer called him "Crazy" for sticking with songwriting.

"Crazy" entered the country music charts November 13th, 1961 and peaked at number two-where it stayed for two weeks. It was on the country charts for 21 weeks and also scored a  # 9 on the pop music charts.



Not only was Marty Robbins “El Paso” a number one record in both pop and country music markets, it also set several other “firsts:”

At four minutes and 40 seconds, it was the longest single  record to make it to number one---up til that time!  It was the first number one single for the year in 1960 and the first country recording to win a Grammy award.

Marty Robbins was born Martin David Robinson. He never lived in El Paso, Texas but he fell in love with the name of the city when he was a young boy, growing up in Arizona.  After returning home from the Navy, Marty worked at several jobs, until the singer for a local band failed to show up one night and Marty was on hand to fill in.  That led to a radio show on KPHO Radio –and later a TV show---where Marty was working when Little Jimmy Dickens appeared as a special guest. Dickens was so impressed with Marty’s talents, that he told Columbia Records they should sign the young man to a recording contract. They did and the hits started coming.

As soon as “El Paso” was recorded, Marty wanted to release it as a single but Columbia Records said  the song was much too long. Instead it was released in the “Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs” album.  But radio disc jockeys immediately began playing El Paso” off the album, which created demand for the song, so after  only  a month on the market, Columbia Records agreed to release “El Paso” as a single.  You might think that a song as popular as “El Paso” would automatically be adopted as that city’s official song—but it never happened!  Instead the city of El Paso, Texas adopted a tune written by a local resident.

Marty Robbins

Marty Robins was quoted as saying, “I always wanted to write a song about El Paso, Texas, because traditionally—that is where the West begins. Had I been born sooner, the cowboy life is the kind of life I would have wanted to live.  “El Paso” entered the country music charts November 9th, 1959 and made it to number one, where it stayed for seven weeks. It was on the country charts for 26 weeks.  The Columbia single was also pop music’s number one song for two weeks.



Many country music hit songs are written as a result of conversations- or some chance remark either made or overheard during a conversation.

“He’ll  Have To Go,” one of country music’s true classics, came about as a result of a conversation between writer Joe Allison and his wife Audrey.  During a phone conversation between the two of them, Joe was having a hard time understanding what Audrey was saying so he told her to put her mouth a little closer to the phone and talk louder. Audrey did so and they finished their conversation.  When Joe arrived home later that evening, he found that Audrey had scribbled the words, “put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone” on a piece of paper. She had changed the word “mouth” to “lips” and rephrased the line.

Jim Reeves

Joe immediately sat down and finished the idea, which became “He’ll  Have To Go.” He put the song on tape and presented it to RCA Records producer Chet Atkins. Chet liked the song and thought it was a hit and he also thought he had just the singer to make the song happen---Jim Reeves.  Jim’s RCA Victor single of “He’ll Have To Go” entered the country music charts December  7th, 1959 and made it to number one, where it stuck for 14 weeks. It was Reeves’ 26th charted song and was on the country charts for 34 weeks.  The single also scored  a # two on the pop music charts.




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