Dwight Twilley, appearing Saturday night at Rio's in Loma Portal, is one of the great unsung heroes of rock 'n' roll. For the last decade and a half, the talented singer-songwriter from Tulsa, Okla., has consistently earned critical accolades for his enticing fusion of Elvis Presley rockabilly with Beatles pop.
Yet his commercial successes have been few and far between, because of a series of close encounters of the worst kind with record companies.
"It's a funny situation," Twilley said last Friday over lunch at a restaurant in Ocean Beach. "There's a lot of things you can't really predict, things that come up and get in the way, and I guess I've just had more problems than most people."
In 1975, the Dwight Twilley Band signed with Shelter Records. Their first single, "I'm On Fire," was an immediate hit, spending two months in the national Top 40. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "the best debut single by an American rock band ever."
But because of Shelter's shaky condition, there was no album to capitalize on the single's success for more than a year, and by the time "Sincerely" finally came out, the momentum had been lost and album sales were dismal.
After Shelter folded in 1977, the band signed with Arista Records, which released its critically acclaimed follow-up album, "Twilley Don't Mind."
A short time later, however, Shelter was reactivated and wanted Twilley back; the ensuing legal battle between Shelter and Arista not only stifled promotion of his 1979 solo debut, "Twilley," but prevented the release of any new product.
The dispute was resolved in 1982 and Twilley promptly resurfaced on a new label, EMI America, which issued his next two albums, "Scuba Divers" and 1984's "Jungle." The latter album yielded the Top 40 hit "Girls."
Once again, however, the momentum was lost. Twilley's EMI representative left the label and, on the advice of management, he switched over to Private Eye Records, distributed by CBS.
His 1986 Private Eye debut, "Wild Dogs," was produced by Grammy winner Val Garay and predicted to be a big hit.
But a few days before the album's release, FBI footage of Private Eye president Joe Isgro meeting with known mob figures appeared on national television, kicking off a major industry payola scandal.
"The record company disappeared overnight," Twilley said, "and no one even knew the album came out."
Twilley has been without a record contract for three years, but then again, he hasn't really been trying.
"Normally, I would have gone right back into the studio, but after my last experience (with Private Eye), it was sort of like stop, wait a minute, let's go back to the basics," he said.
"So instead of going after a new label, I put together a new band, just like I had when I did my first two albums, and it takes a long time to get the right kind of chemistry.
"There's no way you can press a magic button and make two people sing in harmony, but if you give them a couple of years together, eventually something starts to happen."
Thanks to some unsolicited, but most welcome, national exposure, sales of "The Stars Come Out for Christmas," a locally produced compilation album of Christmas songs by big-name pop artists, got off to an extraordinarily good start last Friday.
Within 48 hours, producer Steve Vaus said, more than 1,000 copies of the cassette-only album--a benefit for the Children's Hospital and Health Center--had already been sold, far exceeding his initial expectations.
"There is no doubt in my mind that it will sell out," Vaus said. "The only question is, how soon?"
The primary reason for the success is that several songs on the album, including Kenny Loggins' rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," have been picked up by the Satellite Music Network (SMN), a national syndicate subscribed to by more than 500 adult-contemporary and country radio stations throughout the United States.
"Two weeks ago, there was an item about the project in a column in the Chicago Tribune," Vaus said. "The program director for SMN happened to read it and he immediately called me up, asking for a copy and promising to promo it.
"They put it on Friday morning about 8:30 and all 10 of our phone lines lit up instantly and stayed lit for three or four hours, with us taking order after order.
"We've gotten orders from every state in the union, just on the telephone--and that doesn't account for everything else."
"Everything else" means the 14 local Imperial Savings branch offices and 50 Taco Bell restaurants where San Diegans can pick up the $7.95 album in person rather than ordering it by phone (the mail-order number is 1-800-HIT SONG).
If all 25,000 copies of "The Stars Come Out For Christmas" are sold by Christmas, Vaus said, Children's Hospital stands to reap as much as $200,000.
Of the album's 18 Christmas songs by 17 different artists, six were recorded during October and November right here in San Diego, at Vaus' The Studio in Kearny Mesa.
The local takes: "The First Noel" by Karla Bonoff, "Mary's Boy Child" by the Little River Band, "Away in a Manger" by Kim Carnes, "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by the Commodores, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Kenny Loggins, and "Christmas Needs Love to Be Christmas" by Juice Newton.
The others are previously recorded tracks sent in by such heavyweights as Stevie Nicks ("Silent Night"), Loretta Lynn ("Shadrach, the Black Reindeer"), and Natalie Cole ("The Christmas Song").
LINER NOTES: The Nov. 22 "Human Rights Now!" concert at the Firehouse Teen-Senior Center in La Jolla raised $500 for Amnesty International's high school outreach program. The three-hour benefit concert, which featured San Diego bands Bad Radio, Burning Bridges, and Club of Rome, was sponsored by the local Musicians Who Care association. . . . By the end of this month, the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach will have a third parking lot, providing 35 more spaces. . . .
Opening for the Cult, Dec. 29, at the San Diego Sports Arena: heavy metal upstarts Bonham, led by Jason Bonham, whose late father, John, was Led Zeppelin's drummer. . . . Exactly 29 years ago this week, Rosie and the Originals became the first San Diego band to crack Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart with "Angel Baby". . . .
Best concert bets for the coming week: the Primitives, Thursday at the Bacchanal in Kearny Mesa; Mary's Danish and 13th Step, also Thursday, at the Belly Up Tavern; Jethro Tull and It Bites, Friday at the Sports Arena; Camper Van Beethoven, Saturday at San Diego State University's Montezuma Hall; the Call, also Saturday, at the Bacchanal; Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson, Monday at the Bacchanal; and Squeeze and Animal Logic, Tuesday at Symphony Hall downtown.