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Conway Twitty; Country Music Star Was 59

<i> From Associated Press</i>

Conway Twitty, who started as a teen-age rock idol in the 1950s and crossed over to country to become a star, died Saturday at age 59.

His wife, Dee Henry, other relatives and some of his band members were with him at Cox Medical Center-South when he died of complications from surgery after a blood vessel ruptured in his stomach.

Twitty collapsed on his tour bus during a rest stop in southwest Missouri on the way home to Hendersonville, Tenn., from a performance Friday night in Branson.

“I’ve just been sitting here crying,” said Sandy Brokaw, Twitty’s press representative. “I was in awe of the man.”

Twitty was born Sept. 1, 1933, as Harold Jenkins but changed his name in 1957 by borrowing from Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Tex.

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After spending many years as a songwriter, his performing career took off with the name change. He recorded more than 40 No. 1 hits, including “Hello Darlin’,” “Tight-Fittin’ Jeans” and “Linda on My Mind.”

“Everyone will remember Conway Twitty, industry and fans alike, as the consummate singer and performer who has been this wonderful and dynamic presence in our business for over 30 years,” said Bruce Hinton, chairman of MCA Records in Nashville.

Mel Tillis, who said Twitty and his wife were at Tillis’ Branson theater Thursday night, called Twitty a great singer.

“He didn’t do a lot of talking on stage, he said he let his music do his talking,” Tillis said. “He was a song’s best friend because he could really sing.”

Twitty and Loretta Lynn won the Country Music Assn.'s vocal duo of the year award in 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975. They won a Grammy for their 1971 duet, “After the Fire Is Gone.”

Twitty got his break as a rockabilly artist in the 1950s, writing songs for Sun Records’ stable of singers that included Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

His first hit was “It’s Only Make Believe,” which reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1958.

Twitty capitalized on his teen idol status by starring in the films “Sex Kittens Go to College” and “College Confidential.”

Going against the advice of managers, booking agents and record company people, Twitty switched to country and turned out a string of No. 1 hits until “Georgia Keeps Pulling on My Ring” missed in 1977.

“I’m a fan, too. I like what the fans like,” Twitty said in a 1985 interview. “I believe I can pick the songs. I have a fan’s ear.”

In 1982, Twitty opened Twitty City, a nine-acre tourist complex in Hendersonville, a Nashville suburb. It included performance facilities and Twitty often would come out and greet visitors.

Twitty turned down a contract offer to play baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies out of his love for music. He learned his first guitar chords from his father, a riverboat captain on the Mississippi.

He grew up in Friars Point, Miss., listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio and was influenced by the local black church. He put together his first band when he was 10.

“My Dad told me when I was a kid: ‘When the cotton is out there, you get it. When it’s not out there, you can rest,’ ” Twitty said in a 1990 interview. “I’ve been fortunate. It has been out there for me for a long time.”

Besides his wife, he is survived by his mother, Velma Jenkins, and his four children, Joni, Jimmy, Kathy and Michael. They all live at Twitty City.

Funeral arrangements are pending.


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