Thursday, April 11, 2019

Earl Thomas Conley Passes Away At The Age of 77

"My heart is absolutely destroyed today... I’m sad to report that Earl Thomas Conley passed away very early this morning. Earl was my all time favorite singer, hero and my friend. Prayers to his family. We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest..." - Blake Shelton
"When I first came to Nashville in the early '80s, I studied the great singers, songwriters and human hearts - one that topped the charts in all areas was Earl Thomas Conley. He made a big difference in the songs I sang. Thank you for the lessons and the memories, my friend. God give you sweet repose 'til we meet again... 'just around the bend.'" - Randy Travis, Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry Member
"Earl and I grew up about 30 miles down the road from each other. We've been good friends for many years. I've always loved his records and I'm gonna miss him." - Bobby Bare, Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry Member
"Earl Thomas Conley, great country music star, I never had the pleasure of working with Earl but I have always admired his talent and his love for country music." - Mickey Gilley

Country music star Earl Thomas Conley, who released 18 No. 1 country hit singles -- including "Holding Her and Loving You" -- has died at the age of 77.  Conley's brother Fred Conley confirmed to The Tennessean that the singer died on Wednesday in Nashville. He had a condition similar to dementia and was in hospice care.

The music business and it's cast of characters are full of tales concerning acts and their pursuit for success - the long and winding roads traveled to fulfill their dreams, the rapidity of #1 hits, the languorous nature of a career fading away into nothing, the remembrance of days gone by never to repeated either critically or commercially. Once in a blue moon, however, does a true artist glow like the brightest star and burn out only to reignite with the presence of the Sun. If anyone in the world of country music deserves to bear such a distinction, it would be Earl Thomas Conley.

Few ever achieve such a remarkable set of milestones, let alone look adversity in the face and return to prove than lightening can strike twice. Earl Thomas Conley dispells any trace of doubt with Perpetual Emotion, a collection that perfectly marries the past and the present of a country music sage who originally looked for inspiration with a brush rather than a six string. Painting was this Portsmouth, Ohio native's first love a passion that began at age 10. It was also his way out of an economically depressed town whose glory days had passed. By 14, Earl was more than ready to live with his sister in Dayton, where he continued to paint and learn more about the art that seemed to direct his life.

Upon high school graduation, Earl was prepared to accept an art scholarship at a local college, but opted to join the army instead. It was here, as a member of a Christian-influenced trio, where his musical talent and vocal ability were first realized. As he continued to perform, Earl's feelings towards the music that his father had played for him as a child grew stronger and seemed to take a hold of him. He also figured that entertaining wasn't a bad way to make a living. This new found inspiration fueled the young Conley, who now sought an education in country music. Recordings by Merle Haggard, George Jones, and Charlie Pride were the basis of this education, which served as a solid foundation for Conley, who began to write songs around this period.

Now that army life was behind him, Earl started commuting to Nashville in 1968. With success eluding him during every visit, Conley moved to Huntsville, Alabama to be closer to Music City and its recording studios. During a song-plugging visit in 1973, Earl met Dick Herd, who produced Mel Street. This meeting led to the Conley-Herd composite "Smokey Mountain Memories," which Street took straight into the Top 10. With the future looking brighter than ever before, Earl moved to Nashville, where luck as a songwriter continued with "This Time I've Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me," a #1 hit for Conway Twitty in 1975.

Having written continuously since 1968 and hot on the heels of a #1 cut for Conway Twitty, Earl decided to make the move to "singer" as Earl Conley. In 1979, Earl released three singles for Warner Brothers, which failed to crack the Top 20 country chart. Nothing seemed to grab anyone's attention. By 1982, the artist now known as Earl Thomas Conley had signed with the independent Sunbird Records, where he recorded the "Blue Pearl" album with producer Nelson Larkin. One of the album's tracks, "Fire & Smoke," was selected as a single and promoted to country radio stations across the U.S. Within weeks, the song was atop the Billboard charts and Earl had achieved his first #1 as an artist.

With "Fire & Smoke" a bona fide hit, RCA picked up Earl's contract and became his home for the next 10 years. What ensued was a period of hit making that has seldom been achieved by other artists in any genre of music. This became more interesting when considering the type of music that Earl Thomas Conley was making. He was country, R&B, rock n' roll, pop, and adult contemporary in a world that accepted nothing but stone country.

His left-of-center style applied to both his music and his image. In the midst of the "Urban Cowboy" era, Earl didn't play the "hat act." His relentless pursuit to write and sing better songs resulted in #1 hit after #1 hit. His incessant desire to grow musically led to accolades such as multiple Grammy nominations for his 1983 hit "Holding Her & Loving You," which won the "Country Song of the Year" award. It also allowed Earl to be the first artist to take four singles from album to the #1 spot. The success of the "Don't Make It Easy For Me" album pre-dated a similar feat achieved with Michael Jackson's "Bad" album, which paralyzed the Top 40 chart much like Conley had on the Country hit parade four years earlier.

Earl continued to defy the rules when he became the first and only country artist ever to appear on the popular R&B television show "Soul Train," where he sang his 1986 hit duet with Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters, "Too Many Times." It seemed that everything Earl did became a hit and pushed the envelope at the same time. As the '80s turned into the '90s, there was no reason to believe that this stunning success would end just as quickly as it began. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened.

By 1991, Earl just couldn't take it anymore. His desires to record were now replaced with desires to get off a treadmill that was just going too fast. Issues of control in the studio fueled his growing disenchantment with the politics of the music business. Mounting voice problems led to rumors of throat cancer, but what doctors actually discovered were severe allergies that prevented full use of his vocal cords. Financial woes and the death of his father also contributed to this tailspin, leaving Earl mentally, physically, emotionally, and creatively drained. So, in true E.T.C. fashion, he refused to compromise and took a break, participating sparingly in country music events and being highlighted by Blake Shelton regularly as his "hero." 

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