Tragedy has struck country music, again, the past three days, with the passing of two well-remembered names of the past; Holly Dunn and Leon Russell. You’ll hear music from both artists, on this coming Thursday’s Ultimate Twang program.
Holly Dunn’s passing was first announced by Nashville, Tennessee TV station, WSMV, this morning. The 59-year-old singer had been diagnosed in early 2015 with what she told the Christian website, Hallels, was a rare, very aggressive form of ovarian cancer. WSMV reported she passed away in an Albuquerque, New Mexico hospice facility, early this morning.
Like many artists, San Antonio, Texas native Holly Dunn began singing while still in school, in both high school, as well as in college while attending Abilene Christian University. In addition to her singing, she became an excellent songwriter, as well, and eventually wound up in Nashville with her brother, noted country music songwriter Chris Waters. One of their early successes as a songwriting team came in 1984, when they teamed with veteran writer Tom Shapiro on the song “I’m Not Through Loving You Yet”, which became a top ten hit for Louise Mandrell.
In 1985, Holly got her opportunity behind the mic, which quickly resulted in her first chart single, “Playing for Keeps”. Both it and the follow-up, “My Heart Holds On”, stalled in the sixties on Billboard’s country music charts, but in July, 1986, “Two Too Many”, her third release for MTM Records, became her first top 40 single, peaking at 39 on the Billboard chart.
It was the next single, though, that would bring her to the attention of the entire country music world. “Daddy’s Hands” was released during the late Summer of ’86, and by fall, became top ten on the country charts. Writing the song for her father, it would become her signature song, climbing as high as 7 on Billboard.
“Daddy’s Hands” became the first of what would total 9 top ten singles between 1986 and 1990. Of those nine, one, 1987’s “A Face in The Crowd”, was a duet with Michael Martin Murphey, while two other releases, 1980’s “Are You Ever Gonna Love Me” and 1990’s “You Had Me Going”, would climb all the way to number one.
After “Heart Full of Love” broke into the top twenty in early 1991, the hits dried up. She did chart five more singles through 1995, but none would find their way near the Top 40. Holly would continue to record through 2003, before retiring from music and beginning a second career in art, focusing on painting southwestern-influenced work.
One other note of interest: during the latter part of the 1990’s, she spent time as an air personality with radio station WWWW in Detroit, Michigan.
Maybe country music doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of Leon Russell, but he’s been a part of it, along with many other genres of music, for much of the past fifty years.
The Oklahoma native passed away on Sunday, at the age of 74. Per the New York Times, no specific cause was given, but he was recovering from a heart attack suffered during the summer, and was hoping to resume touring in 2017.
Leon was an accomplished pianist, singer, and songwriter, whose session work is nearly as legendary as his own music. A partial list of memorable recordings he worked on includes Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass’ classic “A Taste of Honey”, Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” album (credited as Russell Bridges), The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” album, and The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man”, among others.
As a musician, he was a unique blend of country, rock, blues, jazz, even classical. His piano playing was influential to many, including no less than Sir Elton John. The New York Times states his style of playing was necessitated by a slight right side paralysis caused by a vertebrae injury at birth.
As a recording artist, his success lay more in albums, rather than singles, as six of his releases went gold, and three of those, “Leon Live”, “Carney”, and his collaboration with Elton John “The Union”, were top ten sellers. He did score two top 20 pop hits, 1972’s “Tight Rope” and 1975’s “Lady Blue”.
Much of his recorded work (over 30 albums) would be classified in the pop, rock, and blues fields. But he did record country music, as well, often under the name Hank Wilson. Five of those tracks appeared on the country charts, including covers of “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, “A Six Pack to Go”, and “Wabash Cannonball”. A sixth single, his take on Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, failed to crack the country charts, but briefly made Billboard’s Hot 100. His biggest country music success came in 1979, collaborating with Willie Nelson. Their One for The Road (also one of his gold albums), made top 10 on the Billboard country album charts. And their cover of Elvis’ classic “Heartbreak Hotel” went all the way to number one on the singles side.
Holly Dunn and Leon Russell were two completely different types of singers, yet each one had a uniqueness in their vocals that couldn’t be compared to anyone who came before them. The music world has lost two good ones, this week. Our thoughts and prayers go to the families of each.
I’ll have some music from both Holly Dunn and Leon Russell on this Thursday’s edition of Ultimate Twang. You can listen, live, beginning at 4p ET, on WSFM – AshevilleFM, heard locally in Asheville at 103.3 and worldwide at ashevillefm.org. And if you’re unable to listen, live, you can always catch the latest show on our AshevilleFM Ultimate Twang page, anytime for a week, starting Friday morning.
Mike The Country Musicologist is a lifelong music and radio fanatic, lover of vintage agriculture, and big sports fan, including the Colts, Reds, Hurricanes, Pacers, Purdue & Butler Universities. He has collected records since childhood, focusing on classic country and top 40 oldies music. After convincing Vincennes University in Indiana to give him an Associates Degree in broadcasting, he has spent most of his adult life on the radio, having worked for several stations in Indiana and North Carolina, including his current gig, hosting the weekly World Famous Ultimate Twang Radio Show. Listen Thursdays, 4-7p ET on WSFM-LP/AshevilleFM, which is at 103.3 FM in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as online at ashevillefm.org.