Greetings from Asheville, where good music is always on the turntable. Tonight, that good music is being supplied by Earl Thomas Conley. The country music world was saddened, today, to learn that he passed away at age 77. He had been battling a dementia-like illness over the past couple of years. You can read a full story on his death from The Tennessean, here.
Earl Thomas Conley, a native of Portsmouth, Ohio, was one of the most prolific artists of the 1980’s, with 18 number one hits. That’s more than any artist except his RCA labelmates Alabama and Ronnie Milsap.
Born October 17, 1941, he was the son of a railroad worker. Hard times hit at age 14, when his father lost his job and sent Earl to live with his older sister. Earl was a true creative type. In addition to singing and songwriting, he loved painting. He was apparently pretty good, as he was offered an art scholarship that he turned down, joining the Army, instead. It was in the Army where Earl first discovered a love for performing, working as part of a trio.
After the Army, Earl eventually made it to Nashville, in the early 70’s, working clubs at night, while working other jobs during the day. He eventually left, heading to Huntsville, Alabama to work in a steel mill. While in Alabama, he met record producer Nelson Larkin, a man who would ultimately play a major role in Earl’s career. Nelson got Earl Thomas Conley his first record contract with GRT, but success was nil.
Earl eventually returned to Nashville, becoming a noted songwriter, while still struggling to get his singing career started. His songwriting successes started building, including;
Mel Street’s “Smokey Mountain Memories”
Conway Twitty “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me”
By 1979, Earl Thomas Conley had finally secured a major label deal with Warner Brothers. While there, he scored his first two Country top 40 singles, “Dreamin’s All I Do” and “Stranded on A Dead-End Street”. By the end of the year, though, he left the label, eventually signing with another independent label, Sunbird.
At Sunbird, he was reunited with Nelson Larkin, who would go on to produce most of Earl’s hits. It was with Sunbird where the career of Earl Thomas Conley began taking off.
First up, the song “Silent Treatment”. Debuting in December 1980, the song raced all the way to 7 on Billboard, becoming his
first top 10 hit. His next release did even better! Released in Spring 1981, “Fire and Smoke” really caught the attention of the country music listeners. On Billboard’s July 11th chart, “Fire and Smoke” became Earl Thomas Conley’s first number one hit.
RCA was watching closely and following the success of “Fire and Smoke”, made their move, bringing Earl Thomas Conley to their roster, where he immediately had another top ten hit with “Tell Me Why”.
Earl’s second number one hit came in 1982 as “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong” went to number one. Sixteen more number one hits followed, the last being “Love Out Loud” in 1989.
Earl’s list of number ones on Billboard include:
“Fire and Smoke” 1981
“Somewhere Between Right and Wrong” 1982
“Your Love’s on The Line” 1983
“Holding Her and Loving You” 1983
“Don’t Make It Easy for Me” 1984
“Angel in Disguise” 1984
“Chance of Lovin’ You” 1984
“Honor Bound” 1985
“Love Don’t Care (Who’s Heart It Breaks)” 1985
“Nobody Falls Like A Fool” 1985
“Once in A Blue Moon” 1986
“I Can’t Win for Losing You” 1987
“That Was A Close One” 1987
“Right From the Start” 1987
“What She Is (Is A Woman in Love)” 1988
“We Believe in Happy Endings” (w/Emmylou Harris) 1988
“What I’d Say” 1989
“Love Out Loud” 1989
Earl Thomas Conley’s career cooled in 1990. “You Must Not Be Drinking Enough” stalled just inside the top 30, while “Bring Back Your Love to Me” stopped at 11 on Billboard. For the first time since 1980, no Earl Thomas Conley records reached the top 10. 1991 was a better year. That Summer, “Shadow of A Doubt” brought Earl back into the top ten, then the Keith Whitley duet “Brotherly Love” almost gave Earl a 19th number one, but it stopped at 2.
Earl charted only one more single in the Country Top 40; 1992’s “Hard Days and Honky Tonk Nights”. After RCA dropped him from their roster, he took some time away from the music biz for various reasons, including frustration with label politics, as well as vocal issues. He would record, again, releasing an album in 1998.
Between 1975 and 1992, Earl Thomas Conley had 33 appearances on Billboard’s Country Top 40. 26 were top 10 hits, and 18 of those, #1. 7 other singles charted but fell short of the top 40. Billboard lists Earl as scoring 16 consecutive number one hits. Interestingly, during this string, 2 singles missed number one, but because they were collaborations (Gus Hardin and Anita Pointer), Billboard doesn’t count those against him. Author Joel Whitburn, in his book Billboard Top Country Hits, ranks Earl Thomas Conley at #12 in his list of top 1980’s artists.
Out of his 17 albums, four made the top ten, with his Greatest Hits collection reaching number one. One other notable achievement, on the album side. Earl Thomas Conley became the first act in any genre to score 4 number one hits from one album. That album was Don’t Make It Easy for Me.
His music has been called “Thinking man’s country”, and with good reason. His songs (especially the ones he wrote) generally have contained deep lyrics, written and sung in such a way that they expose the heart and soul of the song’s subject. I certainly can’t imagine him ever singing about country girls shaking it or house parties, or any other of the incredibly poorly written songs that become hits, today (personal opinion inserted there).
Earl Thomas Conley is one of my favorite artists of the 1980’s. Many of the recordings, in my opinion, were nothing short of outstanding. Part of that has to do with the song quality we just discussed. But also, his vocals are a big part, as well. Soul is often used to describe his voice, and I must agree. When you listen to him, though, his raw vocals are pure country, but with an extra amount of soul that so few others have. Hank Williams had it. So did George Jones. As I sat here, tonight, trying to think of how to properly describe his vocals, I imagined him singing different songs of different artists, and what I came up with is this; If you mixed about 50% Hank Williams and 50% Marvin Gaye, you’d get Earl Thomas Conley. Rest in peace, Earl. You will be missed.
Saving vinyl, one record at a time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike the Country Musicologist is a lifelong music and radio fanatic, model railroader, 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. He convinced Vincennes University to give him an Associate’s Degree in broadcasting. He’s worked for several stations in Indiana and North Carolina. Be sure to follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.