Feb 04

CONWAY TWITTY – ‘It’s Only Make Believe’

Popular21 comments • 2,631 views

#78, 19th December 1958

‘It’s Only Make Believe’ takes a male pop archetype ‘ booming, stirring, strident ‘ and flips it, so that each verse builds up not to a confident declaration but to a shattered, lonely howl. Twitty was a country singer by background and it’s as such he’s remembered, but this isn’t just a country song. It’s a synthesis of country, rock and roll, shoo-be-doo beat balladry and older pop crooning. The rolling piano rhythms might have coaxed lovers into one another’s arms in a different song ‘ here they give Twitty the momentum that allows him to confess, to shout out the lie he’s been living. (His hesitancy in the first lines, that fumbling for the word ‘everywhere’, is desperately effective.).

This is also the last No.1 of 1958. What it has in common with most of the others is a) quality, b) modernity. Which is to say that (Vic Damone aside), everything that topped the charts in ’58 seems clearly in debt to rock and roll ‘ in arrangement, in attitude, in risk-taking or playfulness or starkness. Eddie Fisher and the Dreamweavers had got to No.1 with records as lonely as ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ ‘ good records, too ‘ but compared to them Twitty sounds like he’s had a layer of skin peeled off. Their sorrow was something crafted and well-formed ‘ no less real, no less moving, but more carefully and delicately expressed. Twitty’s is immediate. Rock and roll wasn’t the first style to tap that immediacy, but for British listeners I’m guessing it might as well have been. What had gone before was portrait painting: rock and roll was a camera.



  1. 1
    Pete Baran on 11 Jun 2009 #

    Repopulate! I always thought this was Elvis as a kid. And lets be fair, Conway wanted it that way too. and certainly in the low registers Twitty does an almost pitch perfect Elvis, which gets more weedy as the inevitable pitch raise through the song (which is an awesome gimmick).

    Now I believed it was Elvis not because of Twitty though. This is another song I knew first via Glenn Campbell’s 20 Golden Greats. I remember one time my Mum dared play it Dad was around, and him complaining that Elvis’s version was better. Was he just wrong or did he think Twitty’s was Elvis?

    Going through the versions on Spotify, its a song which you can get the difference between the version instantly with how they deliver
    “People see us everywhere”…

  2. 2
    wichita lineman on 12 Jun 2009 #

    “Rock and roll wasn’t the first style to tap that immediacy, but for British listeners I’m guessing it might as well have been.”

    No matter what the claims are for jazz and swing being the first Pop or the first Teen music, , R&R was the first music to express teenage emotions in such a raw manner. Blues seems to specific to translate worldwide and, besides, there are enough English love-and-death folk songs if you want to take it THAT far back. So, I reckon this really was a musical as well as social breakthrough.

    The concept/structure of IOMB was extended by Mann and Weil on Gene Pitney’s I’m Gonna Be Strong, which stretched the whole song into a long, slow-building howl of anguish, mask slowly slipping.

    Glen C does a neat adlib right on the last chorus, but otherwise Conway T’s take is the keeper. Much as I love Billy Fury, even his vocal sounds like a whistling milkman by comparison. I dunno about an Elvis version, but it sounds like something he could’ve tackled in Vegas. Possibly it’s on one of the Follow That Dream cds? But I’m pretty sure yr dad was thinking of Twitty.

    I always thought it was pretty odd that someone would use Conway Twitty as a stagename – even odder that his real name was Harold Jenkins! According to Wiki: “There are also rumours that the country artist had lovers in Conway, Arkansas, as well as Twitty, Texas.” But it could have been a long term plan, so that when he was rich and famous enough to open an entertainment complex just outside of Nashville he could call it Twitty City.

  3. 3
    rosie on 12 Jun 2009 #

    wichitalineman @ 2

    I always thought it extremely odd that an R&B man (by which I mean a proper R&B man not the travesty masquerading these days as R&B!) should think he could get away with being Lou Rawls. Of course, he didn’t really get away with it in Britain and I guess the joke doesn’t work in Leftpondia.

  4. 4
    Pete Baran on 12 Jun 2009 #

    Oh no, its almost certain that my Dad was wrong, but listening again I can see how he (and I for quite a while) made the mistake.

    Twit is a very British insult and apparently only crossed said pond in the early sixties with the rise in popularity of certain British comedians (though actually I can’t think who – not until Monty Python and Roald Dahl get in on the action).

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    Jonathan Bogart on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Afraid I’m an ignorant American, as I can’t even think of a joke inherent in Lou Rawls.

    For some reason I associate the word “twit” with Jules Feiffer, although I may simply be mixing him up with Quentin Blake’s Dahlustrations. (Is it used in the Phantom Tollbooth?)

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 14 Jun 2009 #

    wichita, hunt down an MP3 of the original dixyland jazz (or jass) band’s “tiger rag”, and play it while reading the “illegal rave” sections of dorothy sayer’s “murder must advertise” — obviously they’re posh kids and not strictly teens, but they were alienated youth (their teenhood spent in the Great War): the word for “raw” in those days was “hot”

  7. 7
    Jack Fear on 15 Jun 2009 #

    Jonathan: Afraid I’m an ignorant American, as I can’t even think of a joke inherent in Lou Rawls.

    Fellow Yanqui dog here, thinking Rosie’s joke depends on the phonetic similarity to the phrase “loo rolls,” or what we colonials would call “toilet paper.” The legendary sophistication of British humo(u)r, and all that.

  8. 8
    Jonathan Bogart on 15 Jun 2009 #

    In six comments from Conway Twitty to the ODJB must be some kind of record, but I’m wholly in agreement with lørd sükråt here: jazz’ position as Youth Music in the early half of the 20thC is obscured from our pov by its position as Fogey Music in the second half. Also, whenever I read those bits of MMA I think of it being soundtracked by Webern and Milhaud; probably Sayers’ modernist gestures in the prose affecting my imaginative ear.

    The other caveat I’d make is with the comtemporaneity of the ODJB; “Tiger Rag” was more than a decade out of date by Sayers’ time, and played as much for comedy as for danceability even at its height. Even aside from the fact that an actual ca. 1933 soundtrack for a British orgy would be weak tea like Nat Gonella or (from the US) Paul Whiteman, I’d point to the recordings that Bix Beiderbecke made with Frankie Trumbauer as the standard for late 20s/early 30s hot stuff, at least from white people.

  9. 9
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 Jun 2009 #

    all those likely true, jonathan, for jazzheads — but it was an early million-selling 78 i think even before the end of 1920, which means (a) it got into a lot of ears who never went on to hear (or care about)* subsequent jazz** and (b) it wasn’t like anything much before it: comedy very likely for plenty, but more than just comedy (and early R&R also pushes the comedy pedal to the metal too)

    *and check out the reach of the folks who *cover* tiger rag — it reads like everyone up till bebop times (even gracie fields!)***
    **and there were very few of these
    ***she mentions the band playing tiger rag in the narrative of one of her mid-30s comic songs, and the arrangement obligingly kicks into a little two-bar mimicry: it wasn’t — after armstrong — “proper” jazz, but EVERYONE knew that song, and lots of people liked it

  10. 10
    wichita lineman on 15 Jun 2009 #

    Every time I thumb through a pile of 78s there’s a version of Tiger Rag by someone.

    Totally in agreement on raw/hot youth soundtrack, Sukrat*, and looking forward to getting my copy of the Jon Savage Teenage comp. The point I wanted to get across (and clearly not very well) is that Tiger Rag, hot jazz, swing, ragtime, jump blues, whatever, none of them get over the intense emotions (as in ‘lovesickness’) of being a teenager as R&R of the IOMB variety does.

    The teen ballad is second wave R&R, and doesn’t have the overt nods to the immediate past of Little Richard, Jerry Lee, Elvis and Bill Haley. Sounds to me like it’s channeling Italian/Irish balladry(?), adding a thunking backbeat, and getting the lyrics across directly in a teenage manner. Raw heartache rather than just raw noise. Taken to beautiful extremes (softly) by the Teddy Bears, Fleetwoods and Paris Sisters and (intensely) by Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison and Del Shannon. That’s what was new, I reckon.

    *I’m sure yr right about Tiger Rag selling a million by 1920. And must check Sayers, ta.

  11. 11
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 Jun 2009 #

    Yes, I think there’s much stronger evdience for that version of the claim — obviously “teenage” existed as an age-group (!), and as an emotional-psychological-sociological category with its own various fashion-shaped behaviour patterns, but it wasn’t really a targeted age group: the fashions weren’t in interaction with stuff being sold it, and definitely there wasn’t a genre of music (or novels or films or ____) that made teens the focus (as opposed to children or adults)

    i’ve linked to this before: it’s a piece i did for sight and sond years ago about “youth” as a topic in film (part of a ratter good A_Z series they abt 10 years ago) — one of the things i discovered was that in the 20s and 30s, no one batted an eyelid at casting people in their forties as people aged 15

    (forget the details but the casting of various versions of romeo and juliet is instructive: romeo’s gang-pal mercutio is 55 in one version!)

    (juliet is 12)

  12. 12
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 Jun 2009 #

    linked to this, i mean

  13. 13
    Tracer Hand on 15 Jun 2009 #

    my most vivid childhood memories of conway twitty consist of driving past a branch of the “twitty city” theme park on the way to gatlinburg

  14. 14
    Billy Smart on 13 Jul 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Conway twitty appaered a few times on UK television. Only the 1979 performance survives;

    OH BOY!: with Jimmy Henney, Conway Twitty, Marty Wilde, Cherry Wainer, Billy Fury, Dickie Pride, ‘Cuddly’ Dudley, The Dallas Boys, Tony Sheridan and the Wreckers, Maureen Kershaw (1959)

    OH BOY!: with Tony Hall, Conway Twitty, Marty Wilde, Don Lang, Lord Rockingham’s XI, Cherry Wainer, The Dallas Boys, Bill Forbes, Mike Preston, Mike Jackson (1959)

    SING COUNTRY: with Vernon Oxford, Terri Hollowell, Floyd Cramer, Lonnie Donegan, Conway Twitty (1979)

    UP COUNTRY FESTIVAL: with Mervyn Conn (Organiser), Del Reeves, The Goodtime Charlies, George Hamilton IV (Compere), David Allan (Commentator), The Stoneman Family, Tex Withers, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, The Twitty Birds (1972)

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    LINDA KIMBERLY JULY 20, 1962 on 20 Oct 2011 #


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    wichita lineman on 24 Oct 2011 #


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    Rory on 24 Oct 2011 #


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    thefatgit on 24 Oct 2011 #


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    wichita lineman on 27 Oct 2011 #


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    hectorthebat on 15 Feb 2014 #

    Critic watch: This song appears on the following “best-of” lists:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 18
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 689
    Greil Marcus (USA) – STRANDED: “Treasure Island” Singles (1979)
    Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles (USA, 2003) 111
    John Peel (UK) – Peelenium: Four Tracks from Each Year of the Last Century (1999)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  21. 21
    Gareth Parker on 9 Jun 2021 #

    I would agree with Tom’s 7/10 here.

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