More than a decade before Conway Twitty became one of country music’s most prolific hitmakers, he was a pompadour-wearing rock ‘n’ roller, schooled by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. Starting with 1958’s chart-topping “It’s Only Make Believe,” Twitty strung together nearly two years of pop hits that included “Lonely Blue Boy,” “Mona Lisa” and a bouncy take on “Danny Boy” (all of which can be found on The Rock ‘n’ Roll Years box set, or the more concise Conway Rocks). He turned to country music in the mid-60s, and with 1968’s “Next in Line,” began twenty years of nearly unparalleled chart success. The transition from ’50s rocker to ’60s country star found Twitty and his band the Lonely Blue Boys on the road, playing bars and clubs throughout the country, mixing original hits with covers from blues, rock, R&B and country.
In August 1964 the group touched down for a week’s stand at Geneva-on-the-Lake’s Castaway Nightclub. Hobbyists Alan Cassaro and Bob Scherl used an Olsen reel-to-reel recorder and an Electrovoice EV 664 microphone to capture two sets on each of two nights. With only a single microphone (which Twitty generously allowed them to place next to his stage mic) and a mono recorder, Cassaro and Scherl were at the mercy of stage mixes that shortchanged the drums, sax and keyboards, but Twitty’s guitar and vocals are clear, and the band’s crowd-pleasing performances are superb. This material has been issued before, but Bear Family has improved the sound, cherry-picked the best version of each song from the four different sets, and included the previously unissued instrumental “Rinky.”
The set list features many ‘50s and early ‘60s rock, pop, R&B and blues standards, including Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working,” Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee,” and incendiary covers of Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” and Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover.” The latter finds Big Joe E. Lewis laying down a great bass line over which the sax, piano and guitar solo. Twitty’s talent as a rock ‘n’ ‘roller was overwhelmed by his later success as a country star, but he sings here with real fervor, and lays down several hot guitar leads. Twitty’s 1960 original “She’s Mine” shows a heavy Jerry Lee Lewis influence, and his hit “Lonely Blue Boy” (sung both in medley and standalone) has the unmistakable imprint of Elvis Presley’s growl.
By 1964 Twitty was already cutting country demos, and the next year he’d jump from MGM to Decca to record with Owen Bradley in Nashville. His live set was incorporating country material, including Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and Bobby Darin’s “Things.” His band still favored blues, rock and pop, but you can hear Twitty’s vocals starting to add country flavor to the bent notes. Even more country, his cover of “It Keeps Right On a-Hurtin’” adds a helping of honky-tonk to Johnny Tillotson’s string-lined original, and “Born to Lose” is sung as a blues that fits between Ted Daffan’s 1943 original and Ray Charles’ lush cover.
Bear Family’s knit the tracks together with bits of stage patter, audience chatter, pre-intermission vamping and even a few flubs, to provide a sense of the overall performance; all that’s missing are the tunes sung by band members when Twitty too a break. The band shows off their road-honed chops as they swing into each song at Twitty’s calls. The set list depicts a relentless show that powers through up-tempo singles “Is a Bluebird Blue,” “Danny Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” and packs emotional crooning into covers of “Unchained Melody” and “What a Dream.” The set’s booklet offers Bear Family’s typical riches of photos, graphic design and well-researched liner notes. This is a great release for Twitty’s ardent fans, documenting the earliest phase of his transition from a rock ‘n’ roller to a country icon. [©2015 Hyperbolium]