Thirty-five years ago this summer, country music audiences first became acquainted with one of the genre’s most distinctive song stylists in John Conlee, and his breakthrough hit "Rose Colored Glasses." It was a song that forever changed both his life and career.
"It’s hard to believe it’s been that long, but it has," he reflected to Billboard. "May of 1978 was when it first hit the charts, and it went on to become our first national hit record. We jumped off the radio as a disc jockey and moved onto it as a singer and also on the road in a big old bus, and we’ve been at it full time ever since."
Conlee worked at Nashville AM powerhouse WLAC from 1971 until 1978, and looks back on those seven years with a sense of pride. "I spent seven of my nine years in radio at WLAC. That was the reason I moved to Nashville. Had I not gotten that job, I probably would have never moved, and music would have remained the hobby it had been up to that point."
Working at WLAC gave the Kentucky native a chance to work with some of the top legends of the airwaves. "I am so thankful for that. I have been, and continue to be so blessed in my life, and one of those blessings was to get to work around people like Bill "Hoss" Allen and John R, who played R&B. What a blessing that was."
The singer remembers the thrill of hearing his first hit on the radio that summer. "It wasn’t on my station, obviously, because we didn’t play country, but probably on a station out of Murfreesboro where I first heard it," he recalled. "When I knew we had a potential hit, I was riding from Nashville to my farm in Kentucky, and was searching around the dial. In those days, there were still a lot of 50,000 watt AM stations playing music. I tuned into one of the Chicago country stations, and heard it there, then went to WBAP in Fort Worth, and heard it there. I remember thinking 'Maybe we have a hit here.’
That was an understatement. The song hit No. 5 on Billboard, and has become a country standard, recently inspiring a cover from LeAnn Rimes on her 2011 album "Lady & Gentlemen." "It’s still our signature song, the one that I can’t leave out of any show – not that I would want to."
Since then, Conlee has made the "Glasses" a trademark in more ways than one, wearing a pair of rose tinted glasses during his concert appearances. How many has he wore over the years? "I’ve lost count years ago," he surmises. "The first few years, I had an official pair that I bought when the song first hit. I wore those for a couple of years, but thought that something might happen to them -- I could lose them, they could break or something. So, I put them in the safe, and we got some more. We actually made them a concession item, and started selling them at shows."
The success of the song led to a decade of hit records for Conlee such as "Miss Emily’s Picture" and "Old School." Having great songs was something that Conlee and producer Bud Logan took very seriously.
"We tried very hard not to put any filler on our albums. We chose every song very carefully. We still do. I don’t go to the studio with songs I don’t truly love. It was frustrating with every album that there were one or two songs I wanted to get to as singles, but we never could. The labels want to move on to the next album. My goal was to have five singles, and the other sides be the B-sides. We never accomplished that goal."
Conlee can still be seen on the road, and at the Grand Ole Opry, where he has been a member since 1981. He tells Billboard that there is no retirement anywhere in sight.