In July of 1975, Conway Twitty notched a No. 1 record with “Touch The Hand” on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. That wasn’t a rare occurrence, as the singer had topped the list many times prior – and would notch over 20 more trips to No. 1 through the summer of 1986. However, it was the B-side of the record that would endure even longer — a collaboration with his daughter, Joni, on “Don’t Cry Joni.” According to her, the duet wasn’t supposed to have happened.
“I had no idea I was going to be on the actual record,” she recalled to Billboard. “Dad kind of tricked me. He told me he was going to take my voice off of the track and replace it with a professional singer. When I went into the studio, my paper was shaking so badly from holding the paper to read the lyrics from. After ‘Touch The Hand’ reached the top, the disc jockeys started to flip the record over, and it went like wildfire.” As it turned out, she had no idea any of this was going on. “I was going to college up in Virginia, and said ‘You’re not going to believe this. We have a hit record.’ I had no idea that my voice was still on the record. Being a kid, I started calling the radio stations asking them to play that new song by Conway Twitty and his daughter,” she said with a laugh.
The singer’s daughter – who now goes by Joni Twitty Ryles – is excited to be able to bring some unreleased music out to the singer’s longtime fan base with the release of Timeless, a new disc of recordings that the singer made in 1972 that have never been made commercially available. She admits that the recordings came as a surprise – to even her.
“About a year and a half ago, Preshias Harris contacted me, and she said she was in partnership with a gentleman from New York. He had bought the masters of these shows that were recorded at Scotty Moore’s studio in Nashville for the United States Armed Services back in the early 1970s, and he has one on your dad,” she said, explaining that the performances – and interviews – were included on records that were sent to radio stations through the Navy’s recruitment wing. As it turned out, the buyer – Tom Gramuglia – wanted to talk to her.
“He wanted to see if we were interested in partnering up with them to release the album without the little clips in between of the interview. We wanted to hear it to see what shape it was in, and make sure that it was something that daddy would be proud of. We’re always going to protect his legacy, and not do anything that wouldn’t be in the best taste. They sent me a copy, and when I heard it, I was blown away. I could not be prouder of dad’s performance and the Twitty Birds (his road band) on it.”
A meeting between Ryles and Gramuglia was soon arranged. “He told me that what he wanted to do was to add to the existing tracks to give it a more modern feel. He wanted to hire a producer to go in and do these updates.” She agreed with the idea, but already had the perfect person in mind for the job.
“I looked at him and told him he didn’t need to look any further for a producer. I spent countless hours in the studio with my dad. I know the music of Conway Twitty probably better than anybody. To add to that, I would bring my husband, John Wesley Ryles, to co-produce it for me,” she said, as Ryles has been one of the most respected harmony vocalists in the history of Music City. Several musicians went in – including a few of Twitty’s friends and family members – to lay down instrumental tracks for the disc, beginning in Oct. 2016.
Timeless is a mixture of Twitty classics such as “Hello Darlin” and “The Image Of Me,” as well as album cuts such as “If You Were Mine To Lose,” and several songs that the Country Music Hall of Fame member included in his stage show, such as a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” Ryles hopes fans will appreciate the “new” music. “It’s a special gift to anyone who is a Conway Twitty fan. You just don’t find things that haven’t been released. Everything he recorded pretty much has been released. To have this sitting out there undiscovered has been magic.”
Though there is new instrumental accompaniment on the album, Ryles insists the music is true to Twitty’s style, with tracks from longtime band members Tommy “Pork Chop” Markham, “Big” Joe Lewis, and John Hughey being featured prominently on the disc. Hughey’s steel playing was a critical part of the Twitty sound – especially on hits such as “Lost Her Love (On Our Last Date),” which is included on the album. She says the two were close friends from the start. “John and dad met when they were twelve years old in Helena, Arkansas. They had their own radio show, and played with each other for years. Life takes you in different directions. They didn’t meet up again until Dad was solidly in country music. John had decided by that point that he was ready to go on the road. He had a really steady job in Memphis, and wasn’t sure about the travel, but dad had begged him for years. They made magic together.”
Though Timeless is the first Twitty product to be released in a long time, it’s safe to say that it won’t be the last. Next June marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of the singer, and Ryles says there are plans underway to celebrate the life and career of her father unlike anything that has been done before. She also credits younger generations of fans – and artists – for keeping the music of Conway Twitty alive. “We have people that write to us and comment to us – in their teens and early 20s – it’s crazy that they are so attracted to his music. It still sounds good and feels real. Every word he sang dripped with emotion. He made you believe it. It’s so cool to see people like Blake Shelton mention him in songs, Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley…..it’s so neat to see the younger generation and see how impacted they are by the music he left behind.”