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During the years I worked as a presidential appointee to the Delta Regional Authority, I continued to live in Little Rock but made the drive to DRA headquarters in Clarksdale, Miss., on an almost weekly basis. I learned that the fastest route to the office in downtown Clarksdale was to take a right on Mississippi Highway 1 soon after crossing the Mississippi River bridge at Helena. That two-lane highway follows the levee south and passes the turnoff to the town of Friars Point. When I headed back west into Clarksdale after exiting Mississippi 1, Friars Point Road was the name of the road I took.

Friars Point was once a bustling port city on the Mississippi River. It was one of the busiest cotton shipping points south of Memphis. There's not much left these days. Like many Delta towns, it's steadily losing population, having dropped from 1,480 residents in the 2000 census to about 1,200 in the 2010 census. A second Coahoma County seat was established at Clarksdale in 1892 (Friars Point had been the lone county seat since 1850). By 1930, Clarksdale was the only county seat. Historian Lawrence Nelson writes: "Friars Point had receded into a sleepy river community."

It was at Friars Point that Harold Lloyd Jenkins was born on Sept. 1, 1933. He was named after a silent film actor, Harold Lloyd.

"He was given his first guitar at age 4," C.L. Bledsoe writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "The family moved to Helena when Jenkins was 10, and soon thereafter he formed his first band, the Phillips County Ramblers. His father worked off and on as a Mississippi riverboat captain, though his mother was the real breadwinner. Jenkins worked as a carhop and later had a weekly radio show. Jenkins also played baseball and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies after high school. He was also drafted by the military. While stationed in Japan, Jenkins played baseball and performed with a band called the Cimmarons. After the war, Jenkins went to Memphis and recorded at Sun Studios."

It was then that he took the stage name Conway Twitty, combining the names of Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Texas. His first No. 1 hit, "It's Only Make Believe," was recorded in 1958.

He may have been born in Mississippi, but Twitty came of age in Arkansas. Sixty years after that No. 1 record and 25 years after his death, Helena will celebrate his life. Twitty became ill while performing at Branson, Mo., and died on June 5, 1993, from an abdominal aneurysm. Several of his relatives will be in Helena on Friday for what has been proclaimed by the mayor and the Phillips County judge as Conway Twitty Day.

"We're reclaiming a surprisingly uncelebrated piece of history," says Doug Friedlander of Helena Rising, who's organizing the celebration.

Helena has done a lot through the decades to secure the legacy of its blues musicians but has failed to mark the accomplishments of this member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Twitty sold more than 50 million records. There was a bitter legal battle over his estate that was only recently resolved. Twitty was married three times. Daughter Joni Jenkins Riels says Helena "is where his musical journey began as a small child. The roots that began in Helena carried him on an unimaginable journey."

The unveiling of a historical marker will take place in Court Square Park at 622 Cherry St. at 4:30 p.m. Friday. A party will follow at Southbound Tavern on Cherry Street from 5:30 p.m. until 7 p.m. with live music by the band Willie and the Planks out of Nashville, Tenn. The Handworks store on Cherry Street began selling Conway Twitty merchandise earlier this week. Three of Twitty's children are scheduled to attend the event along with members of his extended family and musicians who played with him, such as C.W. Gatlin, Al Harris and Vaughn Reed.

Friedlander says that Helena "has such a rich musical and cultural history that we sometimes struggle to keep up with celebrating it all. Conway Twitty is by far one of Helena's most successful native sons."

The Twitty marker will be the first in a series of markers that will be placed around town to draw attention to the musical heritage of the Arkansas Delta. Others markers will honor Levon Helm, Sonny Boy Williamson, and "Sunshine" Sonny Payne and his King Biscuit Time radio show.

Twitty was drawn to Memphis due to the popularity of a young Elvis Presley, who often played in the Arkansas Delta. Twitty recorded at Sun alongside Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. "It's Only Make Believe" topped the charts in 22 countries and sold almost 8 million copies. Twitty also had a short movie career, appearing in Sex Kittens Go To College alongside Mamie Van Doren, Platinum High School alongside Mickey Rooney, and College Confidential alongside Steve Allen. Presley and Twitty were the inspiration for the play and film Bye Bye Birdie about a young musician named Conrad Birdie, a play on Twitty's stage name.

Twitty later moved from rock 'n' roll to country music. Producer Owen Bradley signed him to the MCA/Decca label in 1965. "Next In Line" became his first country No. 1 in 1968, beginning a string of 50 consecutive No. 1 country hits. He wrote 19 of his No. 1 songs. What became his signature song--"Hello Darlin'"--was even played during a linkup of U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts, taking the voice of the man from Friars Point and Helena into outer space.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 05/30/2018

Print Headline: Celebrating Conway Twitty

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