Earl Thomas Conley, who enjoyed a nearly unbroken streak of 18 Number One hits in the Eighties — including “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Angel in Disguise” and the duet with Emmylou Harris “We Believe in Happy Endings” — died in Nashville early Wednesday morning, following a battle with a condition similar to dementia. He was 77.
An influential singer who also wrote or co-wrote the bulk of his hits, Conley was memorialized in a Twitter post by Blake Shelton, who wrote: “My heart is absolutely destroyed today… Earl was my all time favorite singer, hero and my friend. Prayers to his family. We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest….”
A native of the steelworking town of Portsmouth, Ohio, Conley, the third of eight children, was 14 when his father was laid off from his railroad job, due to the phasing out of steam engines. Taken in by his older sister Joyce, who encouraged his talent for art, Conley nonetheless turned down an art-school scholarship and joined the Army instead. While stationed in West Germany for two years, he became interested in country music. Conley was 21 when his sister was killed in a car accident. Moving back to Ohio, he sang gospel music with his aunt and uncle and made frequent trips to Nashville. After relocating to Huntsville, Alabama, he worked in a steel mill and would soon meet music publisher Nelson Larkin.
Conley first charted in 1975 with GRT Records, the same year Conway Twitty would have a Number One single with his “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me.” A brief stint with Warner Bros. Records was followed by signing to the Sunbird label, where he landed his first Top Ten hit as an artist, “Silent Treatment,” and the 1981 Number One “Fire and Smoke.”
Moving then to RCA, Conley would score the 1982 chart-topper “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong.” In 1983, he became the first artist to ever have four consecutive Number One hits from a single studio LP, Don’t Make It Easy for Me, a record that was bested later in the decade by Rodney Crowell’s Diamonds & Dirt. By that time, he was collaborating extensively with songwriter-musician Randy Scruggs, refocusing his efforts on more traditionally based country music. Conley would also break new ground in 1986 with “Too Many Times,” a duet with Pointer Sisters’ singer Anita Pointer, which led to his becoming the only country artist to ever appear on Soul Train. A Number Two hit, it was only his third release from 1982 to 1989 to not reach the top of the charts.
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In 1991, Conley was featured on a duet with the late Keith Whitley, “Brotherly Love.” At the same time, he began experiencing financial woes, along with issues with allergies that affected his voice. This led to an extended retirement from the music business. While he would perform occasionally, he didn’t return to recording until the late Nineties, with an album titled Perpetual Emotion. The LP was reissued in 2003 as Should’ve Been Over by Now, by which time he was performing and recording again.
Toby Keith, the Oak Ridge Boys and Chris Young also paid tribute to Conley, the “thinking man’s country singer,” on social media.
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