Forgotten Artists: John Conlee

Paul W. Dennis | August 13th, 2009

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During the 1980s there was considerable confusion among casual listeners due to the presence of three male singers with somewhat similar names: Earl Thomas Conley, Con Hunley and John Conlee. All three had distinctive voices, all three emerged during the late 1970s, and all three had chart runs that basically died out by the end of the 1980s (although Earl Thomas Conley had one last burst of success in 1991).

This article is about John Conlee, who ranks with Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins among my wife Kay’s favorite country singers.

John Conlee was born on August 11, 1946 in Versailles, Kentucky, the son of a tobacco farmer. As a child John learned to play the guitar, and by age 10 he was appearing on a local radio show. Although interested in many styles of music (he also performed with a barbershop quartet), John did not start out as a professional entertainer, instead becoming a licensed mortician, a trade he worked for six years. From there he worked as a disc jockey at local area radio stations, eventually moving to Nashville in 1971. In 1976, Conlee’s demo tape secured him a contract with ABC Records.

The first few singles failed to chart on Billboard, including the initial release of “Back Side of Thirty” (which, however, reached # 83 on Cashbox). These initial singles did well enough in some local markets to keep ABC issuing singles on him.

The big breakthrough came in the late spring of 1978 when ABC released “Rose Colored Glasses,” a song Conlee wrote. The song peaked in different markets at different times during its 20 week run resulting in it reaching only #5 on Billboard and #3 on Cashbox on its way to becoming one of John’s signature songs. The follow up “Lady Lay Down” reached #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox. Then, striking while the iron was hot, ABC re-released “Back Side of Thirty” which this time reached #1 on both Billboard and Cashbox. Subsequent singles were issued on MCA which had absorbed ABC and Dot, but Conlee’s success continued with 14 of the next 17 singles reaching Billboard’s top ten and seven of the singles reaching #1 on one or more of the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World’s country charts. Included in this list of singles were such memorable tunes as “Miss Emily’s Picture,” “I Don’t Remember Loving You” and John’s other signature songs “Common Man” and “Working Man.”

After “Blue Highway” failed to hit the top ten in 1985, Conlee rebounded with “Old School” which reached the top five song and was Conlee’s swan song with MCA. “Old School” is said to have introduced the phrase “old school” into the popular vernacular.

A switch to Columbia in 1986 kicked off four more top ten tunes, the last being “Domestic Life” in early 1987. While “Mama’s Rocking Chair” reached #11, the following single stiffed completely. By the end of 1987, John Conlee was off Columbia, by now 41 years old and not what Columbia was looking for to compete with the next generation of singers.

No singles were issued by Conlee during 1988, during which time John signed with 16th Avenue Records, a short-lived independent label. None of John’s four singles on 16th Avenue reached the top forty, although his final single “Doghouse” had ‘hit’ written all over it–had it been issued on MCA during John’s hot streak of the early eighties, it would have been a sure-fire top ten and likely #1 record. Still as Jerry Reed once put it “”when you’re hot, you’re hot, when you’re not, you’re not …”

When 16th Avenue went under, John Conlee’s career as a charting artist was over.

John Conlee continues to perform to this day. He was one of the initial supporters of Farm Aid, and has been a supporter of Feed The Children–when John performs his hit “Busted”, his fans usually throw money onstage, with John collecting the money to donate to Feed the Children. At last count more than $250,000 had been collected and donated.

Discography

Vinyl
As always, all vinyl is out of print but available through a number of sources. John was recording during the time when albums had ten songs, consisting of two or three singles plus some filler. Since John had a very distinctive voice, if you like his voice you’ll probably like his albums. John issued seven albums of new material plus two Greatest Hits collections on ABC/MCA. After John left ABC/MCA several other samplers and hit collections were issued.

Two Columbia albums and one album on 16th Avenue complete the vinyl story for John Conlee.

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has five CD titles available:

  1. Classics – 23 of John’s ABC/MCA recordings, including all of the biggest hits.
  2. Live At Billy Bob’s – live recordings covering a cross section of John’s career. Until recently, this was the only place to obtain a recording of “Doghouse,” initially released only as a cassette single.
  3. Rose Colored Glasses – straight reissue of John’s debut album on ABC.
  4. Country Heart – the song titles suggest that these may be 16th Avenue recordings.
  5. Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus – religious recording of undetermined vintage.

In the past, various other MCA and Columbia titles have been available. Happy hunting!

1 Ping

  1. [...] is past, Conlee remains a big fan favorite, as well as a stalwart of the Grand Ole Opry. Check out a nice essay on Conlee at one of my favorite country music blogs, The 9513. Published [...]
  1. Razor X
    August 13, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    As always, thanks for the info. I always liked John Conlee but never got around to buying any of his music for some reason.

  2. Rick
    August 13, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    John Conlee has thankfully become “almost” a full time cast regular on the Grand Ole Opry Friday and Saturday night shows. John’s voice is still in great shape and he doesn’t sing the same two songs over and over again like most of the “Opry Legends”. I always love to hear “Common Man”!

    When Terri Clark is on the Opry sometimes she will sing her cover of “Rose Colored Glasses” mimicking John’s voice, and its always a hoot.

  3. Occasional Hope
    August 13, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I really liked John Conlee.

    Country Heart is indeed from his 16th Avenue period – most of the songs from the album he released for that label, and most of the songs which were intended to go on the follow-up, which got shelved due to the label going under. I think Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus was newly recorded in 2004.

  4. Joe
    August 13, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    “Classics” is a great collection, though limited (as mentioned in the article) to the ABC/MCA years. I’m finding it nearly impossible to find copies of the handful of hits he had subsequently.

    WBEE in Rochester played “Doghouse” quite a lot when it was new, so it’ll always be a hit to me.

  5. KathyP
    August 13, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Just yesterday, coming home from work, I heard “I’m Only in it for the Love” on one of our local stations. First time in years I’ve heard him. What a great voice. And today, this article. It’s deja vu all over again! Nice article, Paul. I guess it’s time to download a few of his tunes or albums to the ipod.

  6. TenPoundHammer
    August 13, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    Rick: Craig Morgan once imitated John Conlee on that song, too.

    And this is like 10 times longer than his Wikipedia “article”. Someone fix that.

  7. Leeann Ward
    August 13, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    I love his voice. The thing that holds me back from really embracing him is my typical aversion to strings, which really seemed to plague eighties country music.

  8. James S.
    August 13, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    I’ve been recently checking out many 80’s and 70’s artists and John Conlee is one of them. I love his voice, too. My absolute favorite from him is “Old School.” What a great song. Other ones I really like are : “I Don’t Remember Loving You,” “Miss Emily’s Picture,” “Got My Heart Set On You,” “Rose Colored Glasses,” and “Lady Lay Down.”

  9. Gary Zarda
    August 14, 2009 at 6:19 am

    I’m a big John Conlee fan.

    I’ve seen him live several times and always find him very genuine.

    He once came to play the county fair in my hometown and stopped at the restaurant where my sister is a waitress. Nobody knew who he was and he was eating quietly. My sister realized who she was waiting on and struck up a conversation during which she asked Conlee to give a shout-out to my dad (also a big fan) during his show. After Conlee pulled up to the stage pulled onto the dirt track in front of the grandstand and played a few songs, he said “Hi” to dad and Dad about fell off his bench seat!

    A great voice and a likable “common man,” that Conlee.

  10. Jaime
    August 16, 2009 at 8:12 am

    I love this series. My mom was a big Conlee fan, and this takes me right back to the 80’s. :)

  11. Greg Burns
    August 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Great article about one of my true legends of country music. I grew up listening to John Conlee hit the charts with my favorites; Friday Night Blues and Miss Emily’s Picture. Many, Many years later after I began a career in the radio and enteraintment industry. I brought John Conlee to Phoenix [2004] for a show at the Celebrity Theater. John and his band showed up in the very SILVER EAGLE tour bus that he paid cash for from records sales back in the 80’s. Needless to say, it was one of the most memorable nights of my life, being able to really get to know him- and see him live, on a show in which I was the promoter. Just a really good man and an incredible performer.

  12. Eb
    August 31, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I love John Conlee. He’s one of the few singers I paid to see in a bar. On one of his albums there is a song called “Acres of Pain.” It was written or maybe co-written by Thom Schuyler. It’s about a man who lost his son in Viet-nam.

    My favorite Conlee song is probably The Carpenter written by Guy Clark.

    My favorite line in any hit by John Conlee is from I Don’t Remember Loving You. The line is “if you’ll hand me my crayons I’ll be glad to write your name.” The song, for you poor folks who don’t know it, is about a man who lost his mind after his wife left and doesn’t know her when she comes to visit him in the mental hospital. Another one of the lines is “Everyone I know in here always acts so strange.” My memory of the lines might not be perfect but it’s a great song.

  13. Craig Wallin
    December 16, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Hello John! My name is Craig Wallin. I work with a Project entitled “Age Discrimination In Country Music”. Simply writing to let you know that you aren’t and won’t be forgotten. Happy Holidays!

  14. Virginia Lee Daniels
    January 7, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    John:
    Please keep up the great work.. You have a really nice voice and my first show seeing you will be in Florida in Feb.2010.. Having a hard time getting tickets?? I bought a CD as I loved hearing and seeing you on Larry’s Country Diner and the Grand Ole Opry Reunion..I live for that show just to see you or hope you are there..
    I am purchasing more CD’s of you.. Can’t wait to see you live!!!! I was an old farm girl too, then a Nurse….

  15. Kay mitchell
    February 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    I love your singing, you are really great!!

  16. Michael Salyers
    April 13, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    I have had or currently have every John Conlee release except one. Currently having to rebuild my collection of music due to a fire which sucks but I still have Country Heart, Fellow Travelers, Rose Colored Glasses, 20 Greatest Hits and Harmony. I am willing to trade with someone though by sending albums back and forth on MP3 or WAV format.

    Could someone please e-mail me the albums “American Faces” and “Friday Night Blues”….

    Thanks
    Michael
    msalyers1@yahoo.com

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