Forgotten Artists: John Conlee
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.
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.
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has five CD titles available:
- Classics – 23 of John’s ABC/MCA recordings, including all of the biggest hits.
- 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.
- Rose Colored Glasses – straight reissue of John’s debut album on ABC.
- Country Heart – the song titles suggest that these may be 16th Avenue recordings.
- Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus – religious recording of undetermined vintage.
In the past, various other MCA and Columbia titles have been available. Happy hunting!
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