Forgotten Artists: Johnny Duncan (1938-2006)

Paul W. Dennis | April 17th, 2009

Johnny Richard Duncan was born in Dublin, TX to a very musical family. His mom played rhythm guitar in his uncle’s country band and many of his cousins went on to have fine careers in the music industry, including noted songwriter Troy Seals (“Rattle the Windows,” “Don’t Take It Away,” “Two Old Cats Like Us” and “Boogie Woogie Country Man”), 80s country superstar Dan Seals and Jimmy Seals (of The Champs and Seals & Croft fame). Brady Seals, formerly of Little Texas, is a nephew.

Duncan grew up in the West Texas area where he was born and performed in local bands. After graduating from high school, he attended Texas Christian University where he majored in English. Eventually, he drifted to Clovis, New Mexico in 1959 where he recorded some pop music demos with Norman Petty, who produced the early recordings of Buddy Holly.

Duncan spent a few years around Clovis before moving to Tennessee in order to enhance his chances at a big-time career in country music. The path to Nashville was circuitous as Duncan initially landed as a disc jockey at a radio station in Franklin, KY where he also made personal appearances singing in the surrounding area. During this period, Johnny honed his skills as a songwriter, sang jingles for commercials, and appeared on morning television shows.

In 1966 Ralph Emery invited Duncan, by now a Tennessee resident, to appear on his morning show on WSM-TV. This, in turn, led to a spot on Bobby Lord‘s afternoon program and brought him to the attention of Don Law at Columbia Records. While he had released a few singles between 1957 and 1965 on labels such as ABC Paramount, London and Leader, signing the recording contract with Columbia in 1967 was his big break. Duncan’s initial single “Hard Luck Joe” was released that same year, followed by Johnny One Time in early 1968. For the next few years none of his records would reach top 30 status, although most would chart. Helping make ends meet, Duncan landed a number of his songs with artists such as Charley Pride, Marty Robbins, Conway Twitty and Jim Ed Brown, with two of his compositions (“She’s Too Good To Be True” and “I’d Rather LoveYou”) reaching #1 for Charley Pride. During this time, Duncan was an added attraction for many of Pride’s live shows, rather than, as often assumed, a front man for Pride’s band.

From a recording perspective, things finally began to happen in 1970 when “Let Me Go (Set Me Free)” cracked the top 30 (#27 Billboard/#17 Cashbox) and did much better in a number of local markets. From that point forward progress was steady, if somewhat slow, although joining Billy Sherrill’s stable of artists pointed to bigger things ahead. In 1972 “Fools” reached #19 (later a bigger hit for the duo of Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius), then two records later, “Sweet Country Woman” finally cracked the top ten at #6.

It would take another three years for him to hit the top 10 again. Meanwhile “Jo and The Cowboy” marked the first appearance of Janie Fricke on one of Duncan’s records. While this 1975 record barely cracked the top 20 (#19 Cashbox/#26 Billboard), it was a harbinger of things to come as 1976’s “Stranger,” with Janie Fricke on harmony vocal, became Duncan’s first #1 record (#1 Cashbox/#4 Billboard). It was followed by two more number one records, “Thinkin’ of A Rendezvous” and “It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better,” both featuring Janie Fricke on harmony. Fricke then began focusing on her own solo career while Duncan continued to have success, with six more top ten hits, including another #1 with 1978’s “She Can Put Her Shoes Under My Bed (Anytime).”

Shortly afterwards, Duncan’s marriage of 16 years dissolved, with his wife Betty running off with another man. Duncan pulled back on his career in order to raise his three daughters. Eventually, he remarried and had a son, but he never again was a full-time performer. After 1986 he had no more chart hits, closing the slate with 39 charted hits, 10 of which hit the top 10.

Johnny Duncan died of a heart attack on August 14, 2006, at the age of 67 in his native town, Dublin, Texas.

Discography

Vinyl
Johnny Duncan issued a number of vinyl albums on Columbia, including duet albums with June Stearns and Janie Fricke. Most of the albums followed the usual formula of a hit single or two plus covers and filler. Since Duncan was an excellent songwriter, most of the albums will have some interesting songs among the “filler.”

CD
There isn’t much available on CD. Columbia has issued a Greatest Hits collection with ten songs and reissued it under several different titles. In 2003 Collectors Choice Music issued It Couldn’t Have Been Any Better, which is the best collection issued thus far and contains Johnny’s 23 biggest hits (every song that hit the top 40). In 1997 the Canadian label Broadland International issued Johnny Duncan Again…, which featured 10 new songs plus re-recordings of five of his biggest hits.

[Message to overseas readers. There were two prominent country singers with the name Johnny Duncan. One was a noted Tennessee-born rockabilly singer (biggest hit: “Last Train to San Fernando”) whose most enduring success was in Great Britain and Europe. This is the other Johnny Duncan.]

  1. Paula_W
    April 17, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Paul, thanks for doing this series on forgotten artists. Most of ‘em I am familiar with, but not always. Johnny Duncan is one I am familiar with and loved. But even the ones I ‘think’ I know well, you always give me much info and insight that I did not know.

  2. Rick
    April 17, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    I agree with Paula as these articles are some of my favorite reads on The 9513. Its always fun to learn these details about many artists I have little or no awareness of. I appreciate Paul taking the time and effort to compile all of these interesting articles that help expand my knowledge of country music history. Thanks!

  3. Leeann
    April 17, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    Always fun.

  4. stormy
    April 17, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Stupid I-Tunes. I was unable to find “Thinkin’ of a Rondezvous” OR Leon Everette’s Hurricane and had to settle for downloading only “She Used to Love Me A Lot” by DAC.

  5. stormy
    April 17, 2009 at 10:33 pm
  6. Hubba
    April 17, 2009 at 10:43 pm

    Of the three “sleepin’ around” songs he did with Janie Fricke, “Stranger” is my favorite. I’ve thought for a few years now that a remake would be a huge hit on country radio, with that insistent, sensuous beat.

  7. linda
    July 4, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    i have listened to country music for years. i remember johnny duncan from the 70’s. he was one of our favorites. and even though he is no longer with us. we still enjoy his songs on cd and radio. my favorite song was “sweet country woman”. johnny and janie fricke were great together. the song “stranger” and there other songs were great . he had a beautiful voice. i also wish they could do a remake of some of his older songs. it would be great to hear more of johnny on the radio. the first time listeners would really enjoy his songs. the ones that havent had the opportunity to hear him are missing out of one of the best country voices. his music is timeless.thanks for this series of forgotten artist i remember all of them.

    sweetand even though he is no longer with us his songs are timeless.

  8. Paul W Dennis
    May 23, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I’m not sure when it appeared, but there is a Johnny Duncan website which has some biographical matter, a discography and a merchandise section featuring his last album, THE THING TO DO, which was issued in 2005. It appears to be of mostly new material other than a nice remake of his first hit “Let Me Go”. It’s a pretty good album

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