Forgotten Artists: Johnny Duncan (1938-2006)
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.
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.”
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.]
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