SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) _ Conway Twitty, who started as a teen rock ‘n’ roll idol in the 1950s and went on to become the ″high priest of country music,″ died today. He was 59.
Twitty’s family was with him when he died at 7:54 a.m. at Cox Medical Center-South after he collapsed Friday on his tour bus, said Linda Barnett, a hospital spokeswoman.
He died of complications following surgery for an abdominal aneurysm, a hospital statement said. Twitty fell ill on his way home to Hendersonville, Tenn., from a show in the Ozarks community of Branson.
With more than 50 No. 1 hits in his five-decade career, Twitty posted more top hits than the Beatles or Elvis Presley. His hits include ″Hello Darlin’,″ ″Tight-Fittin Jeans″ and ″Linda On My Mind.″
He performed a string of duets with Loretta Lynn from 1971 to 1975. The duo won the Country Music Association’s Vocal Duo of the Year award in 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1975.
In a 1990 interview, Twitty credited his long career to percentages and luck.
″My dad told me when I was a kid: ’When the cotton is out there, you get it. When it’s not out there, you can rest. I’ve been very fortunate. It has been out there for me a long time,″ Twitty said.
Twitty’s big break came in Memphis, where he worked as a rockabilly artist writing songs in the 1950s for Sun Records’ stable of singers, including Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
He changed his name in 1957 from Harold Jenkins, borrowing from Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Texas. He quickly hit the big time as a teen idol after ″It’s Only Make Believe″ shot to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1958.
Twitty capitalized on his teen idol status by starring in the films ″Sexpot Goes to College″ and ″College Confidential.″
His switch to country came after eight years in rock ‘n’ roll after he wrote hit songs for other country stars. Managers, booking agents and record company people told him he would be going from thousands of dollars to $200 a day.
Country turned into a gold mine as he turned out a streak of more than 30 straight No. 1 country hits before his ″Georgia Keeps Pulling On My Ring″ missed the top spot in 1977.
He credited his success to the fact that he picked songs that women like.
″I’m a fan too; I like what the fans like. I believe that’s why I can pick the songs. I have a fan’s ear,″ Twitty said in 1985.
Twitty turned down a contract to play baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies out of high school. A .469-hitting centerfielder, he decided music was his true love, although he satisfied his baseball craving by co-owning a couple of minor league teams at one time.
He learned his first guitar chords from his father, a Mississippi riverboat captain, and grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He also was influenced by the local black church and put together his first band at age 10.
Twitty’s music career was delayed by a stint in the Army, during which he played with a service band, Cimmarons, in Japan, early 1950s.