In the 1980s, Earl Thomas Conley was known as one of country music’s most reliable hitmakers, with an almost unbroken string of 18 singles that reached No. 1 in the format between 1981 and ’89.
And in the 21st century, he was known for something else: being an all-time hero for Blake Shelton, frequently name-checked by the contemporary superstar at a time when most others in and out of country music had long forgotten him.
Conley died Wednesday at age 77. The news was announced by — naturally — Shelton, on Twitter. “My heart is absolutely destroyed today,” the singer and “Voice” star tweeted. “I’m sad to report that Earl Thomas Conley passed away very early this morning. Earl was my all time favorite singer, hero and my friend. Prayers to his family. We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest…”
In 2002, Conley co-wrote Shelton’s second single with him, “All Over Me,” which made the top 20. He was ending his career in records then much as he had begun it, when he wrote songs for other people in the 1970s, like Conway Twitty’s No. 1 “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me,” while struggling to find traction with his own singles.
After initially flopping on the GRT label in the ’70s and doing almost as poorly for Warner Bros. late in the decade, Conley became a go-to star working for Joe Galante’s RCA imprint in Nashville. His first No. 1 was “Fire and Smoke” in 1981, and he followed it with the chart-toppers “Somewhere Between Right and Wrong,” “Your Love’s on the Line,” “Holding Her and Loving You,” “Don’t Make It Easy for Me,” “Angel in Disguise,” “Chance of Lovin’ You,” “Honor Bound,” “Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart It Breaks),” “Nobody Falls Like a Fool,” “Once in a Blue Moon,” “I Can’t Win for Losin’ You,” “That Was a Close One,” “Right from the Start,” “What She Is (Is a Woman in Love),” the Emmylou Harris duet “We Believe in Happy Endings,” “What’d I Say” and “Love Out Loud.”
In fact, between 1983 and 1989, he only had one single fail to reach No. 1. That was “Too Many Times,” a duet with Anita Pointer, which they performed together on “Soul Train,” marking a rare appearance there for a country singer. It peaked at No. 2.
But after reaching No. 2 in 1991 with the Keith Whitley duet “Brotherly Love,” Conley only released a couple more low-charting singles and was dropped from RCA, at which point he stopped recording, only returning for one album in 1998, “Perpetual Emotion,” on the Intersound label. Nonetheless, he remained active as a touring artist.
In a video interview for People, Shelton spoke of his Conley adoration. “My musical hero has always been Earl Thomas Conley,” he said. “I remember at the CMA Awards … they put those booklets underneath everybody’s chair. I looked through who to see who all has won CMA male vocalist of the year since the beginning, and I noticed Earl Thomas Conley never won that award. I just assumed that surely he must have, because he’s my favorite — he has to be the winner, right? And then that night I happened to win, so I mentioned his name on stage and dedicated the award to him. He’s an incredible vocalist, and underrated. He texted me and said he appreciated that — (saying) it had been a lot of years since he had heard his name mentioned from that stage.”
In an interview for Rhapsody, Shelton again talked of his fandom, and his lifelong assumption that everyone else loved him as much as he did. “My favorite album of all time is ‘Somewhere Between Right and Wrong’ by Earl Thomas Conley. it has a song on it called ‘I Don’t Get Along With the Blues’ … In my mind when I had that album, that was the biggest hit in the world. I didn’t even realize till years later that nobody else knew the song and it wasn’t even a single. What I did find out about that album is it had like four or five No. 1 singles on it.” (It was the first album to generate four straight No. 1s.)
Conway was born in 1941 in Portsmouth, Ohio and was in the Army before coming to Tennessee to pursue music.
His booking agent, Rob Battle, told the Tennessean that Conley had stopped touring two years ago due to health issues. He had been in hospice care because of a dementia-like condition.
Big & Rich’s John Rich joined in the appreciations on social media. “He was a huge influence on my style and songwriting,” Rich tweeted. “I studied his records like textbooks and could play every note of every song. Truly one of the all time greats in country music.”
“An all time great,” wrote Toby Keith. “Earl Thomas Conley passed away today. Huge influence on me. Loved him.”