In the early Seventies, as Loretta Lynn was tapping into the female psyche with controversial tunes such as “The Pill,” her future duet partner Conway Twitty was transitioning to country music by reaching women on a whole different level. Twitty (born Harold Lloyd Jenkins) was already well-known for his 1958 pop smash “It’s Only Make Believe” and initially had a rough time convincing radio programmers that he could sing country tunes. But in 1968, he had scored the first of his 50 country Number Ones, a record that thus far only George Strait has been able to eclipse.
Twitty’s first country-chart-topping hit of the Seventies (his fourth overall for the genre) was “Hello Darlin’,” a seductively crooned number about a chance encounter with an old flame. In addition to the use of an electric piano on the track — a rarity at that time — Twitty’s smoke-and-sex-filled vocal made “Hello Darlin'” a natural to open his shows, where the audiences were predominately female. The tune has turned millions of female hearts to quivering jelly in the 46 years since its release.
Once Twitty and Lynn were regularly recording and performing together after their Number One “After the Fire Is Gone,” Twitty would sing (well, speak) the opening line and title of “Hello Darlin'” directly to Lynn as she watched him from the stage. She would continue the dialog with her own recorded version, which appears on her early 1971 LP Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Although “Hello Darlin'” was nominated for CMA Single and Song of the Year for 1970, and Twitty received nods for Album and Male Vocalist of the Year, he wouldn’t win any CMAs until 1972, when he and Lynn began a four-year streak as Vocal Duo. Twitty, who was the ACM Top Male Vocalist in 1975, would, in fact, not win a solo honor from the CMA during his lifetime. Twitty succumbed to an abdominal aortic aneurysm at age 59, in June 1993. In 1999, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. That same year, “Hello Darlin'” earned a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
In addition to versions by Charley Pride, Lynn’s pre-stardom 19-year-old sister Crystal Gayle in 1971, and a 1993 rendition by his friend George Jones shortly after Twitty’s death — one recording of the song was translated into Russian and shot into space in 1975 with the astronauts on the historic Apollo/Soyuz mission. Twitty watched the launch at Cape Kennedy and two days later as he viewed the worldwide telecast of the American and Russian crews linking in space, could hear the song — “Privet Radost” — as it played in the background.
On Friday, March 4th, her relationship with Twitty will no doubt be one of the subjects Lynn addresses with the PBS American Masters series documentary, Still a Mountain Girl. Lynn’s first new album in 12 years, Full Circle, will also be released that day.