When teenaged powerhouse Tanya Tucker appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in September 1974, the coverline proclaimed, “Hi, I’m Tanya Tucker. I’m 15. You’re Gonna Hear From Me.” While rock fans may not have been as familiar with her at the time, country listeners had been hearing from the Seminole, Texas, native for the past two years — beginning 47 years ago today with the official release of Tucker’s debut single, “Delta Dawn.” In the above clip from around the time of the song’s release, Tucker sings the song with the distinctive vibrato that, along with her age, was one of the first things to draw attention to the confident, charismatic youngster.
Having signed her recording contract with Nashville’s Columbia Records on March 3rd, 1972, the 13-year-old went into the recording studio two weeks later to cut “Delta Dawn” after producer Billy Sherrill heard Bette Midler perform it on the Tonight Show. Yet, while Tucker credits Midler in her 1997 memoir, Nickel Dreams, for the discovery, it was blues singer Tracy Nelson that Midler herself first heard performing the song at New York’s Bottom Line. Nelson, it turned out, had sung back-up on the first recorded version of the song, by one of its writers, Brownsville, Tennessee, native Alex Harvey.
Harvey had scored a major hit in 1970 with “Reuben James,” as recorded by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and, later that same year, Conway Twitty. But the writer, who penned “Delta Dawn” with former child star-guitarist Larry Collins, had greater success, and a deeper personal connection, with the enigmatic tune featuring one of the most famous first lines of the last 50 years: “She’s 41 and her daddy still calls her baby, all the folks ’round Brownsville say she’s crazy.”
In the book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music Edition, Harvey writes that his mother, a free-spirited Brownsville hairdresser, “always lived her life as if she had a suitcase in her hand but nowhere to put it down.” At 15 years old, the young musician and his band were invited to appear on a TV show in nearby Jackson, Tennessee. His mother wanted to accompany him to the TV studio but he refused, fearing she might embarrass him. After arriving home from the taping, Harvey was told his mother had died after getting drunk and driving her speeding car into a tree.
About a decade later, Harvey was living in Los Angeles and after seeing Dottie West play the Palomino Club, went back to Collins’ house where they partied and passed the guitar around the room. At about 4:30 in the morning, Harvey, strumming his guitar, was the only one still awake when — as the story goes — he began to feel his mother’s presence in the room and could soon see her very clearly sitting in a nearby rocking chair. After Collins woke up and grabbed his guitar, it took the two writers about 20 minutes to finish the song.
Harvey recorded the song first, at a Nashville session for a Capitol Records LP in 1971. Coincidentally, later that year he shared a concert bill at L.A.’s Troubadour with headliner Helen Reddy, who would record the song in 1973, taking it to Number One on the pop chart. Thanks to Reddy’s version being released as a single, Midler’s soulful rendition of the song, already popular in her live show, was relegated to the b-side of her hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” As for Tucker, her version earned the then-14-year-old her first Grammy nomination.
Aside from Tucker, a number of other country acts recorded “Delta Dawn” in 1972 and beyond, including Waylon Jennings, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Dottie West and the Statler Brothers. Terri Clark would include the song on her 2012 covers album, Classic, in a version also featuring Tucker.
Tucker is currently working on a long-gestating new album, with its release expected later this year.