Country singer Earl Thomas Conley, known for hit songs including “Holding Her and Loving You,” “What I’d Say” and “Right From the Start,” died Wednesday in Nashville, his brother Fred Conley confirmed.
The singer had a condition similar to dementia, his brother said, and had been in hospice care for several months. He was 77.
“He just kept losing ground,” Fred Conley said. “I’m brokenhearted.”
Erinn Scates, 22, Earl Thomas Conley’s youngest child, said, “He was a great dad, and he filled our lives with color.”
Conley helped influence today’s generation of country singers. Upon hearing of his death, Blake Shelton tweeted that his heart was “absolutely destroyed.”
“Earl was my all time favorite singer, hero and my friend,” Shelton said. “Prayers to his family. We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest … .”
Over the course of his career, Conley had 18 No. 1 country hits and 25 top 10 songs.
Conley was born Oct. 17, 1941, in Portsmouth, Ohio. According to his biography on allmusic.com, Conley’s father worked for the railroad and the would-be singer left home at 14 years old when his father lost his job. In the coming years, Conley lived with his older sister and turned down a scholarship for art school to join the Army. He fell in love with country music during his military service.
“He decided he needed to grow up, and the Army was the best place to do that,” said Carole Scates, the mother of Conley’s two youngest children and his partner for more than two decades. “He said the Army was the best thing he ever did, that he went from being a punk kid to an adult who had a great work ethic. He could do anything. His talents were unlimited.”
Upon his discharge, Conley moved to Middle Tennessee, where he worked a series of day jobs and played shows in Nashville bars at night. With little success, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, where he met producer Nelson Larkin and signed with independent record label GRT in 1974. Three years later, he signed with Warner Bros., but it wasn’t until 1979 that he charted his first top 40 hit, “Dreamin’s All I Do.”
In the early 1980s, Conley signed a long-term record deal with RCA Records, his label home for the bulk of his country music success.
Songs including “I Can’t Win for Losin’ You,” “Once in a Blue Moon” and “That Was a Close One” helped make him a household name for country music fans.
In the early 1980s, Joe Galante helmed RCA Records when the company purchased Sunbird Records, where Conley was signed. Galante said the opportunity to work with Conley drove the purchase. RCA Records was Conley’s label home for the bulk of his country music success.
“There was such soul in everything he did, and he stood out from a lot of other singers that were around at that time,” Galante said. “You always talk about finding something unique, and his voice certainly did that. He had this mix of … a very country, very sensitive, intimate approach to his music, and you could hear the ache in everything that he did. Then at the same time, he’d come rocking out on something else and there was this guy who just loved to have a good time. You could just hear it in the music.”
Conley’s booking agent Rob Battle said that due to this health, the singer had stopped touring about two years ago. However, Battle, who worked with Conley for more than two decades, described him as “amazing” at the peak of his career.
“He was on a lot of Hank Williams Jr.’s dates when Hank was Entertainer of the Year five years in a row,” Battle said. “He always delivered. There was as much if not more crowd response for Earl.”
Country singer T.G. Sheppard shared a stage with Conley on many occasions and said that every time it happened, he felt “blessed.”
“There are artists in our business that are great singers and stylists that you recognize, but just ever so often there are those special artists that have that voice that you know instantly when you hear the first word,” Sheppard said. “Earl Thomas was one of those voices. And, he was always such a kind man. Once again, it’s going to leave a void in country music to lose a legendary artist such as him.”
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