First ran in Sunday, July 19, 2020 editions of The Times and The News-Star.
If heat killed COVID, the virus wouldn’t have made it through the Fourth of July around here. This is a hot spot in more ways than one.
Speaking of heat and death, I was sizzling at a red light in Shreveport, corner of Pierremont and Gilbert, heading east and about to turn north, when I remembered that this spot is where I was, June 5, 1993 when the radio told me that Conway Twitty had collapsed on his tour bus the night before in Branson, Missouri, been taken to the hospital and died there in the early morning of an aneurysm.
Hurt me. He was only 59. When I got home that day — it was a Saturday morning — I took a physical knee. Can’t believe it’s been that long ago.
True, Conway had gone a bit pop on us by then. He had taken to recording gut-bucket drivel like The Rose and Tight-Fittin’ Jeans and Slow Hand (yes, a cover of The Pointer Sisters’ hit) and the awful Don’t Call Him a Cowboy (Until You’ve Seen Him Ride), a title embarrassing to even type, much less listen to.
But those stinkers did not discredit the fact that Conway Twitty was, by all accounts, good to all he met, a hard worker, and beloved by songwriters who called him “the best friend a song ever had.” A draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies out of high school (but a draft pick by the United States Army at the same time), he’d hammered out real country hits in the 1970s and 1980s that stood the test of time. Monsters.
I See The Want To In Your Eyes. Linda On My Mind. You’ve Never Been This Far Before. The Games That Daddys Play. Hello Darlin’. Don’t Take It Away. Fifteen Years Ago. She’s Got A Single Thing In Mind. Songs I was singing before I knew what they meant. As late as 1986, he had his final of 50-plus Billboard No. 1’s with Desperado Love, co-written by Shreveport-Bossier’s Michael Garvin.
Plus all those duets with Loretta Lynn, like After the Fire is Gone, Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man, and You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.
And we haven’t mentioned a personal favorite from 1980, Standing on a Bridge That Just Won’t Burn, the reason for today’s essay.
It was around that time that Conway and the Twitty Birds showed up in Shreveport—he often came to Shreveport and Monroe—for a concert in Hirsch Coliseum. I was out of town but could always count on my friend Hilly to be my eyes and ears at any Hank Jr., Barbara Mandrell, Statler Brothers, or Merle Haggard concert I might miss, and he was my boots-on-the-ground for this memorable night.
Who opened, we don’t remember. Probably a Crash Craddock or a Billy Joe Spears. Maybe Loretta. Regardless, when the time came for Conway, the disco balls in vogue then started spinning and lights were flashing and a powerful voice announced to the packed house, “Ladies and gentlemen, the high priest of county music, Mr. Con-Way Twitty!”
“Half-dozen women fainted,” Hilly reported. “Had to drag ’em out of there. Not lyin’, son.”
Conway was hot as summertime in north Louisiana. This was in his perm period, hair-wise. He’d gone with the semi-pop perm after wearing his hair folded back with Vitalis all those years. He was a natural athlete and a natural showman.
Hilly said it went on like that pretty much the whole night, screaming and yelling and groping and pawing, as the Country Elvis—from Friars Point, Mississippi, by the way—growled out one line drive after the other before he finally got to Bridge That Just Won’t Burn, which goes in part like this:
“She’s a page of precious memories,
That I’ve tried hard to turn,
She’s standing on a bridge that just won’t burn…”
One of those hurtin’ deals.
So Conway’s at the edge of the Hirsch stage singing this song and women are straining to touch him, and Conway’s singing and touching hands as best he could, except this one lady couldn’t quite reach him. Hilly said she’s reaching and Conway’s reaching, like Michelangelo’s fresco of God reaching for Adam on the Sistine’s ceiling, and veins are visible in her neck and forearms and Conway can’t quite get to her but instead finally looks her in the eyes and growls to her through the microphone, deeply, “I’m sorry honey; I guess they must have burned the bridge.”
“And that did it,” Hilly said. “Screamed and fainted. They had to carry her out too.”