Twilley Don’t Stop (Part 1 of 3)

Power pop enjoyed its commercial heyday in the early 70s thanks to enduring music from Badfinger, the Raspberries and similar artists. But during and after that brief period, the style was more often than not confined to cult status. The work of artists like Big Star and Shoes went unheard by the wider public. Though today power pop occupies only a narrow slice of the listening public’s attention, it’s nonetheless filled with all of the virtues of “pop” music. At its best, the style showcases memorable hooks, concise songwriting and accessible arrangements.

The work of Tulsa, Oklahoma native Dwight Twilley has all of those qualities. His occasional successes defied the prevailing trends. Best known for his 70s hit “I’m On Fire” and then “Girls” in the 80s, Twilley was a prolific and gifted singer, songwriter and instrumentalist. Under his own name and leading The Dwight Twilley Band, the guitarist released dozens of albums that define the power pop style. Tragically, Twilley died in October 2023. His widow Jan Rose Twilley recently spoke with me about his life and music.

Dwight Twilley and his musical partner Phil Seymour began working together in 1967 when Twilley was only 16, Seymour a year his junior. The duo made a pilgrimage to Memphis, Sun Studio, where they met Jerry Phillips, son of legendary studio founder Sam Philips. That encounter helped steer Twilley and Seymour toward a more rockabilly-flavored sound on their return to Tulsa. They moved to Los Angeles not long after Twilley left Northwestern Oklahoma A&M College in 1973.

As a duo, Twilley and Seymour had been playing live billed as Oister; after they landed in LA., they came to the attention of a small label, Shelter. Founded in 1969 by Leon Russell and Denny Cordell, Shelter Records was based both in Los Angeles and 1400 miles to the east, back in Twilley’s hometown: Tulsa. Shelter signed Oister to the label and renamed the group the Dwight Twilley Band.

“I met Dwight through Susie when the Cowsills were working at Clover Recorders,” says Jan Twilley, Dwight’s widow. “It was just a few blocks from Shelter Records on Hollywood Boulevard.” Jan Rose and Susan Cowsill had been best friends from the time they met as fourth graders at Hollywood Professional School. That learning institution was filled with young stars. “All of The Cowsills went to Hollywood Professional,” Jan recalls. Jan excelled in her studies, graduating a year early. “I’d always hang out at the Cowsills’ place on Rockingham, and Susan would often come hang out at my pad,” Jan says.

Released on Shelter in 1975, “I’m On Fire” was Twilley’s debut release. The song soared to the #16 spot on the U.S. Billboard singles charts and reached No 57 in Canada. It was around that time that Susan Cowsill and Dwight Twilley started dating.

The Dwight Twilley Band released their debut album, Sincerely, in 1976. Showcasing Twilley’s distinctive Sun Records meets Merseybeat style, the record earned critical praise in Trouser Press, ecstatic reviews in Rolling Stone and beyond. With strong riffs and solid melodies, songs like “Feeling in the Dark” connected Twilley’s power pop inclinations with ‘70s hard rock, creating a record that still sounds fresh decades later.

Even though they had been friends for years at that point, Jan says that she had never heard any of Twilley’s music until Susan played a cassette of Sincerely at her home one day. She was mightily impressed; so were the critics.

But despite the inclusion of “I’m On Fire,” the record bubbled under on the charts. Its failure to gain commercial traction was the result of Shelter’s internal disarray. Founders Russell and Cordell had fallen out, and when the label lost its distribution deal with Capitol/EMI; that effectively put the label out of business until the dust settled.

Sincerely had a troubled history: the album has been cobbled together by Shelter, drawing from multiple recording sessions. By that time, Twilley and Seymour (the latter on drums and other instruments) had easily recorded enough material for not one but two albums; most of the unused tracks would remain unheard until the release of The Great Lost Twilley Album nearly 20 years later. Meanwhile, because of continued distribution woes, the Dwight Twilley Band’s debut album would go out of print, remaining largely unavailable until the ‘90s.

In the period during which Sincerely was being recorded, Twilley often spent time with friend and Shelter label mate Tom Petty. While the Gainesville, Florida native had a style of his own – less rockabilly-flavored than Twilley’s approach, but with a strong melodic sense built on a keen understanding of songwriting values – the two musicians were in many ways like-minded artists.

Petty had led an earlier band, Mudcrutch, releasing a non-charting 1975 single on Shelter. Forming a new group called the Heartbreakers, Petty was back in the studio in 1976. During those sessions, Twilley – although he didn’t play on the record – contributed in a significant manner to its ultimate success.

Jan Twilley recounts the story in her own words. “One night Dwight pops by the studio, and Tommy says, ‘Hey, man, you want to hear this track?’” Twilley said yes, and Petty played him an unfinished instrumental recording. “Dwight listened, and said, ‘It’s really long, and I don’t feel anything special there, except at the very end of the song.’” The recording ended with Heartbreakers lead guitarist Mike Campbell playing a lick. “You could just about hear it in the fade,” Jan says.

Intrigued, Petty asked the engineer to play the tape back. When the section with the distinctive lick came around, Jan says that Twilley looked at Petty and smiled. “There’s your song,” he said.
“And then he split,” Jan adds. “Unbeknownst to us, Tom called everyone in the band – this must have been three in the morning, maybe four – and called them back to the studio.” The new recording, built around Campbell’s lick, ran a brief 3:16. Titled “Breakdown,” it would become the first single released from the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers LP. The single made it into the U.S. Top 40.

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