Singer and songwriter Earl Thomas Conley, one of country music’s top hitmakers during the early and mid-1980s, died Wednesday (April 10) at the age of 77. Among his 18 No. 1 singles were “Holding Her (And Loving You),” “Fire and Smoke” and “I Can’t Win for Losin’ You.”
Blake Shelton, who idolized Conley, reported his death, saying, “My heart is absolutely destroyed today. Earl was my all time favorite singer, hero and my friend. Prayers to his family. We will all miss you deeply my brother. Now go rest.”
Conley was born Oct. 17. 1941 into a working-class family in West Portsmouth, Ohio, where he grew up. After a stint in the Army during the late 1960s, Conley held various railroad and steel mill jobs before moving to Birmingham, Ala. There he met recording studio owner Nelson Larkin, who subsequently signed him to his label, Sunbird Record, and produced his early hits.
Conley moved to Nashville in 1973 and had his first successes as a songwriter. He co-wrote “Smokey Mountain Memories,” a Top 20 single for Mel Street in 1975. But he really scored big the following year when Conway Twitty took his “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More Than She Loves Me” to No. 1.
Also in 1975, Conley charted his own first single, “I Have Loved You Girl (But Not Like This Before)” on GRT Records, where Larkin was head of A&R. The single peaked at No. 87 but would reach No. 2 in 1983 when it was reissued on RCA.
From GRT, Conley moved to Warner Brothers and then on to Sunbird. Here he had his first No. 1, “Fire and Smoke.” He signed to RCA in 1981. Over the next 11 years at the label, he continued to co-write many of his own No. 1’s, among them “Your Love’s on the Line,” “Don’t Make It Easy For Me,” “Angel in Disguise,” “Love Don’t Care (Whose Heart It Breaks)” and “Chance of Lovin’ You.”
In 1986, he teamed with Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters for “Too Many Times,” which rose to No. 2 and earned him an appearance with Pointer on the CMA Awards show. In 1988 he had a No. 1 with Emmylou Harris via “We Believe in Happy Endings.”
Conley was plagued by ill health the last years of his life but made an appearance at the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame banquet in 2017 to sing his 1983 hit, “Holding Her and Loving You” in honor of its writer, Walt Aldridge, who was being inducted into the Hall that year.
Conley is survived by four children. There will be no funeral, a source close to his family said, but there will probably be a celebration of his life this summer.