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On This Day In History
By Staff Reporter
March 17, 2020
The Clusterfuck History Of ‘Delta Dawn’
On this day in 1972: 13-year-old Tanya Tucker entered a studio to record her first hit, “Delta Dawn.”
“Delta Dawn” is a song written by former child rockabilly star Larry Collins and songwriter Alex Harvey. They had had a hit with their song, “Reuben James” with Kenny Rogers and another hit with Conway Twitty. But, by far their greatest hit was “Delta Dawn”
Alex Harvey had a very deep and emotional connection to the song that featured 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, they 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.
The first recording of “Delta Dawn” was made by Harvey for his eponymous album released in November 1971. Harvey had performed as the opening act for Helen Reddy at the Troubadour, in January 1972, but at that time Reddy (who also was signed with the Capitol Records label) made no connection with any of Harvey’s compositions.
Dianne Davidson sang backup for Harvey’s recording. She was the first singer after Harvey to record the song and chart in 1971–1972.
Tracy Nelson also sang backup on Harvey’s recording and performed “Delta Dawn” in her live act.
After hearing Tracy Nelson sing it at the Bottom Line in New York City, Bette Midler added the song to her repertoire. (I remember reading somewhere that Bette went several times to see Nelson perform “Delta Dawn” as if she were studying her performance)
During the time Tanya Tucker’s and Helen Reddy’s recordings of the song were being produced, Bette Midler recorded “Delta Dawn” for her The Divine Miss M debut album, for which her bluesy version was planned as the lead single.
Reddy’s single was released June 1973, two days before Midler’s. The preemption required a marketing change for Midler, so the original B-side “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was shopped to radio, itself becoming a Top Ten hit.
Before Midler’s recording, Nashville-based producer Billy Sherrill heard her sing “Delta Dawn” on The Tonight Show and wanted to sign Midler to Epic Records and have her record it.
Upon finding that Midler was already signed to Atlantic Records, Sherrill cut the song with Tanya Tucker, who was newly signed to Epic, and Tucker’s version was released in April 1972; it reached #6 in C&W that spring.
Tid-Bette: I swear I read an interview with Mr. Harvey, who lives here, that he thought out of all the versions, Bette Midler captured the real essence, the pathos of the song.