An Article by Johnny Cole
Photos by Stephen Anderson
Additional Editing by Brenda Germany
On Thursday, September 15, 2022, the Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame held their annual induction ceremony at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center in Ocean Springs, MS for the 2022 honorees, which included Bobbie Gentry, Clay Mills, Conway Twitty, Hank Cochran, Robert Johnson and this year’s Contributors Award Recipient, Tommy Crawford. This fine class of inductees joined 2019’s Paul Overstreet; 2020’s B.B. King, Jimmy Buffett, Mac McAnally, Tommy Barnes and Reggie Bates; 2021’s Bob Morrison, Craig Wiseman, Paul Davis, Sam Cooke and Tammy Wynette in the Hall of Fame.
In 2022, the Mississippi Songwriters Alliance asked me to write bio’s for each of the inductees to be used during the Hall of Fame ceremony. The following bios were read to the audience that evening:
MISSISSIPPI SONGWRITERS HALL OF FAME 2022 INDUCTIONS:
1) BOBBIE GENTRY
It was the third of June,
another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin; cotton,
and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and
walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered out the back door,
yall, remember to wipe your feet
And then she said, I got some news this mornin;
from Choctaw Ridge
Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off
the Tallahatchie Bridge
There are some songs that take on a life of their own and a true place in popular culture; one such song is “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. The phenomenal success of this classic song led to multiple Grammy wins, millions of records sold, eventually inspired a 1976 movie adaptation, and introduced the world to its singer and songwriter.
Bobbie Gentry, born Roberta Lee Streeter on July 27, 1942 in Woodland, MS, was one of the first female artists in America to compose and produce her own material. She was raised on her grandparents’ farm in Chickasaw County, Mississippi following the divorce of her parents. There she developed an early love for music and songwriting. She composed her first song “My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog” at age seven. For a few years, the young Bobbie lived with her father in Greenwood, Mississippi where she learned to play the guitar and banjo. At 13 she moved to Palm Springs, California to live with her remarried mother. They performed as a music duo for a short time and Gentry would later take her stage name from the 1952 film Ruby Gentry. Following high school, Gentry moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. During this time she supported herself with a variety of jobs and performing at nightclubs.
In 1967 Gentry signed with Capitol Records. Her single “Ode To Billie Joe” was released in July of that year and would climb to #1 on Billboard’s Pop Music Chart on its way to becoming a worldwide smash. Her debut album of the same name was the only album to displace the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from its 15-week reign at the top of the chart. She continued to write and perform other hits into the mid-1970s. Between 1967 and 1971, she released seven studio albums, including a duet album with Glen Campbell.
Bobbie Gentry retired from show business in the early 1980’s. Her contributions to the world of music cannot be disputed. The single, “Ode to Billie Joe”, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. One year later, Bobbie Gentry was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Top Photo: The Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center in Ocean Springs, MS “The site of the 2022 Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame”; Above photo: Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame display in the lobby of “The Mary C.”
2) CLAY MILLS
Mississippi Delta native Clay Mills of Cleveland, Mississippi has enjoyed a successful career as one of the music industry’s top songwriters. He is credited with over 200 songs recorded worldwide, an accomplishment any fellow songwriter would love to have on their resume. Mills’ songs have been recorded by an impressive list of music artists who have excelled on a variety of charts in several genres.
The country group Diamond Rio took Mills’ song “Beautiful Mess” all the way to #1 on Billboard’s Country Music Chart in 2002 and received a Grammy nomination. Former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman, Darius Rucker, has recorded several songs co-written with Clay Mills, including the #1 “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” in 2008 and the successful “History in the Making” in 2009. Several others who have recorded songs written or co-written by Mills include Clay Walker, Trisha Yearwood, Andy Griggs, Little Big Town, Danielle Peck, Easton Corbin, Reba McEntire, Lady A, Jo Dee Messina and more.
Southern gospel and Christian Contemporary recording artist, TaRanda Greene scored an award-winning hit with “Sky Full of Angels”, written by Mills with Burton Collins and Lisa Stewart, originally recorded by Reba McEntire, it was the Southern Gospel Song of the Year in 2006. American Idol’s Kimberly Locke had a #1 hit on U.S. Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart in 2008 with “Fall”, a song co-written with Mills. At the 50th Annual Grammy Awards in 2008, Trisha Yearwood’s “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love” co-written by Mills and Tia Sillers received a nomination.
Mills’ accolades and career achievements are abundant. He has received 16 ASCAP awards and numerous chart appearances for songs he had a hand in writing. Along with Marty Dodson, Mills is the co-founder of the highly successful songwriter training site SongTown.com, which is an online community that has helped thousands of songwriters. He is also the co-author of “Mastering Melody Writing”, a best-selling book for songwriters and has written dozens of articles for American Songwriter Magazine. It is obvious that Clay Mills believes strongly in a songwriter’s contribution to the world and loves helping aspiring writers achieve success.
3) CONWAY TWITTY
Often and rightfully billed as “The best friend a song ever had,” Conway Twitty was highly regarded for his ability to transform other writers’ words and melodies into hit records. As one of country music’s biggest stars, Twitty scored 40 #1 singles on Billboard’s Country Music Charts with such hits as “Fifteen Years Ago”, “Happy Birthday, Darlin'”, ‘I’d Love to Lay You Down”, “Somebody’s Needin’ Somebody”, “Tight Fittin’ Jeans”, “Don’t Call Him a Cowboy” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man”, one of his many duets with Loretta Lynn.
Interestingly, Twitty wrote many of his classic hits such as his signature song “Hello, Darlin”; also, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”, “Linda on My Mind” and “Don’t Cry Joni”. His incredible songwriting was sometimes overshadowed simply because of the staggering number of hit songs he had during his career.
Conway Twitty was born Harold Lloyd Jenkins on Sept. 1, 1933 in Friars Point, Mississippi. The Jenkins family moved to Helena, Arkansas, when young Harold was 10 years old. Following high school, he was offered the opportunity to play baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies, but was drafted by the U.S. Army.
In the mid-50s, Twitty was urged to pursue a career in music and began writing rock and roll music after hearing Elvis Presley’s song “Mystery Train”. He then went to Memphis, Tennessee to work with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. In 1957, Harold Jenkins decided his name wasn’t quite right for show business. After spotting Conway, Arkansas, and Twitty, Texas on a map, he became “Conway Twitty”. In 1958, Twitty achieved rock and roll stardom with “It’s Only Make Believe”, a #1 song co-written with Jack Nance, which was a hit in over 20 countries with eventual sales of over 8 million copies.
When Conway Twitty decided to go country in 1965, some disc jockeys were initially reluctant to play his music because he was only known as a rock and roll singer. However, in 1968 Twitty scored his first #1 country music single with “Next in Line” and two years later, released his huge self-penned #1 hit single “Hello, Darlin”. There was a time when Conway Twitty released a new single, whether it was an original or a cover song such as “Rest Your Love On Me” or “Slow Hand”, it was almost certain to be a #1 hit. Twitty’s frequent use of romantic and sentimental themes in his songs became a huge part of his success into the 1990’s.
The world of music lost one of its greatest stars and most gifted songwriters on June 4, 1993 when Conway Twitty died in Springfield, Missouri at the age of 59.
Conway Twitty has been honored with 51 performance awards from BMI, SESAC and ASCAP and inductions into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Delta Music Hall of Fame and Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
The Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame honored another phenomenal group of inductees at this year’s ceremony at the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center in Ocean Springs, MS.
4) HANK COCHRAN
The Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame is made for such incredible talent as Hank Cochran. He is without a doubt one of the most consistently successful songwriters in country music history. One would be hard pressed to find another songwriter as well respected.
Born Garland Perry Cochran in Isola, Mississippi on August 2, 1935, he had a turbulent childhood growing up during the depression. At a very early age, he battled numerous illnesses and following his parents’ divorce, moved to Memphis with his father where he was eventually placed in an orphanage. After several attempts at running away, he finally found his way to his grandparents’ home in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Cochran was taught to play guitar as a child by his uncle, Otis Cochran. The young Hank dropped out of school at age 12 and hitchhiked to New Mexico with his uncle to work on oil rigs. While still in his teens, he moved to California with hopes of pursuing a music career. In 1954, he and future rockabilly star, Eddie Cochran, (no relation) formed the Cochran Brothers country duo. After serving in the U.S. Army, Hank Cochran obtained a songwriting job at the West Coast branch of Pamper Music. He transferred to the company’s Nashville office in 1960 and became the company’s song plugger as well as a staff writer. After noticing a young Willie Nelson at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, Cochran famously encouraged the music firm to sign Nelson. The two subsequently wrote several songs together and became enduring friends.
In January of 1961, Patsy Cline’s version of “I Fall to Pieces” became Cochran’s first big songwriting success. A year later, Cline released “She’s Got You”, also written by Cochran. In 1963, Ray Price released Cochran’s “Make the World Go Away”, a song that became an even bigger hit for Eddy Arnold in 1965, which went to #1 on the Billboard Country chart and was a huge Top Ten hit on the Pop chart. Cochran’s “Make the World Go Away” and “I Fall to Pieces” have both been recorded by more than 100 artists.
Over the next few decades, Cochran wrote and co-wrote hit songs for the Who’s Who of country music. Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Vern Gosdin, Mickey Gilley, Keith Whitley and many others found considerable success with Cochran’s songs. George Strait had huge hits with “The Chair” (written by Cochran with Dean Dillon) and “Ocean Front Property” (written by Cochran with Dean Dillon and Royce Porter).
Throughout the years, Cochran recorded a number of albums of his own on several labels, too. After two years of illness, Cochran died on July 15, 2010, at age 74.
In 2012, he became the subject of the posthumous documentary film Hank Cochran: Livin’ for a Song, as well as the Grammy nominated tribute album Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran by Jamey Johnson. Hank Cochran was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1974 and both the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.
5) ROBERT JOHNSON
Robert Leroy Johnson, born in the outskirts of Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911 (or possibly 1912), is heralded as one of the greatest of all bluesmen. His legendary recordings in the mid-1930’s have influenced generations of musicians.
Rock musician, Eric Clapton, said “Robert Johnson, to me, is the most important blues musician who ever lived”.
Bob Dylan added “Johnson’s writings are like nothing I’d heard before.”
Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant praised Johnson by saying “A lot of English musicians were very fired up by Robert Johnson to whom we all owe more or less our existence, I guess, in some way”.
…..And there are many others who recognize Johnson’s combination of singing, guitar skills, and songwriting as a major influence in their careers.
Robert Johnson began actively performing music in his teens while living in the Delta. Likely around 1930, he came to the attention of blues great, Son House, who later recalled that the young Johnson was a competent harmonica player, but an embarrassingly bad guitarist. Mystical folklore and common stories of crossroads aside, Johnson returned to the Hazlehurst area in the early 1930’s, where he studied with guitarist Ike Zimmerman. It was said upon Johnson’s return to the Delta that his skills as a guitarist had increased remarkably. Most scholars accept bluesman, Ike Zimmerman, as the most important influence on Johnson.
As much praise as Johnson receives for his skills as a musician, his songwriting is equally relevant. Johnson’s compositions, notable for their poetic qualities, include such classics as “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, “Terraplane Blues”, “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, “Cross Road Blues”, “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Hell Hound on My Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, “Love in Vain Blues” and more. Between 1937 and 1939, Johnson released twelve 78 rpm records. During this short period of time, he recorded 29 songs and numerous “alternate takes”. All were recorded over a period of five days at two makeshift recording studios in Texas and produced by legendary producer, Don Law.
Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938, at the age of 27 near Greenwood, Mississippi of undetermined causes; though many stories have since circulated about his death, including his death by poisoning.
Johnson has received numerous accolades for his music including induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “early influence” in 1984, Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, and the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2006, Johnson was honored by a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The Mississippi Blues Trail honored him with not just one, but two markers. Johnson easily makes every magazine list of the all-time greatest guitarists.
The family of Tommy Crawford receiving the special award by the Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame by George Cumbest; also pictured, Taylor Craven, songwriter and longtime friend of Tommy Crawford.
6) TOMMY CRAWFORD
Thomas “Tommy” Allen Crawford, born June 21, 1948 in Moss Point, MS, was an extremely talented and loved musician and songwriter from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Sadly, Crawford passed away on October 23, 2021 and is sorely missed by the region’s songwriting community.
Crawford proudly served in the U.S. Army from 1967-1969, including a tour in Vietnam and concluded with an Honorable Discharge after achieving the rank of Sergeant. He graduated from William Carey College with a Bachelor of Science degree and was employed with Singing River Health System for 38 years as an X-Ray technician before retiring as the Director of Radiology in 2005.
Crawford performed in the local music scene for many years, including writing songs with numerous fellow songwriters. He was a member ASCAP, contributed to the Mississippi Songwriter’s Alliance and was longtime performer at the Mississippi Songwriters Festival held each year on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
One of Crawford’s greatest influences was Country Music Hall of Famer, Ray Stevens. Tommy lived to see a dream come true when Stevens recorded his song, “Claws (A Cat’s Letter to Santa)” co-written with his friend, Taylor Craven.
Tommy Crawford will always be remembered as one of the most cherished songwriters from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in 2022, The Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame honored him with a very special Contributors Award for his many contributions and inspiration to the songwriting community. (I wrote Tommy Crawford’s bio following the ceremony to be used in this article.)
In Conclusion: The Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame will continue to honor amazing songwriters from the state of Mississippi, ‘the Birthplace of America’s Music” with more inductions to be announced in 2023. The site of the Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame facility is rapidly approaching reality in Gautier, Mississippi. It is exciting to see the progress being made and discussion of future plans.
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The Reggie Bates Memorial Scholarship Night (Sat. Sept. 17)
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Mississippi Songwriters Festival Kick-Off Party, Grand Finale & More
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When Sweden Came To The Mississippi Songwriters Festival
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The official poster for this year’s Mississippi Songwriters Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at The Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center in Ocean Springs, MS .
Page Designed & Edited by Johnny Cole
Additional Editing by Brenda Germany
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