Jimmy Donley: In The Key Of Heartbreak - The Complete Tear-Drop Singles (2-CD)
(Ace REcords) 56 tracks with 20 page booklet. The Ultimate Package Of This Tragic Swamp Pop Artist's 1960s Work. Over Half Of The Recordings Previously Unissued.
I first became aware of Jimmy Donley in the mid-70s when a friend played me a single, credited to Kenny James coupling ‘A Woman’s Gotta Have Her Way’ and ‘Please Mr Sandman’. I fell instantly in love with both sides and soon learned that he’d made a number of other great 45s under his own name for Tear Drop and, earlier, for US Decca. I quickly made it my business to find as many as I could – not an easy task in those pre-eBay years.
I also found out that he’d written a handful of Fats Domino 45s that I owned, although his name didn’t appear on the labels of any of them. It wasn’t until years later, via Johnnie Allen and Bernice Webb’s warts-and-all Donley biography Born To Be A Loser, that I realised just how important and influential this tortured musical genius was. His human failings were not easy to ignore, but his ability to channel his life into memorable songs and performances transcends them. Donley’s greatness is abundantly apparent from this deluxe 2CD overview of his later career, as one of South Texas record maverick Huey Meaux’s stable of stars.
An extremely soulful singer, and an extraordinarily prolific writer who was perpetually short of cash, Donley sold most of his songs as soon as he wrote them on the pretext that he could always write another one tomorrow. Despite the assigned credits on his Tear Drop 45s, Jimmy wrote or co-wrote them. He also penned at least 80% of the tracks that appear on a CDs worth of mostly unissued demos that Alec Palao and I dug out of the Meaux tape inventory in Houston, Texas March 2011. Jimmy must have written close to 100 songs in a period of less than six years. Almost all his demos, and certainly those included here, are of high quality. We are fortunate that Meaux collected so many from friends and family members in the wake of Jimmy’s suicide.
“In the Key Of Heartbreak” marks the first occasion on which Jimmy’s Tear Drop 45s have been issued in stereo. Alec’s mixes, from the original Cosimo’s 3-track multis, are true to the sound of the mono masters, which were used for reference when mixing. Alec was also able to strip the tracks Meaux had overdubbed posthumously and return them to a vocal/guitar format, so that we could feature them as they sounded originally. The repertoire on the second CD is presented as it was recorded, with only minor audio tweaks to rationalise the volume throughout. There are snatches of Jimmy’s speaking voice introducing some tracks. We could have cut these out but somehow it didn’t seem right to.
I’m naturally proud of every project that I’ve worked on in the 10 years since I joined the Ace A&R workforce, but I can honestly say that I’ve never been more proud of any project than I am of this one.
Article properties: Jimmy Donley: In The Key Of Heartbreak - The Complete Tear-Drop Singles (2-CD)
No doubt about it. In the last half a century, he's become a legend to record collectors and fans of southern music. His style? Louisiana swamp pop. White Gulf Coast blues. But even then, just about anybody will tell you that his recordings don't do justice to what he wrote or sang. These recordings, as good as some of them are, barely scratch the surface.
His life? Those who knew him just shake their heads. Jimmy Donley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1929. It's been nearly half a century since his death (Donley committed suicide in 1963). Writers love alliteration, so words like talented, tortured, and tormented come easily. It's clear you wouldn't have wanted to be around Donley when he was drinking. But when was he not drinking? He was a charmer, but god help you if that was your daughter he was charming. His wife Lillie Mae put it best when she said, "I love the man so much. If I come back to him again, he's either going to break my heart or kill me." Sad as it seems, those seemed to be the two main options if you were a wife or a girlfriend of Jimmy Donley.
He had plenty of both. His first wife, Edith, was not yet 16 when she married Jimmy, then age 20. She suffered a knife attack from Donley for the mistake of sharing an innocent dance with Ernie Chaffin, a fellow Gulf Coast musician. When Donley later saw an innocuous photo of Edith and entertainer Lash LaRue, Donley beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized. His jealousy was not confined to other humans. Donley shot a cat that Edith had adopted because he found it purring and rubbing against her leg. Violent, unprovoked, drunken beatings became the norm. Their marriage ended when Donley attempted to shoot Edith in the face at point blank range while she sat before him. Edith survived because a family friend grabbed Donley's arm at the last minute, causing the bullet to miss its mark.
The second Mrs. Donley, named Mertise, was beaten on their first date. Even along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the 1950s, boys tried to impress girls on their first date. The old "Be on your best behavior" routine seems to have eluded Jimmy Donley. But Mertise, like his other partners, was taken in by the alternating pattern of charm and violence. They were married less than a year later. Several weeks after that, the violence had begun in earnest. Mertise left Jimmy within the first year of marriage.
Jimmy's next wife was named Mona. She came with a two-year old daughter. Within months he had a knife to her throat (Jimmy's sister Myrna disputes the accuracy of these and other accounts which appear in the Johnnie Allan & Bernice Webb book, 'Born To Be A Loser: The Jimmy Donley Story'. In Myrna's words, "He could whup up on you, but he didn't use knives."). According to Allan & Webb's account, several months later Jimmy stabbed Mona in the chest for playfully calling a bartender 'hon.' Three months after that, Mona filed for divorce.
Jimmy's fourth wife was named Garnet. She was attracted to Jimmy after he started a bar fight to protect her 'honor.' She was 18 at the time. After several months of marriage Jimmy was seeing other women and regularly beating his new wife. Soon after, Garnet filed for divorce.
Wife number five was named Lillian. They began by living together out of wedlock. Initially, this arrangement seemed to moderate Jimmy's violence. Reportedly, he only beat her "on two or three occasions." Within months of their being married, however, Lillian announced "I'm going to get out before he kills me."
Jimmy next became engaged to a woman named Arleeta (we've included two versions of a song Jimmy wrote and named in her honor). Things seemed to go well until one night when he walked into a club with Arleeta, and left with Lillie Mae, who became his next wife. The abuse of Lillie Mae began on schedule. Within months he threw her off the balcony of their rented apartment. Except for regular beatings, Jimmy and Lillie Mae seemed like any young couple, very much in love. Their bond was strengthened by sharing music and poverty, neither of which was in short supply. Without wallowing in the all-too-familiar details, Lillie Mae ultimately left Jimmy in fear. She was still involved in an on again/off again relationship with him at the time of his death.
What caused all this outrageous behavior? Jimmy Donley was plainly a very unhappy man, spreading misery to the lives of those closest to him. If you're wondering about its source, there's no shortage of places to look: bad genes, bad nutrition, or a Southern Gothic family life. Donley's father, Tag, was abusive, alcoholic and racist - an unbeatable mix, bound to leave scars on his progeny. Sexual abuse was part of the Donley family credo. Tag was fond of saying: "It's all right to screw anybody except your mother." That left a lot of latitude within the Donley clan. Jimmy's official introduction to sexuality occurred when his father locked him in a closet with a prostitute. Jimmy was barely 13 at the time. His mother wasn't amused, but his father thought it great sport.