Who was/is Jimmy Donley ? - CDs, Vinyl LPs, DVD and more

Jimmy Donley

The Shape You Left Me In

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.

Jimmy Donley The Shape You Left Me In
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