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TERRY GROSS, host:

The music business sometimes provides a living for people who might otherwise be in jail or a psychiatric institution, but they're rarely as successful as their more stable peers. Jimmy Donley has long been held up as a prime example of this, and with the release of most of his recordings by Bear Family, we can hear that there was more to Donley than his tormented biography.

Rock historian Ed Ward tells the story.

(Soundbite of song, "Kicking My Hound Around")

Mr. JIMMY DONLEY (Musician): Come here, Blue. I wonder where that old hound is. I keep saying I'm going to town. He don't like town, and I don't blame him.

(Singing) Every time I go to town, boys all kicking my hound around. Makes no difference if he's in the house, got no business to kicking him around. Got no business to kicking him around.

ED WARD: The first time I'd ever heard of Jimmy Donley was when a friend put on an album of his songs, and I noted that the cover had his tombstone on it. If I'd known more about Donley, that tombstone would have come as something of a relief because, from all accounts, this was a man you didn't ever want to come into contact with.

He was born in Gulf Port, Mississippi in 1929, and by his early 20s was playing bars around Biloxi, where he came to the attention of another musician, Ernie Chaffin, who'd already started to record for Sun Records in Memphis.

Donley's star might have risen earlier, but just as he was making a name for himself, Uncle Sam came calling and he went into the Army, which stationed him in Panama.

Around Biloxi, they thought the Army was a good idea. When Donley and Chaffin performed, sometimes Jimmy would hear someone in the audience say something he didn't like and put down his guitar and attack them. But not even the Armed Services could help, and before too long, Donley was back in Mississippi with a psychiatric discharge.

At this point, Pee Wee Maddux, a local songwriter, arranged for Jimmy to audition for Decca Records in Nashville. And not only did they sign him, they recorded four songs immediately in February, 1957.

(Soundbite of song, "Come Along")

Mr. DONLEY: (Singing) Well, I'm going to town next Saturday, get a new pair of kicks with some of my pay. Going to jump with a check book and head forth to the north down rhythm of honky-tonk. Come along. Yeah, baby, come along. Well, now, come along. Baby, come along with me.

I got to quit that gal, my (unintelligible) to be. She tells the whole town what she won't tell me. And that's the reason why for the (unintelligible) rolled over just to get around me. Come along. Yeah, baby, come along. Well, now, come along. Baby, come along with me.

WARD: Of course, there were loads of rockabilly singers out there at this point, and Decca had more than their fair share of them, but since - like most major labels at the time - they had no idea what would sell, they just threw the records out there. They probably didn't even care that Donley's accent is sometimes impenetrable, although they figured it out six months later when they had him record some country standards. After that, they left him to his own stuff, including the song he's best known for.

(Soundbite of song, "Born to be a Loser")

Mr. DONLEY: (Singing) There's a pain inside my heart, yeah, and a burning deep within. If I can't be your lover, won't you let me be your friend? I guess I took too much for granted, oh, that you would love me, too. Our romance should've never started. Little girl, I can't blame you. Should have seen...

WARD: "Born to be a Loser" would have been called autobiographical, if Donley had had the insights others had into him. The song's relentless self-pity has made it a swamp-pop classic, covered by others, but Donley never saw a penny. He was deeply suspicious of the contracts he signed, and preferred to get paid in cash for everything he recorded. This would have meant the loss of a few thousand dollars if Donley hadn't done something that, for the times, was astonishing: one day he walked up to Fats Domino, whose voice resembled his, and auditioned a couple of his new tunes. Fats, a very smart man, bought them on the spot. In fact, Donley and Pee Wee Maddux got close enough to Fats that they appear in the chorus on his recording of one of Donley's songs.

(Soundbite of "What a Party")

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

FATS DOMINO (Singer): (Singing) Where was Jody when the lights went out? Standing in the corner, shout, shout sissy, shout. What a party. Lordy, Lordy.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Big fat piano man, he sure can wail away.

FATS DOMINO: (Singing) What a party. Lordy, Lordy.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Big fat piano man, he sure could play.

FATS DOMINO: (Singing) The girl was dressed in...

WARD: It's hard to tell how many songs Donley sold outright to Fats and his bandleader Dave Bartholomew and others, including Jerry Lee Lewis, but some, with the songwriting credit "Jessup," point to Reverend J. Charles Jessup, a media-savvy preacher from the Gulf Coast to whom Donley sold the rights to his output.

It goes without saying that Donley's personal life was chaotic. He was married six times, and engaged to another woman he didn't marry, but for whom he wrote one of his most beautiful melodies,

(Soundbite of song, "Arleeta")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Arleeta. Arleeta.

Mr. DONLEY: (Singing) I want me somebody, someone to love, someone to share with the pleasures of love. It's you I desire. You set me on fire. Arleeta, it's you. It's got to be you. Arleeta, my love. Arleeta, my love. Oh, I want...

WARD: Donley's violence towards his wives and girlfriends is horrifying to read about. It was fuelled, unsurprisingly, by his near-constant consumption of alcohol. Yet the women kept on coming, and kept on leaving.

In 1961, Donley did some leaving of his own: He demanded a release from his contract with Decca at gunpoint and signed with Huey P. Meaux's Tear Drop Records in Houston. These, too, failed to sell, and finally, on March 21st, 1963, Donley got into his car, turned on the engine, and asphyxiated himself.

Next to his body was a Bible, his mother's obituary, a picture of his wife Lillie Mae, and Ernie Chaffin's phone number. It was Donley's second suicide attempt. The first time, he hadn't been able to afford enough gas to succeed. And his last request, that his friend Cozy Corley sing at his funeral, was denied. Corley was black.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. He reviewed a collection of the music of Jimmy Donley called "The Shape You Left Me In." You can hear the song "Born to be a Loser" on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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