Dwight Twilley, Power Pop Legend Who Was Denied Success, Dies

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Dwight Twilley, a singer, songwriter and guitarist whose first recordings with musical partner Phil Seymour in the mid-1970s pre-dated the genre that soon became known as power pop, died Wednesday (October 18, 2023) at age 72. Twilley, born and raised in Tulsa, Okla., died there as well, with his death confirmed by his wife Jan to several sources. The Church Studio in Tulsa also confirmed his passing. Tulsa World reports that Twilley had suffered a massive stroke while driving alone on October 14 and crashed into a tree. He died while in a critical care unit.

As the Dwight Twilley Band, Twilley and Seymour created an enduring and highly memorable brand of power pop that blended Beatlesque pop and Sun rockabilly “slapback” echo. They scored a pop hit with their very first single, “I’m on Fire,” which reached #16 on the Hot 100 in 1975. And while their future indeed looked to be on fire, the pair suffered from bad luck and label mismanagement. While each charted with subsequent releases, neither achieved significant success.

Twilley met Seymour in 1967 at a Tulsa movie theater where they had gone to see a re-release of the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. Inspired by the film they went to Twilley’s house to start writing and recording. The two continued the partnership over the next several years, calling themselves Oister and recruiting another part-time member, Bill Pitcock IV, on lead guitar. After developing their sound in their homemade studio, “The Shop,” they decided to take a stab at professional recording. Though they intended to head to Nashville, they stopped first at Sun Studios in Memphis. Jerry Phillips, son of the studio’s legendary owner, Sam Phillips, was impressed enough to team them up with former Sun artist Ray Harris, who introduced them to “the Sun sound,” roughing up their Beatles-obsessed style a bit and creating a unique and endearing sound.

In 1974 the pair signed as the Dwight Twilley Band to Shelter Records, co-owned by Denny Cordell and Leon Russell. Their first single, “I’m on Fire,” became a pop hit in 1975, peaking at #16, with relatively no promotion.

During an appearance on American Bandstand, the band previewed what was to be the follow-up single, “Shark,” an infectious rocker. But the song and completed album went unreleased for 18 months due to label problems, and a second album recorded in England was left unreleased altogether, creating a myth around the band in some circles while the general public quickly lost interest. A belated follow-up single failed due to distribution problems. Predictably, when the album Sincerely was finally released, it was ignored.

Seymour and Twilley befriended their like-minded Shelter Records label mate Tom Petty and spent time in the studio while the future star was recording his self-titled debut album with the Heartbreakers. Seymour is credited as contributing backing vocals on the classic tracks “American Girl” and “Breakdown.” Twilley is listed as singing on the album track, “Strangered in the Night.” Petty repaid the favor for their second album, Twilley Don’t Mind, for Arista in 1977.  Seymour left the band the following year to pursue a solo career, reaching #22 on the Hot 100 in 1981 with “Precious To Me.” He died of lymphoma in 1993 at age 41.

Related: A veteran music journalist picked 10 great power pop songs for us

Twilley carried on as a solo act, releasing Twilley for Arista in 1979 and Scuba Divers for EMI America in 1982, and found success again with Jungle in 1984, when he scored his first hit in nearly a decade with “Girls.”

That same year, Twilley was invited back to Bandstand by Dick Clark who asked the musician about the circumstances from nine years earlier.

In 1993, DCC released The Great Lost Twilley Album, which collected a fraction of the “hundreds” of unreleased songs Twilley and Seymour recorded in the early, ill-fated days. His other releases include an album of Beatles covers titled simply The Beatles and followed it with an album of originals in 2010. His final album was 2014’s Always.

By coincidence, a new compilation is celebrating power pop with tunes from such leading acts of the genre as Raspberries, Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Andrew Gold, the Cars, the Knack and dozens more. Looking For the Magic – American Power Pop in the Seventies is coming November 17, 2023, from Cherry Red Records’ Grapefruit imprint, with 76 tracks across its 3-CDs. The album is named for the Dwight Twilley Band’s song.

Related: Musicians we’ve lost in 2023

A fellow power pop musician, Will Burch, paid tribute.

Greg Brodsky

13 Comments so far

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  1. Jeff
    #1 Jeff 19 October, 2023, 00:24

    This headline is insulting and patently misleading. To the contrary, he WAS extremely successful with several chart-topping hits. In addition, he is quite often mentioned as an influence by many musicians that I’m quite sure you would have to begrudgingly admit were not “denied success.” How many hit records did you have, Greg Brodsky?

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    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 19 October, 2023, 01:02

      Thanks for your comment, Jeff. No one would deny Dwight’s influence and the admiration other artists had for him. My headline called him a legend and I noted the upcoming Power Pop compilation that is named for his song, “Looking For the Magic.” Yet despite all of the acclaim, he had no “chart-topping hits” (your words) and negligible sales. His story, as I noted, was one of bad luck and label mismanagement, and ultimately unfulfilled promise.

      Reply this comment
      • Ray
        Ray 19 October, 2023, 03:39

        Spot on comment, Greg. Dwight lurked just outside the circle of successful artists, but he was never considered a “star”. In any event. may he Rest In Peace

        Reply this comment
      • Jeff
        Jeff 19 October, 2023, 07:57

        Greg, Thanks for your reply and thoughtful response. We will have to agree to disagree on this.

        Reply this comment
    • Hspero
      Hspero 19 October, 2023, 06:47

      I adore the Twilley Don’t Mind album and love this band-and am so sad for Dwight’s family. BUT Jeff-get a grip-the words “extremely successful” and “chart topping” do not apply here. You’re barking up the wrong tree also by insulting Greg who was spot on with his accurate reporting

      Reply this comment
      • Jeff
        Jeff 19 October, 2023, 10:04

        How we each define “success” seems to be the point of contention here.

        Reply this comment
      • BMac
        BMac 19 October, 2023, 13:30

        I was also also confused by the “several chart topping hits” comment. I really liked Dwight Twilley’s material (what I heard of it), but I can’t find any evidence of chart topping, at least not in this country. He had two top 40 hits, and his highest charting album got to #39.

        Reply this comment
  2. LowPlainsGrifter
    #2 LowPlainsGrifter 19 October, 2023, 01:13

    It is a shame that sustained success
    eluded Dwight Twilley,as his music
    was as good as anyone creating
    Power Pop at that time,and beyond.
    Although they are not singled out,
    ‘Runaway’and others were just
    flat-out great rockers by his band.
    Also, a tip of the cap to Grapefruit for
    titling their latest VA compilation
    after a song of his.
    Maybe someday his estate will mine
    the hundreds of unreleased songs
    from his early days with Phil Seymour.
    r.i.p. Dwight Twilley

    Reply this comment
  3. Corky in KC
    #3 Corky in KC 19 October, 2023, 09:25

    Always dug the songs released by the pair of these gents. My friends with a few local covers bands will be getting a nudge from me, to add some of them.

    And I’m also going to go look up the mentioned Beatles covers album!

    Rock & roll makes my blood pump.

    Peace in our time sisters & brothers, it’s a scary world. Remember Neal’s words:

    ‘Love & only love will keep it real, Love & only love can break it down. Hate is everything you think it is….’

    Corky in KC

    Reply this comment
  4. Michele
    #4 Michele 19 October, 2023, 09:40

    I used to love this Saturday AM kids show. My draw dropped when I saw Tom on bass. https://youtu.be/BTIHKcEM7sY?feature=shared years later I was lucky enough to meet Tom. I asked him about his random appearance. He said “I was just helping out a friend”

    Reply this comment
  5. 122intheshade
    #5 122intheshade 20 October, 2023, 00:01

    I found a great Twilley comp years ago in my local music store. Its title is XXI, and it has all the hits, shoulda-been hits, etc.

    Ironically, the final song on XXI is “That Thing You Do”.

    Yep, DT deserved better. RIP.

    Reply this comment
  6. Dr. Bristol
    #6 Dr. Bristol 20 October, 2023, 22:32

    Most music aficionados have a house full of great music that didn’t top the charts, win Grammys or earn the writers and performers a Hall of Fame nod. That’s all just popularity BS and has nothing to do with quality.

    Dwight Twilley was a power pop MONSTER (as was Phil Seymour). Huge loss.

    Reply this comment
  7. music all day
    #7 music all day 25 October, 2023, 23:58

    Saw Dwight live at small venue in Vancouver BC back in college, promoting “Twilley” release in 1979. Standing next to stage, I turned momentarily, he jumped off stage at start of a song, microphone in right hand, his left arm on my right shoulder, and sang. Unforgettable moment.

    Dwight’s release “The Luck”, produced by Richard Podolor, is Power Pop to the Nth degree, guarenteed to make one’s sound system “rock”!

    No mention of his song “Why You Wanna Break My Heart” featured in movie “Wayne’s World”.

    While Dwight “gave it (all) up for rock ‘n’ roll” to quote song title, he was multi talented, as an artist, and as an author, with book “Questions From Dad”, which received award from President Clinton.

    Reply this comment

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