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.
By Tony Rounce