Jimmy Donley’s life was one long argument with the world, a continual string of fights, dangerous marriages (he married four times and beat and abused all four of his spouses), and pure, self-generated trouble that never abated until his suicide in 1963 at the age of 34. One could almost say good riddance, except Donley had an impressive talent for singing and writing songs, and his legacy of swampy rockabilly party tunes and heartbreaking, lonely love ballads is all the more amazing for being generated from the gates of his own personal hell. This set from Bear Family Records collects the heart of Donley’s work with Decca Records between 1957 and 1961, the period when Donley came nearest to achieving his dream of being a star. He never came close to being a household name, though, but it isn’t because his recordings weren’t good. These tracks were produced in Nashville by the legendary Owen Bradley and featured the best session musicians around, including saxophonist Boots Randolph and guitarist Hank Garland, and were sweetened by orchestrations and the seemingly ever-present Anita Kerr Singers (who add joyous depth to some songs but also add little or nothing but listener irritation to others). But everything hinged on Donley’s singing and swagger anyway, and he did both well, although his Cajun-like diction made some songs lyrically indecipherable. Donley simply had that elusive thing when he sang, a feeling that all the loneliness in the world was in his heart -- the words were almost secondary. Songs like his signature “The Shape You Left Me,” the gorgeous ballad “What Must I Do,” and the ultimately very autobiographical “Born to Be a Loser” are revelatory for their depth of passion, confusion, and sadness, and even a hillbilly Saturday night stomper like “Kickin’ My Hound Around” seems to hint at deeper truths, whether or not Donley ever actually found anything but anger in his heart. Donley went on to record for Johnny Vincent’s Ace Records and Huey Meaux’s Tear Drop Records after Decca finally gave up on him in 1961, but his catalog with the label -- although there aren’t a lot of recordings -- is a strong one. Fighting the world and everyone in it is one thing -- these wonderful tracks suggest it could have been different.
The Shape You Left Me In Review
by Steve Leggett