Tall Tales of Con Hunley

Extra anecdotes from a colorful career

• Around 1978, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra conductor Zoltán Rozsnyai—a bona fide star in his own firmament who wouldn't linger in Knoxville long— took some time off from Haydn and Handel to collaborate with Hunley in a pops concert at the request of WIVK owner and symphony benefactor Jim Dick. In addition to the full orchestra, the Hungarian-born maestro recruited an 80-voice choir. Hunley was scared to death.

"He'd say, ‘Vat ve vant to do here…' and I'd say, ‘Now, wait a minute.' I don't read music and know nothing about it. With me, it's all feel. It was at the [Knoxville Civic] Coliseum, and we had a full house. I was so nervous. All the musical elites were down in the front rows and my crew was up in the second balcony. I sat down at the piano and was saying, ‘Oh, be still hands,' because they were shaking so bad it was difficult to play. I was into my second song when there was a lull in the music and Max Witt—apparently he'd stopped by the Corner Lounge before the concert—bellowed ‘Play it, fat boy!' People started laughing and I was okay after that."

• Con Hunley had known boxing impresario Ace Miller for many years, and when he got his record deal, they started the Con Hunley Golden Gloves Golf Tournament, which lasted for 21 years and raised more than $1 million for inner-city kids to participate in Golden Gloves activities.

In 1979, Hunley was invited to sing the national anthem when Miller's star prizefighter, John Tate, was booked for a heavyweight championship bout against Gerry Coetzee in Pretoria, South Africa. He remembers being excited and apprehensive.

"It was kind of a scary situation," he says. [Warner Bros. executive] Andrew Wickham was a huge fight fan and went with us, and we did a lot of interviews while we were there. I was shocked to see the conditions under which the people in Soweto had to live. This was the first integrated sporting event in South Africa, and there were close to 90,000 people there. There was also was a lot of security.

"The crew that went to help train John was called the Hillbillies, and everybody came to love them. They were just good old boys—nutritionists, workout people, roadwork people, cut men and all that stuff. They had a great sound system. It was so thrilling to sing the anthem and actually hear it. I remember this English soldier came up to me and said, ‘The way you sing the United States' anthem almost makes me want be American.' There was quite a party afterwards."

• John Conlee beat Con Hunley out for the Academy of Country Music Newcomer of the Year award in 1978 on the strength of his monster hit, "Rose-Colored Glasses." Another gifted newbie, Earl Thomas Conley, emerged during that time. Fans had difficulty distinguishing between them, and took to calling them "The Three Cons." Confusion ensued.

"There were a lot of people, when I would go out and perform, they'd want to hear ‘Rose-Colored Glasses.' At first I'd say, ‘What? Are you being snide?' One night at the Memorial Auditorium in Cincinnati, somebody hollered, ‘When you gonna play your big hit, ‘Rose-Colored Glasses?' We'd worked the song up, and we did it. I imitated John Conlee singing it—thunderous applause. We didn't make a big deal out of it, and went right on back to another Con song. ... I've had a lot of fun with John and Earl Thomas about the confusion. One night the three of us were at the Ryman for a Fan Fair event, all up there together, joking about each other's songs, and each of us ended up doing one of the other's songs. It was very well received."