Part folk song, part spiritual, “Delta Dawn,” made famous in 1972 by country singer Tanya Tucker, was one of the most covered songs of the 1970’s, seeing itself on the Billboard charts multiple tunes by different artists in less than five years. A bittersweet ballad about a faded southern belle who has seen better times, the song became a true cross over hit, appearing both on Billboard’s pop and country charts during an era when cross over hits were far and in between. But, often gone untold, the story behind the song is one of the most tragic, and haunting, stories in the history of country music.
“Delta Dawn” was written by the songwriting team of Larry Collins and Alex Harvey, although the crux of the song was based on a personal tragedy that had held a hold on Harvey’s life for ten years before he wrote the song. “Delta Dawn” was written about his mother, a woman named Emily Jeanette, and was a tribute to her as a way to say that he was sorry, and that he knew she did the best she could.
Born and raised in Dyersburg, Tennessee, just outside of Brownsville, to put it in the simplest terms, Alex Haley’s mother was the town’s drunk. The daughter of a poor sharecropper from Mississippi, Emily Jeanette had married Alex’s father quite young, and when he took her away to Tennessee, she never quite grew up. Haley’s father was a traveling salesman who would often be gone weeks at a time driving his truck across the state trying to support his wife and young family. But the burden of being alone was hard on a young wife and mother, and she turned to the bottle for comfort. As time went by, the once beautiful young girl started to show the creases and scars of her substance abuse, and eventually her husband took off and left her to raise her children alone. Emily became a fixture in the local bars, still acting like the girl from her past, but searching, often in vain, for her next drink and another man.
Meanwhile, Alex Harvey was growing up with a guitar in his hand and playing around Brownsville in various bands. Although a solid performer, he began gaining a reputation as a songwriter and was starting to sell his songs. When he was in his late teens, he got the opportunity to appear on a local television station to perform, which delighted his mother. However, he made one request to Emily. He asked her not to come to the television station in fear that she would arrive drunk and embarrass him. The request, and the rejection of her son, broke Emily’s heart.
That night, when Harvey was performing, Emily began to drink, and got in a car and drove out in traffic, causing a car wreck. When Harvey came home later that night from the TV station, he found out that his mother was dead. Like the song said, she was only 41 – not yet an old woman at all. Harvey believed that his mother possibly caused the car crash on purpose to kill herself, but whether that was what happened or not, he blamed himself for her death.
As Harvey continued in music a number of his songs began to hit big, especially for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. The first major hit he wrote for them was “Rueben James,” about an African American sharecropper who raised the son of a deceased prostitute as his own. He also wrote “Tell It All, Brother,” in response to the Ohio State Massacre, which Rogers and the First Edition performed on the Ohio State campus steps weeks after the tragedy. Harvey wrote songs that had a heaviness in them, and you could often hear the pain he was carrying around though the lyrics.
In 1970 Harvey was staying with friend Larry Collins when, one night, he believed that his mother visited him in a vision. He saw her sitting in a rocking chair and laughing. Although she didn’t speak to him, Harvey got the message that she wanted him to know that she was okay, and that her death had nothing to do with him. She had made her choices during her life, and she always loved him. Harvey jotted down the lyrics “Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you’ve got on/Could it be a faded rose from days gone by.” After the ghostly premonition, Harvey woke Collins up and the two of them finished the song.
Harvey began to perform “Delta Dawn” as part of regular sets that he was playing at the legendary Los Angeles night club The Troubadour, and it first hit vinyl on his own 1971 album. It was later recorded the same year by his backup singer Dianne Davidson. However, neither of these recordings caught fire.
Where “Delta Dawn” started to weave its way into the musical landscape was when another of Harvey’s backup singers, Tracy Nelson, took her own act to New York City and performed the song in her set. Sitting in the audience one night was Bette Midler, who fell in love with it and wanted to know about it. Soon afterwards, Midler was using it in her own live set and decided it was going to go on her debut album.
But, before she put it on vinyl, Bette Midler performed “Delta Dawn” one night on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” where the broadcast was being watched by Nashville based producer Billy Sherrill. Sherrill was producing the debut album of his new find Tanya Tucker, who was only thirteen years old at the time, and he knew that this was the song that was going to launch her to fame. They cut the song and released it before Midler. Despite her young age, Tucker sang the song with a confidant maturity as if she understood the suffering of Delta Dawn, and the single hit big, “Delta Dawn” made it to the #6 spot on the Country Billboard charts, and even found its way on Billboard Top 100, where it landed at #72. “Delta Dawn” launched the career of Tucker, who became one of the top selling women in country music in the 70’s and 80’s, and one of Nashville’s reigning honky tonk queens. Meanwhile, Bette Midler released her debut album, “The Divine Miss M” the same year, releasing her own more dramatic rendition of “Delta Dawn.” Although it didn’t become a hit like Tanya Tucker’s did, the album gained a mssive cult following, launching Bette Midler to international stardom as well.
But Midler and Tucker weren’t the only artists looking at “Delta Dawn.” Producer Tom Canteleno saw something in the song and created an instrumental recording of it that he brought to Barbara Streisand. But Streisand was aware that the song was already having success with Tanka Tucker and Bette Midler, and not wanting to put her time into something someone was already doing, rejected it.
Well, the joke would be on Streisand. Still holding on to his track, Canteleno brough it to Helen Reddy, who recorded possibly the lushest vocal rendition of the song. Helen Reddy’s version of “Delta Dawn” pn her 1973 album “Long Hard Climb.” Although not considered the classic version, Reddy’s version became an even bigger hit than Tanya Tucker’s recording on the international market. Her version hit #! on Billboard’s top 100 in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK.
With three major artists having success with “Delta Dawn” by 1973, the song became an instant country standard and suddenly everyone wanted to record it. In the next number of years, it’d be recorded by Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Jody Miller, Kitty Wells, The Statler Brothers, Sonny James, Dottie West, Ray Conniff and Scott Walker, amongst others. “Delta Dawn” was a song that just kept living on, and each time it was sang the memory of Emily Jeanette lived on within it. A fitting tribute from the son who lost her.
Alex Harvey died in April 2020 at age 79. I’d like to think that the moment he took his final breath that his mother met him to join him to the mansion in the sky