Why Country Music Legend and Army Vet Conway Twitty Recorded One of His Greatest Hits in Russian

Country singer Conway Twitty in 1974. (MCA Records)

If it weren't for the U.S. Army, Harold Lloyd Jenkins might have become one of Major League Baseball's greatest players instead of country music legend Conway Twitty. After graduating from high school, the Philadelphia Phillies offered Jenkins a contract, but the Army drafted the young man before he could sign it.

Jenkins was sent to Japan, where the former disc jockey started a band with some fellow soldiers. Originally called the Fuji Mountain Boys, they eventually changed their name to the Cimarrons to entertain the troops. He served between 1954 and 1956, and when he left the Army, he changed his name to Conway Twitty to enter the music business.

His service to the country didn't end there, however. By 1975, Twitty was one of the biggest names in country music and would lend his talents to help ease Cold War tensions by singing one of his most famous songs in Russian.

"Hello Darlin'" was (and still is) a banger. When Twitty released the song in 1970, it was an immediate hit, spending the next four weeks on top of the Billboard Hot Country singles chart and topping out at No. 60 on the U.S. Hot 100. It was also named one of the top country songs of the year. To this day, if you want street cred among country music fans, listing "Hello Darlin'" as a favorite will get it.

The early 1970s were also a hot time for Cold War tensions. The United States had expanded its war in Vietnam by pushing into Cambodia. The Soviet Union was covertly sending aid to North Vietnam for much of the war. In an effort to avoid escalating the Cold War, President Richard Nixon began a policy known as détente.

Détente essentially meant the U.S. would try to ease relations with the USSR to prevent a catastrophic incident that could lead to World War III. This relaxation of tensions led to the installation of the "hotline" between the White House and Kremlin, nuclear disarmament agreements and an international space mission between the two countries, the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Project.

Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford (in foreground) and cosmonaut Aleksei A. Leonov make their historic handshake in space on July 17, 1975 during the joint US-USSR Apollo Soyuz Test Project. (NASA)

We might forget this historic mission today, despite the millions of people who watched it on television. It was the last time an Apollo capsule would make the trip into space and the last American spaceflight until the Space Shuttle program launched in 1981. A Soviet Soyuz mission and the American Apollo mission took off within hours of each other with the primary mission of docking together in space.

For 44 hours, three American astronauts and two Soviet cosmonauts met miles above the Earth, conducting experiments, eating together and listening to music. The Soviets played "Nezhnost" ("Tenderness") by Maya Kristalinskaya and the Americans played War's "Why Can't We Be Friends?"

Country music, being uniquely American, also made its way to the Apollo-Soyuz mission. The Russians were treated to a special song: a recording by Twitty, one of country music's biggest names, singing one of his biggest songs: "Hello Darlin'"-- in Russian.

In keeping with the spirit of goodwill between ideological enemies, Twitty recorded his song, called "Privet Radost" in Russian, with the help of a language professor from the University of Oklahoma. Twitty didn't learn the entire language to sing the one song; instead, he sang the lyrics phonetically. The recording was played aboard the docked modules.

The mission itself was a success and led to both a scientific and foreign relations breakthrough for the countries, culminating in the 1993-1998 joint Shuttle-Mir Program. It's not known if "Privet Radost" caught on in the Soviet Union the way "Hello Darlin'" did in the U.S.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, or on LinkedIn.

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