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Dwight Twilley, Tulsa power pop musician, dies at 72

Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley

Dwight Twilley, a Tulsa musician who scored top 20 hits in the 1970s and 80s with songs like "I'm on Fire" and "Girls," died on Wednesday. He was 72.

The Tulsa World reports Twilley was driving alone on Oct. 14 when he suffered a stroke and crashed his car into a tree. He died at Ascension St. John Medical Center in Tulsa four days later.

Twilley was involved in the emergence of power pop, a subgenre of pop rock marked by catchy hooks, harmonies and rock guitar licks. Building upon the sounds of The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks, power pop took off in the 1970s with success by acts like Big Star, Cheap Trick and Todd Rundgren.

As teenagers in 1967, Twilley and longtime collaborator Phil Seymour met at a Tulsa movie theater, where they both went to see The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. They’d originally record as Oister and press a small batch of acetate LPs to sell to friends in high school.

By the mid-1970s, the duo had shopped their demos to Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee and finally in Los Angeles. There, they were signed to Shelter Records, the label co-owned by Denny Cordell and fellow Tulsan Leon Russell. Shortly, they changed their name to the Dwight Twilley Band and began recording at The Church Studio in Tulsa.

Their debut single “I’m On Fire” became a top 20 Billboard hit in 1975, despite little promotion due to largely dysfunctional operations at Shelter Records.

By the time the band had their debut album recorded and ready for release, a lawsuit between Cordell and Russell ended Shelter Records, and the label’s distribution deal went with it. The album Sincerely lingered for 10 months before being released, a massive blow to the band’s momentum.

Along the way, Twilley and Seymour befriended Tom Petty, whose band Mudcrutch was also signed to Shelter Records. Petty joined them for an appearance on American Bandstand, and Twilley and Seymour later sang backing vocals on Petty’s “Breakdown” and “American Girl.”

Seymour left the band in 1978, a year after the release of a disappointing second album, Twilley Don’t Mind, leaving Twilley to continue as a solo act. Twilley continued recording, but had several releases shelved while still held to his Shelter contract, which now belonged to Arista Records.

Twilley had a commercial comeback in 1984, with a second top 20 hit in “Girls” and another appearance on American Bandstand. “Girls” also featured Petty on vocals.

Twilley continued to record solo records, release compilations, and place songs on film and television shows. His song "Why You Wanna Break My Heart" is probably most well known for being covered by Tia Carrere in the 1992 film Wayne’s World. More recently, “I’m On Fire” was featured in an episode of FX on Hulu’s Reservation Dogs.

Earlier this month, Twilley announced on social media that he had been unanimously elected to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.

After his death was announced, one of the original MTV VJs, Martha Quinn, said on X (formerly Twitter), "Dwight Twilley was part of the first wave of artists who put MTV on the map."

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Ryan LaCroix is the Director of Content and Audience Development for KOSU.
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