It didn’t happen often, but singer/songwriter Joe Dowell managed to pull off a surprising feat in 1961. Relatively unknown at the time, he cut a record of a sweet little song from one of Elvis Presley’s most popular movies. The song — “Wooden Heart” — was on the soundtrack album of G.I. Blues, and RCA had issued a single for the European market (where it would rise to #1), but they’d neglected to do so for U.S. fans. Dowell stepped in and his cover of the song shot to the top of the charts.
Joe Dowell’s story began as a sort of Tale of Two Cities. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, but raised in Bloomington, Illinois, he was musically inclined while growing up and often competed in local talent shows. He continued to appear wherever he could while he was in college, but by his last year he was anxious to get started on a full-time career. He finally drove to Nashville while on Spring break, and beat the pavement until he found someone willing to give him a chance to make a record.
Mercury Records was starting a new division, and decided to feature the clean-cut and personable young singer as its very first recording artist. Dowell recorded several songs, but the first to be issued would turn out to be his biggest. His recording of “Wooden Heart” featured future-star Ray Stevens backing him up on organ, doing his best to emulate the original, and the end result hit the target with the record-buying public.
But even though Dowell kept performing and making records, things didn’t go as well after that. His recording contract restricted his choices and over the next couple of years he found himself being required to use a lot of songs that were not to his liking. He did occasionally hit the charts again with songs like “Little Red Rented Rowboat” but he eventually parted ways with the record company, and moved on to a new stage in his career. This included some time spent in both folk music and gospel, before eventually launching his own radio production company. Now in his seventies, he is still active.