Although it already existed in the live repertoires of Bette Midler, Tracy Nelson and co-writer Alex Harvey, "Delta Dawn" and its title character's faded rose entered the great American songbook when covered in 1972 by an upstart teenager named Tanya Tucker.
Harvey, a Delta blues-rocker, co-wrote "Delta Dawn" with Larry Collins, one-half of the famed Collins Kids rockabilly duo with his sister Lorrie. Producer Billy Sherrill picked the song for Tucker's Columbia Records debut album after he saw Midler perform it on The Tonight Show.
Just like listeners later marveled at LeAnn Rimes effectively singing "Blue" despite supposedly being too young to feel its lyrics, there was a surprise factor to a 13-year-old Texas native tackling a mature song. In it, she becomes the voice of a 41-year-old Southern belle from Brownsville , Tennessee who's longing for a "mysterious dark-haired man" of low degree. Aside from that wisdom beyond its years appeal, it carried on a long country music tradition of fans flocking to talented child stars, from the youngest members of the earliest family singing groups to viral sensation Mason Ramsey.
An Adult Contemporary and Country Standard
Adult contemporary star and "I am Woman" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" singer Helen Reddy's version from 1973 took Tucker's No. 6 country hit to the top spot on the Billboard easy listening charts. Since it came out close to Reddy's Capitol Records single, Midler's Atlantic Records support team withheld her version from radio play. Instead, its b-side "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" became a hit.
At a time when country stars covered each other more frequently, Tucker's version inspired recordings by some of her biggest fans, including Waylon Jennings, Tammy Wynette, the Statler Brothers and Loretta Lynn.
Over time, producers improved at making the most of Tucker's throaty vocal style. Slight improvements can be heard on her first No. 1 single, 1973's "What's Your Mama's Name," and future hits. Still, her Top 10 debut on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart jump-started an ongoing career towards its eventual peak.
This story was first published in 2018.