Jack Nance (1935–2000)
Arkansas native Jack Nance was a musician, songwriter, and entertainment manager who worked with many of the top acts in the music business. Nance first gained notice in Sonny Burgess’s backing band the Pacers. He later went on to play with Conway Twitty—and in fact wrote one of Twitty’s biggest hits. In his later years, while based in Nashville, Tennessee, Nance worked in tour management and as a music promoter for acts such as Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, and the Monkees.
Richard Jackson (Jack) Nance was born on April 22, 1935, in Newport (Jackson County), the youngest of three children born to the farming family of Arkansas natives Roscoe A. Nance and Mary E. Bigham Nance. As was true of other musicians from northeastern Arkansas such as Sonny Burgess and Johnny Cash, Nancy chose the music business over working in the fields.
Nance—a multi-instrumentalist who could play drums, piano, trumpet, and bass—excelled as a musician at Newport High School and was a member of the All-State Band. He earned a music scholarship to what is now Arkansas Tech University and later studied at Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), though he did not graduate.
Nance was working as the band director at Newport High School when Sonny Burgess asked him to join the Moonlighters, who eventually became the Pacers. Since the Pacers already had a drummer when Burgess contacted him, Nance played trumpet. Burgess praised Nance’s skills as a showman, remembering that “all the other bands had saxophones. Nobody else had a trumpet.” Nance played with the Pacers in 1956 and 1957.
Nance’s trumpet work, influenced by jazz great Bix Beiderbecke, gave color to such signature Burgess compositions as “Red Headed Woman” and “We Wanna Boogie.” In 1957, Nance left the Pacers. While on tour with Conway Twitty in Ontario, Canada, Nance wrote a song on piano that became the hit tune “It’s Only Make Believe.” Nance later said the song—composed during an intermission at the Flamingo Lounge in Toronto—took less than ten minutes to write. In 1958, Twitty recorded “It’s Only Make Believe” in Nashville with a band that included Nance, former Pacer and guitarist Joe Lewis, pianist Floyd Cramer, the Jordanaires on backing vocals, and guitarist Hank Garland.
“It’s Only Make Believe” was not an instant success. Not long after he helped record it, a frustrated Nance was ready to quit the music business. He had returned to Arkansas for a couple weeks when he got a call from Twitty, who said a DJ in Columbus, Ohio, had played the song, causing it to catch on with the public. “It’s Only Make Believe” became a smash hit, reaching number one on the pop charts and selling more than a million copies. The song would later be covered by Glen Campbell and Ronnie McDowell. It was the only number-one pop song Twitty had, though he had enormous success on the country charts.
“It’s Only Make Believe” created new opportunities for Nance and Twitty. With Nance on drums, Twitty and his band played around the country, appearing on national TV programs such as The Andy Williams Show. The band also played on international tours. Nance, however, due to signing a bad contract, never made a significant amount of money on “It’s Only Make Believe.” Nance also had problems with Twitty’s manager Don Seat, which resulted in Nance’s departure from Twitty’s band in 1960.
After a brief stint with Roy Orbison, Nance returned to Arkansas, where he played piano with the band the Shadows (not to be confused with the British instrumental band of the same name). In the mid-1960s, Nance found long-term employment at Dick Clark Productions, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He worked as a tour manager and promoter for Concerts West and Motown, and as an associate producer for the NBC television program Swingin’ Country. Nance crossed paths with some of the best-known musicians of his time, including Sonny and Cher, Elvis, and the Temptations. Nance managed Michael Jackson’s Victory tour, for which Jackson’s sets, costumes, equipment, and entourage required two large airplanes—quite a contrast to the days when he drove with Conway Twitty in a station wagon.
Nance had a son, Richard, and a daughter, Melanie, with his first wife, Beth Shirlene Nance. He later married Vickie Lowry.
Nance died from lung cancer on April 7, 2000, in Nashville and is buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery in Newport. His tombstone is in the shape of a piano and notes that “It’s Only Make Believe” was a number-one hit.
For additional information:
“A Lifetime of Music: Performing, Promoting.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 9, 2000, p. 6B.
“Newport Native Jack Nance Succumbs to Cancer at Age 64.” Newport Daily Independent. April 10, 200, p. 1.
Schwartz, Marvin. We Wanna Boogie: The Rockabilly Roots of Sonny Burgess and the Pacers. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2014.
Colin Edward Woodward
Last Updated: 09/17/2018