AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Whether or not you’re headed up from San Antone with everything, or just what you’ve got on – if you lost your saddle in Houston and broke your leg in Santa Fe, you might have Amarillo on your mind.
At least, that was the wager of Terry LaVerne Stafford when he recorded “Amarillo by Morning” in 1973, after writing the composition alongside Paul Fraser. Although he is most often remembered for his 1964 hit “Suspicion” battling the Beatles for top-5 Billboard rankings and a voice that resembled Elvis Presley, stories of Stafford’s life and music career reliably circle back to the High Plains.
As noted in Joe Specht’s biography of Stafford, he was born in November 1941 in Hollis, Oklahoma, and moved to Amarillo with his family at seven years old. Growing up amid the vibrant musical heritage of the High Plains, Stafford went on to join multiple music groups including the Rhythm Teens and a country band led by Eugene Nelson. Further, after graduating from Palo Duro High School, Stafford moved between California and Texas as he worked to pursue a broader music career.
As he told Goldmine magazine in a later interview, when Stafford was given the opportunity to record a demo tap in 1962, he chose the lesser-known song “Suspicion” from an Elvis Presley album. After years of passing around the tape, his recording of the song was released in 1964 – Stafford’s version of “Suspicion” was designated “Pick of the Week” on radio station KFWB, and both the single and the album made waves from there. In April 1964, the song broke the Beatles’ stranglehold on the Billboard’s Top 100 list by moving up to the Number 3 spot, wedging between two Beatles songs.
While the success of “Suspicion” is often considered the high point of his music career by biographers and archival databases, Stafford would go on to write and record “Amarillo by Morning” – which, although it found its spotlight when it was covered by George Strait, was named the “#12 country song of all-time” by Country Music Television.
“Amarillo by Morning” centers around a professional saddle bronc rider and his late-night drive to a county fair in Amarillo. He’s had his saddle taken in Houston, broke his leg in Santa Fe, and fell out with both his wife and a girlfriend amid his travels across the Lone Star State; all the same, the song’s narrator remains focused on his eight-second goal during the Amarillo rodeo and muses on the freedom he’s found in his tumultuous career. The song is melancholy and contemplative.
Multiple stories have been presented, according to Specht’s biography, regarding the song’s creation. One story contends that Stafford had the idea for the song while driving back to Amarillo after performing at a rodeo dance in San Antonio, as put forward by authors for publications like the Austin Chronicle. However, Fraser recalled the song’s inspiration differently.
“One night Terry called me at home,” Fraser said during an interview for “The Stories Behind Country Music’s All-Time Greatest 100 Songs” in 1988, “He had been watching television and a commercial for a delivery service had just run. It got him to thinking. This commercial guaranteed they could get your package to places like Amarillo by the next morning [and] he wanted to write a song around that concept.”
In the wake of George Strait’s success, Fraser remarked, “It is kind of funny, the song that had so much to do with bringing the Texas sound back was written by a couple of old rockers and inspired by a commercial.”
No matter the origin of the song, “Amarillo by Morning” was selected as the B-side for “Say, Has Anybody Seen My Sweet Gypsy Rose” in 1973. Although neither the song nor the album was initially considered a hit, “Amarillo by Morning” was noted by a Cash Box article as having received the benefit of a “heavy radio response.”
That heavy radio response, in no small part, was credited to Amarillo. According to Cash Box’s report, the program director at Amarillo’s KDJW (1360 AM) had flipped the platter over to begin promoting the B-side song. Further, local residents loved the song to the point that there was a “movement” to declare it the anthem of the city.
“Well, I can tell you the ‘A’ side of that record never saw the light of day with me and my radio station,” said Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame member Dugg Collins, who was on staff at KDJW at the time and later became a close friend of Stafford.
Despite the local love, “Amarillo by Morning” would wait until George Strait’s 1982 cover to receive widespread public recognition, after its full release in 1983. In a parallel to Stafford’s own career being heavily boosted by a cover, Strait’s version of the song went on to become one of his signature numbers. It was also covered by a long list of other notable artists including Kelly Schoppa – which Specht noted was an inspiration for the Strait cover – and John Arthur Martinez.
“Amarillo by Morning” also went on to resonate with other media, as well, as Specht noted. Filmmaker Spike Jonze titled his 1998 documentary short focused on rodeo newcomers “Amarillo by Morning”, and multiple novelists have adopted the title for their works.
Although Stafford’s efforts in his career continued into the 1990s despite leaving popular consciousness in 1974, sending him across the country and the music industry in a whirlwind of earnest creativity and often circumstantially bad luck regarding song credit, royalties, and record contracts, Stafford noted: “Amarillo always looks beautiful to me, whether it’s windy or not.”
“Getting back home, even for just a short visit, was always on his mind,” Collins argued later on that if Stafford had the music opportunities available to him in Amarillo that existed in California, he would have never left, “He loved Amarillo, Texas.”
Stafford returned to Amarillo for the last time in 1995, according to Specht. He had been battling liver and kidney ailments for years, and his condition worsened for months until he was finally hospitalized.
Collins, in an email to Specht, later recalled his goodbye to Stafford while he was on a respirator in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
“I said… ‘Terry, I know you can’t speak with that thing in your throat, but just wiggle your fingers to let Ol’ Dugg know that you know I came to see you.,” said Collins, who noted that Stafford wiggled his fingers.
A few days after that exchange, Terry Stafford died at the age of 54 in March 1996. He was buried in the Llano Cemetery in Amarillo.
Alongside being named the #12 country song of all time by Country Music Television, “Amarillo by Morning” was chosen by the Western Writers of America as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time. Further, a survey by Development Counsellors International named “Amarillo by Morning” the 7th-best song about a place. The Austin Chronicle also ranked the song #8 in its Top Texas 40 list.
Altogether, after a career full of successes and disappointments, and a life spent fondly considering home – Stafford was right, in the end. Amarillo is where he’ll be.