Joe Dowell only had two hits in his career and just one number one, “Wooden Heart.” “Wooden Heart” was first heard in the movie, G.I. Blues which starred the king, Elvis Presley. It’s probably good for Joe Dowell that Elvis never released the single in the United States or Elvis probably would have dominated with this song. Elvis did release it in England and it spent six weeks at number one. Actually, to be totally correct, Elvis did release the song as the B-side of “Blue Christmas” later in 1961, but no one paid any attention to it, since “Blue Christmas” was Elvis’ seasonal song that year.
Joe Dowell was born in 1940 in Bloomington, Indiana, but when he was one year old, his father got a better job offer in Bloomington, Illinois and the family moved there. Joe bought his first guitar when he was 13 and soon wrote his first song, which was called “Tell Me.” After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Illinois, majoring in radio and television. In his spare time, he would play and sing for events at the college. During a break in school, he traveled to Nashville to see if he could find a recording contract.
Striking out everywhere he tried, he was about to give up and go home. On his last day, he knocked on the door of Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, known as The Wilburn Brothers in country music. They liked him, thought he had an “all-American” look and introduced him to producer Shelby Singleton of Smash Records. Joe had to return to school, but in the summer of 1961, he returned to Nashville for a recording session.
The day before the session, Singleton had seen the movie, G.I. Blues and thought the song he heard Elvis sing, “Wooden Heart,” would be a good song for Joe to record. Joe did record it, but it wasn’t easy. If you listen to the song there are some German lyrics, “Muss I Denn, muss I denn” and lots of other lyrics that are in German. Joe did not speak German had no idea what any of it meant. He didn’t have to, he sang the words phonetically and they had a record.
“Wooden Heart” entered the pop chart at number 98 on June 20, 1961. It took nine weeks to get to number one, knocking “Tossin’ and Turnin’” out of the top spot after seven weeks. It spent just one week at number one, but Joe Dowell’s place in history is assured. Joe only had one more Top 40 song, “Little Red Rented Rowboat,” (#23) and on February 4, 2016, he died of a heart attack. He was 74.