This was written by the country performers Alexander Harvey (not to be confused with the Scottish musician of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band) and Larry Collins in 1972. Tracy Nelson (who sang backup on the original) and Bette Midler put the song in their live repertoire before it became a country hit for Tanya Tucker.
Barbra Streisand passed on the song after the backing track had been recorded by her producer without her prior knowledge.
Bette Midler's "Delta Dawn" single was scheduled for release, but Capitol Records beat Midler (and Atlantic Records) by releasing Reddy's single two days before Midler's release date. This prompted the bigwigs of Atlantic to flip the record and push the former B-side, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)" instead. At the last minute, "Delta Dawn" was dropped from the 45 and replaced by "Superstar
," which became a hit for the Carpenters.
Brad Wind - Miami, FL, for all above
This song is about a faded Southern belle whose reputation was tarnished when she hooked up with a man of ill-repute. Now 41-years-old, she wanders the streets of Brownsville, Tennessee, in search of her lost lover.
In the book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music, Harvey says the tune is really about his mother, a heavy drinker who died in an apparent suicide by crashing into a tree when the songwriter was a teen. Harvey had just returned from a TV gig with his band; he had asked his mother not to go, worried she would embarrass him by drinking too much and making a spectacle. The guilt over his mother's death stuck with him for years. A decade later, he was hanging out at Larry Collins' house with a group of country musicians. Everyone fell asleep except for Harvey, who stayed up strumming his guitar. That's when he saw his mother.
"I looked up and I felt as if my mother was in the room. I saw her very clearly. She was in a rocking chair and she was laughing," he recalled. "My mother had come from the Mississippi Delta and she always lived her life as if she had a suitcase in her hand but nowhere to put it down. She was a hairdresser in Brownsville. She was very free-spirited, and folks in a small town don't always understand people like that. She never really grew up."
After coming up with the line, "She's 41 and her daddy still calls her 'baby.' All the folks 'round Brownsville say she's crazy," he woke up Collins and the pair finished the song within 20 minutes.
Writing the song was a cathartic experience for Harvey, who was finally able to let go of the guilt he carried since his mother died. "I really believe that my mother didn't come into the room that night to scare me, but to tell me, 'It's okay,' and that she had made her choices in life and it had nothing to do with me. I always felt like that song was a gift to my mother and an apology to her. It was also a way to say 'thank you' to my mother for all she did."
Tanya Tucker, who was only 13 years old when she recorded her throaty rendition, proved she could handle mature subject matter at a young age. Her producer, Billy Sherrill, heard Bette Midler sing it on The Tonight Show and thought it would be ideal for Epic's latest acquisition. In a 2016 interview, Tucker recalled when Sherrill brought her the song. "He played me the demo of Alex Harvey, who wrote the song, playing guitar and singing 'Delta Dawn.' He started singing, 'she's 41'..., he didn't start out with the chorus. I said, 'That's my song, that's it.' So Billy said, 'Let's get a key' So we went to the piano. Billy said, 'Let's start with the chorus.' 'Ok, I know what the chorus was.' Then he said, 'In fact, lets do it a cappella.' I said, 'A cappella, what's a cappella?'" she laughed. "Well the session was supposed to start at 10 o'clock but I didn't wake up till around noon. He finally got me up. We had The Nashville Edition and the Jordanaires sing backup. We did it 'live,' with the musicians and everything."
This earned Tucker her first Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. She lost to Donna Fargo for "The Happiest Girl In The Whole USA," the song Sherrill originally wanted her to record before "Delta Dawn" caught his attention.
"Delta Dawn" was the second of three US #1 hits for the Australian Helen Reddy, following "I Am Woman
" and preceding "Angie Baby
Courteney Cox sang this on Friends in the 2003 episode "The One Where Monica Sings."