CONWAY TWITTY CLOSED HIS MATINEE show at the Jim Stafford Theater in Branson, Mo., on June 4 with the Presleyish 1958 ballad that made him famous: "It's Only Make Believe." Reality swiftly intruded. Just over an hour later, Twitty became ill on his tour bus while en route to Nashville, 360 miles away.

The bus had pulled into a truck slop near Springfield, Mo., when Twitty's third wife, Dee Henry, found the 59-year-old singer doubled over in the bathroom, sweating profusely and complaining of abdominal pains. At nearby Cox Medical Center South, surgeons discovered a ruptured blood vessel in his abdomen and repaired it. But the singer died 12½ hours later after suffering a heart attack.

"I've lost not only a great singing partner but a great friend," said Twitty's longtime duet mate, Loretta Lynn, who was at the hospital when Twitty was brought in. (Lynn's husband, Mooney, is recovering from heart surgery there.)

Born Harold Lloyd Jenkins in Friars Point, Miss, (he took his stage name from the towns of Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Tex.), Twitty began his career as a rock-and-roll singer before crossing over to country in the mid-1960s. The singer purred his way through such ballads as "Linda On My Mind" and "Slow Hand," eventually racking up 41 No. 1 country and pop hits and snagging a 1971 Grammy for "After the Fire Is Gone," a duet with Lynn. In recent years, Twitty was a hot ticket at Branson theaters, and his Twitty City, the music-and-museum complex where he lived with his family in Hendersonville, Tenn., was a popular tourist spot. Says singer Vince Gill: "He was strictly about music, not about the bells and whistles that go with it."

For Twitty—who is survived by four grown children from his first two marriages and by his mother, Velma Jenkins—friendship was also a priority. "Conway was the type of person everybody felt they were closest friends with," says Reba McEntire. "He always had time for you and was never uppity. You knew when you saw Conway, it was Conway."