I’ve said it many times, but if Keith Whitley hadn’t tragically passed away at the age of 34 in 1989, he would go down in history as one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, legend in country music.
In a career that spanned only 5 years after the release of his first album, and only releasing two albums and an EP before his death, Keith Whitley managed to become one of the greatest country singers of all time.
And his son, Jesse Keith Whitley, is a singer and songwriter himself, working to try and carry on his dad’s legacy.
Jesse Keith is, of course, the son of Whitley and another country music legend, Lorrie Morgan.
And in this 2011 video, he pays tribute to both his mother and his father when he brings his mom on stage for a performance of his dad’s “Tell Lorrie I Love Her.”
The song was originally recorded only as a “work tape” for a friend to sing at Whitley’s wedding to Morgan. But after Whitley’s untimely death, the sparse recording, featuring Whitley’s vocals accompanied only by a guitar, was released for the first time on a 1990 Greatest Hits album, and instantly became a fan favorite.
Lorrie told Whiskey Riff the story of how the song ultimately was released on Keith’s posthumous album:
“I didn’t know we had the tape. Keith did the worktape on it at home, sitting on the counter in his underwear with his guitar, singing this song. And Morgan is a little girl in the background with the TV up real loud, so you could hear actually the TV noise in the song.
But when Keith and I got married, he gave the song, a little cassette to Curtis Young, who was one of the greatest harmony singers in Nashville. And he asked Curtis if he could sing it at our wedding. So Curtis took the tape and learned the song from that.
And the day of Keith’s funeral, before I got into the limo to go to the cemetery, Curtis Young walked up to me and handed me the cassette tape and said ‘I think you need this back.’”
And while they were on the way to the cemetery, Lorrie and her family, along with the head of RCA Records, Joe Galante, popped that tape in the cassette player:
“Oddly enough, I was in the limo with Joe Galante and my manager, and Morgan was in there with me, and all of a sudden we just put it in on the way. And Joe Galante said, ‘Why did Keith never play this for us?’”
The record executive knew right there in the limo on the way to Keith Whitley’s burial that he wanted to release the song, and asked Lorrie for the tape so he could have Keith’s longtime producer, Garth Fundis, mix the song for release:
“I said yes, but it’s my only copy. So he sent me the finished version of it, and they put it on his final album.”
In this video from 2011, Jesse Keith says that he’s performing the song for his mom, but dedicating it from his late father to his mother.
It was clearly an emotional moment for both mother and son, as you can see Morgan tearing up as she watches her son perform her late husband’s song – a song that Lorrie admitted she listened to on repeat on the way to his funeral.
Read Keith Whitley’s Final Love Letter To Lorrie Morgan, Watch Her Perform “Don’t Close Your Eyes” Shortly After His Death
The two were married in 1986, until Keith’s tragic passing in 1989 from alcohol poisoning at the young age of 33.
Though Lorrie was initially warned about Keith’s alcohol problems by his manager, Don Light, she hoped against her better judgement that her love for him would be enough to help him overcome his struggles:
“I thought as much as I loved Keith, surely that would help him. I feel in my own heart I kept Keith alive a lot longer because I was there all the time. I put everything on the back burner, including my career, to help Keith.
I never, never expected anything as bad as Keith had it. I thought it would just take love and someone to help him to get through with it.
He wanted it that way. But something inside of him wouldn’t let him. It literally was like he had cancer and could not control.”
She always knew in the back of her mind that he was “a ticking time bomb”, and she lived in constant fear that something bad would happen to him:
“Every time the phone would ring it was in the back of my mind that there was somebody calling to tell me he’s been in a wreck or died of alcohol.
It was a living hell. I was on pins and needles when he was on the road. We had six great months of nothing but pure ecstasy. It was a heavenly marriage and home.”
On May 9th, 1989, the day he passed away, he had taken Lorrie to the airport to see her off on a promotional trip to Alaska. He gave her a hand-written letter before he left her there, which was not all that uncommon or out of character for him.
What he wrote to her, though, was almost like a farewell note. When she read it again on the way home, in retrospect, she felt like he was trying to tell her something.
And it’s the most beautifully heartbreaking thing you might ever read:
“Would you like to know what I wish for you? If I could have any wish I wanted, this is my wish:
That in your life which is so precious to me, may worries, troubles and problems never linger. May they only make you that much stronger and able and wise.
May you rise each day with sunlight in your heart, success in your path, answers to your prayers, and that smile that I always love to see in your eyes. I love you, Keith.”
Okay, I’m gonna go cry for the rest of the day now…
And if you really wanna get in your feelings, check her out singing his stunning hit “Don’t Close Your Eyes” not too long after he passed away.
Written by Bob McDill, Keith released it as the third single from his album of the same name in 1988, and it peaked at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.
You can just hear the pain in her voice and she does such a beautiful job with this sweet tribute to her late husband, whom she lovingly calls “the best country singer that ever walked the face of this earth”: