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He was born in Bloomington, Indiana, but moved to Bloomington, Illinois, as a child. He first performed at a ninth-grade talent show, and later attended the University of Illinois. At his first recording session (backed by organist Ray Stevens), he sang the tune "Wooden Heart", which had been a hit for Elvis Presley in Europe, but which was never released as a single stateside. "Wooden Heart", the first single released on Smash Records, shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1961. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. In the wake of his success, Dowell wanted to become a songwriter in his own right, but due to contractual obligations, he was required to sing music owned by Smash's parent company, Mercury Records. He had two further hits, "The Bridge of Love" (US #50) and "Little Red Rented Rowboat" (US #23), but after struggles with his management he was dropped from the label.
Dowell went on to record one single for Monument Records and a folk album in the 1960s, and a number of singles and a gospel album for his own Journey label in the 1970s and 1980s. He also recorded a bicentennial EP for the Boy Scouts of America and radio jingles.
Bear Family Records released a CD on Joe Dowell's music, including unreleased recordings.
|1961||"Wooden Heart"/"Little Bo Peep"||1||1||Smash 1708|
|1961||"The Bridge Of Love"/"Just Love Me"||50||10||Smash 1717|
|1962||"Little Red Rented Rowboat"/"The One I Left For You"||23||--||Smash 1759|
|1962||"Poor Little Cupid"/"No Secrets"||--||--||Smash 1786|