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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 work in radio advertising, and became a spokesman for banks.
Bear Family Records released a CD on Joe Dowell's music, including unreleased recordings.