Carl Mann, who took a rockabilly version of Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa" into the Top 40, died yesterday at the age of 78.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Mann passed away at the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital in Jackson, Tenn. The cause of death was not published.

Born Aug. 22, 1942 in Huntingdon, Tenn., Mann grew up singing country and gospel, and performing in talent shows as a boy. But the rise of Elvis Presley pointed a new direction for him, and it led to his first record, "Gonna Rock and Roll Tonight," which he cut for Jaxson in 1957. A year later, through Carl Perkins' drummer, W.S. "Fluke" Holland, he secured an audition for Memphis' Sun Records, the home of Presley, Perkins and Johnny Cash.

One of the songs he cut that day was "Mona Lisa," an Oscar-winning song for Cole in 1950. Mann and his band had tested the arrangement onstage a while back to great success. But Sun head Sam Phillips was unconvinced until Conway Twitty, who'd previously had a brief, unproductive time on Sun, began climbing the Billboard Hot 100 with his own version a year later, and released Mann's.

Phillips and Mann won the battle. Mann's take charted higher than Twitty's -- No. 25 vs. No. 29 -- and sold a million copies. But the follow-up, another Cole song called "Pretend," only peaked at No. 57, and none of his other Sun singles charted.

A three-stint in the Army followed, and although rockabilly had long faded by the time of his 1967 discharge, he was able to sign with Monument for a single, "Down to My Last I Love You." When it failed, he returned to Huntingdon to work in his family's lumber business.

But a decade later, a rockabilly revival took hold in Europe, and he found himself performing there regularly, followed by dates in the U.S. at festivals devoted to roots music. A book about him, The Last Son of Sun, came out in 2011.

Listen to Carl Mann's "Mona Lisa"

 

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