I thought we’d share a little country music this week, focusing on the ladies.
Today’s selection: Patsy Cline.
Virginia Patterson Hensley (September 8, 1932 – March 5, 1963), known professionally as Patsy Cline, was an American country music singer. Part of the early 1960s Nashville sound, Cline successfully “crossed over” to pop music. She died at age 30 at the height of her career in a private plane crash. She was one of the most influential, successful and acclaimed female vocalists of the 20th century.
Cline was best known for her rich tone, emotionally expressive and bold contralto voice and her role as a country music industry pioneer. Along with Kitty Wells, she helped pave the way for women as headline performers in the genre. Cline was cited as an inspiration by singers in several genres. Books, movies, documentaries, articles and stage plays document her life and career.
Her hits began in 1957 with Donn Hecht’s “Walkin’ After Midnight”, Harlan Howard’s “I Fall to Pieces”, Hank Cochran’s “She’s Got You”, Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” and ended in 1963 with Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams”.
Millions of her records have sold since her death. She won awards and accolades, leading some fans to view her as an icon at the level of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Ten years after her death, in 1973, she became the first female solo artist inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1999, she was voted number 11 on VH1’s special, The 100 Greatest Women in Rock and Roll, by members and artists of the rock industry. In 2002, country music artists and industry members voted her Number One on CMT’s The 40 Greatest Women of Country Music and ranked 46th in the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” issue of Rolling Stone magazine. According to her 1973 Country Music Hall of Fame plaque, “Her heritage of timeless recordings is testimony to her artistic capacity.”
Four Star Records
Bill Peer, her second manager, gave her the name Patsy, from her middle name and her mother’s maiden name, Patterson. In 1955 he got her a contract at Four Star Records, the label with which he was then affiliated. Four Star was under contract to the Coral subsidiary of Decca Records. Patsy signed with Decca at her first opportunity three years later.
Her first contract allowed her to record compositions only by Four Star writers, which Cline found limiting. Later, she expressed regret over signing with the label, but thinking that nobody else would have her, she took the deal. Her first record for Four Star was “A Church, A Courtroom & Then Good-Bye”, which attracted little attention, although it led to appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. As these performances were not “records” per se, they were not governed by her contract, and she could sing what she wanted, within reason. This somewhat eased her “stifled” feeling.
Between 1955 and 1957, Cline recorded honky tonk material, with songs like “Fingerprints”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”, “Don’t Ever Leave Me Again”, and “A Stranger In My Arms”. Cline cowrote the latter two. None of these songs gained notable success. She experimented with rockabilly.
According to Decca Records producer Owen Bradley, the Four Star compositions only hinted at Patsy’s potential. Bradley thought that her voice was best-suited for pop music, but Cline sided with Peer and the other Four Star producers, insisting that she could only record country songs, as her contract also stated. Every time Bradley tried to get her to sing the torch songs that would become her signature, she would panic, missing her familiar banjo and steel guitar. She recorded 51 songs with Four Star.
Arthur Godfrey and “Walkin’ After Midnight”
On July 1, 1955 Cline made her network television debut on the short-lived television version of the Grand Ole Opry on ABC-TV. This was followed by an appearance on the network’s Ozark Jubilee later that month,:p.80 before returning to the show in April.[clarification needed]
Later that year, while looking for material for her first album, Patsy Cline, “Walkin’ After Midnight” appeared, written by Donn Hecht and Alan Block. Cline initially did not like the song because it was, according to her, “just a little old pop song.” However, the song’s writers and record label insisted that she record it.
In the late fall of 1956, she auditioned for Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in New York City, and was accepted to sing on the CBS-TV show on January 21, 1957. Godfrey’s “discovery” of Cline was typical. Her scout, actually her mother, presented Patsy who initially was supposed to sing “A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold)”, but the show’s producers insisted she sing “Walkin’ After Midnight” instead. Though heralded as a country song, recorded in Nashville, Godfrey’s staff insisted that Cline appear in a cocktail dress rather than in one of her mother’s hand-crafted cowgirl outfits.
The audience’s enthusiastic ovations pushed the applause meter to its apex, winning the competition for her. After the Godfrey show, listeners began calling their local radio stations to request the song, so she released it as a single. Although Cline had been performing for almost a decade and had appeared on national TV three times, it took Godfrey to make her a star. For a couple of months thereafter, Cline appeared regularly on Godfrey’s radio program. Disagreements over creative control caused her to move on.
“Walkin’ After Midnight” reached No. 2 on the country chart and No. 16 on the pop chart, making Cline one of the first country singers to have a crossover pop hit. The single drove her success for the next year or so. She stayed visible by making personal appearances and performing regularly on Godfrey’s show, as well as performing for several years on Ozark Jubilee (later Jubilee USA). She had no other hits with Four Star.
Cline composed and recorded “A Stranger in My Arms” and “Don’t Ever Leave Me Again” in 1957 under her birth name, Virginia Hensley.
A month after her recording session, she met Charlie Dick, a good-looking ladies man who frequented the local club circuit Cline played on weekends. His charisma and admiration of Cline’s talents captured her attention, and their relationship resulted in a marriage that lasted until her death. Though their love affair was publicized as controversial, Cline regarded Dick as “the love of her life”. After the birth of their daughter, Julie, in 1958, they moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
1961 comeback – “I Fall to Pieces”
In 1959 Cline met Randy Hughes, a session guitarist and promotion man. Hughes became her manager and helped her change labels. When her Four Star contract expired in 1960, she signed with Decca Records-Nashville, directly under the direction of legendary female-singer country music producer Owen Bradley. He was responsible for much of Cline’s success and positively influenced the careers of both Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn.
Even though she was still scared of the lush Nashville Sound arrangements, Bradley considered Cline’s voice best-suited for country pop-crossover songs. Bradley’s direction and arrangements helped smooth her voice into the silky, torch song style for which she won fame.
Cline’s first release for Decca was the country pop ballad “I Fall to Pieces” (1961), written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. The song was promoted and won success on both country and pop music stations. On the country charts, the song slowly climbed to the top, garnering her first Number One ranking. In a major feat for country singers at the time, the song hit No. 12 on the pop and No. 6 on the adult contemporary charts, making her a household name and demonstrating that women could achieve as much crossover success as men.
Grand Ole Opry and Nashville scene
In 1960, Cline realized a lifelong dream when the Grand Ole Opry accepted her request to join the cast, making her the only person to achieve membership in such a fashion. She became one of the Opry’s biggest stars.
Even before that time, believing that there was “room enough for everybody”, and confident of her abilities and appeal, Cline befriended and encouraged women starting out in the country music field at that time, including Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, Jan Howard, sixteen-year-old Brenda Lee and a thirteen-year-old steel-guitar player named Barbara Mandrell with whom Cline once toured, all of whom cited her as a major influence.
According to both Lynn and West, Cline always gave herself to friends, buying them groceries and furniture and even hiring them as wardrobe assistants. On occasion, she paid their rent, enabling them to stay in Nashville and continue pursuing their dreams. Honky-tonk pianist and Opry star Del Wood said, “Even when she didn’t have it, she’d spend it—and not always on herself. She’d give anyone the skirt off her backside if they needed it.”
She cultivated a brash and gruff exterior that allowed her to be considered “one of the boys”. This allowed her to befriend male artists as well, including Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Harlan Howard and Carl Perkins all of whom she socialized with at famed Nashville establishment Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, next door to the Opry. In the 1986 documentary The Real Patsy Cline, singer George Riddle said of her, “It wasn’t unusual for her to sit down and have a beer and tell a joke, and she’d never be offended at the guys’ jokes either, because most of the time she’d tell a joke dirtier than you! Patsy was full of life, as I remember.”
Cline used the term of endearment “Hoss” to refer to her friends, both male as well as female, and referred to herself as “The Cline”. Patsy met Elvis Presley in 1962 at a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and they exchanged phone numbers. Having seen him perform during a rare Grand Ole Opry appearance, she admired his music, called him The Big Hoss, and often recorded with his backup group, The Jordanaires.
By this time, Cline controlled her own career, making it clear to all involved that she could stand up to any man, verbally and professionally, and was ready to challenge their rules if they interfered with her. In a time when concert promoters often cheated stars by promising to pay them after the show but skipping out with the money before the concert ended, Cline demanded her money before she took the stage by proclaiming: “No dough, no show”, a practice that became the rule. According to friend Roy Drusky in the The Real Patsy Cline: “Before one concert, we hadn’t been paid. And we were talking about who was going to tell the audience that we couldn’t perform without pay. Patsy said, ‘I’ll tell ’em!’ And she did!” Friend Dottie West stated in amazement some 25 years later in an interview that “It was common knowledge around town that you didn’t mess with ‘The Cline!'”