Patsy Cline - Biography
Patsy Cline’s importance as a country performer is disproportionate to the success she achieved during her lifetime. Before her untimely death in a 1963 plane crash, she charted only nine singles; just two of them topped the country charts, while two more climbed to No. 2 -- and all but one of those major hits charted in an 11-month period in 1961-62.
Nonetheless, the Virginia-born singer is considered one of the groundbreaking talents of her genre. As Bill C. Malone put it simply in his definitive history Country Music, U.S.A., “With the emergence of Patsy Cline, the modern era of women country singers really began.” Until she arrived, country singing was still largely considered men’s work.
Cline was the first important female country stylist to arrive after Kitty Wells, who dominated the music in the early 1950s. Wells made her mark with songs in a twangy, decidedly rural style; her material often cast her as a honky-tonk victim, and she appeared in concert garbed in gingham and bonnets. While Cline started out her career as a flat-out honky-tonker who preferred up-tempo two-steps and performed in fringed cowgirl outfits, she eventually developed into a pop-savvy singer of heartbroken ballads who still projected an unprecedented urbanity and strength.
She was the first female country crossover artist; all of her major country hits also reached the pop charts. (In comparison, just one of Wells’ 71 country chart singles even grazed the pop lists.) She was also the first woman to benefit from the development of the so-called “Nashville sound,” which brought backup vocal groups and string-section sweetening to the country market and lofted artists like RCA’s smooth-voiced Jim Reeves to mainstream stardom. It was hardly a strain for Cline’s producer Owen Bradley to dress her music in similar fashion, for her lush, sophisticated vocal styled owed more to such ‘50s pop singers as Patti Page, Jo Stafford, and Kay Starr than to any of her hillbilly predecessors.
A country girl at heart, Patsy Cline was a universally admired singer who cut across all genre boundaries. Vocalists from Loretta Lynn (who was mentored by Cline) and Tammy Wynette to k.d. lang and Faith Hill owe her a debt of gratitude.
She was born Virginia Patterson Hensley on Sept. 8, 1932, in Gore, Virginia; her family later relocated to nearby Winchester, a small town about 75 miles west of Washington, DC. She was something of a musical prodigy, singing and dancing by the age of four; she received a piano for her birthday at eight. She became hooked on the radio — especially the Grand Ole Opry’s Saturday night broadcasts on Nashville’s high-powered WSM. By her early teens, she was performing with the local group Joltin’ Jim McCoy & His Melody Playboys on local radio station WINC.
Though she was forced to go to work in a drugstore after her father deserted the family, she continued to sing in a local supper club. She impressed visiting country star Wally Fowler enough to secure an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, but nothing else came of her first trip to Nashville. In April 1953, Winchester musician Bill Peer, who had become her de facto manager, got her back to Nashville for a midnight radio date from Ernest Tubb’s record store. By then, she was calling herself Patsy Cline; she had married construction company heir Gerald Cline the previous month.
In August 1954, she entered and won a Warrenton, Virginia, country music competition mounted by the North Carolina-born booker and entrepreneur Connie B. Gay. A major power in Virginia and Maryland, Gay — who later served as founding president of the Country Music Association -- also controlled the Washington, DC market, where he had broken such developing stars as Jimmy Dean and George Hamilton IV. He gave Cline a slot on his radio show “Town and Country Time,” which broadcast out of Arlington, Virginia, and aired on 1,800 national stations via prerecorded transcriptions.
She quickly attracted the attention of Bill McCall, who operated 4 Star Music Sales in Pasadena, California and had notched a top five national country hit in 1953 with Dean’s “Bummin’ Around.” McCall signed Cline to a two-year recording contract in September 1954; that contract would be extended several times, and the vocalist would end up associated with McCall’s company through early 1960. While she recorded her first national hit under 4 Star’s auspices and garnered major-label support as a result of the pact, the deal may have ultimately done Patsy Cline more harm than good in the long run.
In short order, McCall secured a lease deal with Decca Records, then one of the country’s major labels. He stood to benefit beyond the money he made from having Cline’s music recorded and distributed by Decca: His contract with her mandated that she was to record only songs published by 4 Star. While Owen Bradley, one of Nashville’s top producers, was put in charge of Cline’s sessions, and the town’s top studio pickers were enlisted for her dates, there was only so much that could be done with the B-grade material McCall brought to her — some of which he purchased outright from down-on-their-luck country songwriters and affixed with his publishing nom de plume W.S. Stevenson.
Between 1955 and 1960, Patsy Cline would release 17 singles on Decca and its subsidiary Coral. Just one of them made the charts.
Her first single, the divorce-court weeper “A Church, A Courtroom and Then Goodbye” backed with the hillbilly bopper “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round,” was released on July 20, 1955. That platter and its first three successors all tanked. However, in late 1956, McCall brought Cline a loping, bluesy number custom-tailored by the 4 Star writer Don Hecht. After a noisy showdown between McCall and the hesitant vocalist — who called the tune “nothin’ but a little ol’ pop song” — it was handsomely recorded by Bradley, with purring pedal steel guitar supplied by Don Helms, formerly of Hank Williams’ band The Drifting Cowboys.
The song, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” was fortuitously debuted on the Jan. 21, 1957 telecast of “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts”; the “American Idol” of its day, the CBS TV show was a starmaking vehicle hosted by the avuncular, ukulele-strumming Godfrey, who also had a popular daily radio program. Both Cline — who eschewed her cowboy outfit for a simple gown — and the song created a sensation; her performance pinned the “applause meter” that measured the studio audience’s response. A week of appearances on Godfrey’s radio show followed. Decca released the song as a single in February; by April — not long after her divorce from Gerald Cline was finalized — it had reached No. 2 on the national country charts and No. 12 on the pop rolls.
After her breakthrough year of 1957 — which also saw her appear at the Grand Ole Opry and wed her second husband Charlie Dick -- many expected big things for Patsy Cline. Unfortunately, McCall’s 4 Star writers couldn’t come up with a vehicle to top “Walkin’ After Midnight.” While she delivered some strong performances — the ballad “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” the rocker “I Don’t Wanta” -- her next 12 singles failed to make the charts, and it would be nearly four years before she returned. She learned she was pregnant in late 1957, and the birth of her daughter Julie in August 1958 put her career on hold. The following year, Cline and her family moved from Virginia to Nashville to get closer to the hub of the business. Their fortunes didn’t improve much, but she did acquire an aggressive new manager: Ferlin Husky’s onetime guitarist and road manager Randy Hughes.
Things began to look up in early 1960, when Cline joined the Grand Ole Opry and finally witnessed the expiration of her contract with 4 Star. Though she had failed to score any hits for years, Owen Bradley, now head of Decca’s country A&R department, maintained his faith, and signed her directly to the label, sensing that the pop-oriented methods he had applied to the unsuccessful 4 Star songs could work with the proper tune.
The right song materialized in the form of a number by a pair of relatively unproven California songwriters, Harlan Howard (who had written Charlie Walker’s recent hit “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”) and Hank Cochran, who were then laboring for the local song mill Pamper Music. Bradley initially believed the song would be right for vocalist Roy Drusky, but Drusky told him that the vulnerable quality of the lyric demanded that a woman sing it. As Drusky exited Bradley’s office, he found Patsy Cline, fresh from a car trip from Virginia, asleep on the couch in the foyer; Bradley proceeded to pitch the song to Cline, who recorded it on Nov. 16, 1960, when she was seven months pregnant with her second child, son Randy.
The intensely sung, lightly swinging ballad “I Fall to Pieces” reignited Patsy Cline’s career (and supplied significant lift for songwriters Howard and Cochran, two of the master craftsman of the genre). Thanks to the tireless work of promotion man Pat Nelson, the single broke big in Columbus, Ohio, and finally became a national hit in April 1961, peaking at No. 1 on the country chart and No. 12 on the pop chart.
Cline’s story came close to ending right there: On June 14, 1961, she and her younger brother were involved in a head-on car collision in Nashville. The singer was thrown through the windshield and suffered injuries that kept her hospitalized and then wheelchair bound for two months. (Photos taken after that time show Cline with coiffures designed to hide the scars on her forehead.)
The material that Cline recorded during the summer of 1961 ranged from straight country (“Foolin’ ‘Round,” “San Antonio Rose,” “I Love You So Much It Hurts”) to pop standards (Cole Porter’s “True Love,” “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” “The Wayward Wind,” “South of the Border”). But the song that was selected as her next single was a simmering ballad by another Pamper Music writer, a 27-year-old Texan who had penned recent hits for Faron Young and Billy Walker. Cline hated the song and, daunted by the writer’s out-of-time singing on the demo, had a difficult time mastering it; for the only time in her career, she overdubbed her vocal on a prerecorded instrumental track. But Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” proved a potent followup to “I Fall to Pieces,” cresting at No. 2 country and No. 9 pop.
She climaxed 1961 with a triumphant November appearance with Jim Reeves, Faron Young, and other Nashville stars at a rare country concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The following month she cut the song that would become her second, and final, No. 1 country single, Hank Cochran’s “She’s Got You.” The 45 reached the charts in March 1962; a year later, Patsy Cline would be dead.
In her last year of recording activity, Cline essayed a broad swatch of material — from classic country (Hank Williams’ “Half As Much” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”) to Tin Pan Alley antiques (“You Made Me Love You,” “That’s My Desire,” “Anytime”); during her final sessions, she cut Irving Berlin’s 1929 chestnut “Always.” Her glistening pop style made her a natural for Las Vegas, and in late 1962 she played a month of dates there at the Mint. The hits had slowed, but her album Showcase (1962) spent five months on the LP charts. The future looked unlimited for a singer of her gifts.
On March 3, 1963, Cline played a benefit in Kansas City, Kansas, for the family of a local DJ who had been killed in a car crash. She planned to return to Nashville in a single-engine plane piloted by her manager Randy Hughes; the other seats on the craft were occupied by her Opry co-stars Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins (whose wife Jean Shepard was also a prominent female country star). Though Hughes was advised against it, he decided to fly home through a raging storm. His downed aircraft was discovered near Camden, Tennessee, on March 6, 1963; all on board had been killed.
Cline was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Her burnished voice quickly passed into musical legend. In the months after her death, her versions of Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” and Bob Wills’ “Faded Love” both entered the country top 10. Her music maintained its popularity years after her death: In 1980, her 1963 recording of “Always” and a remixed “I Fall to Pieces” both reached the charts, while “Have You Ever Been Lonely,” a ghoulish electronic duet with Jim Reeves — who, like Cline, perished in a plane crash — hit the country top five in 1981. Her 1967 compilation Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits spent 376 weeks on Billboard’s album chart, and was certified for sales of 10 million copies. In 1985, Jessica Lange portrayed Cline in director Karel Reisz’s biographical film Sweet Dreams. Nearly 50 years after her death, her star burns bright.