Dottie West - Biography
By Jonny Whiteside
Country star Dottie West may have been tagged the "Country Sunshine Girl" but that nickname hardly began to capture the singer's appeal. West, with her mane of fiery red hair, a face and figure of rare symmetry, and a penchant for a glittering, risqué Bob Mackie designed wardrobe, was far more of a salty, glammed-up vixen then a wholesome, blue jean wearing farm girl. Her carefully cultivated provocative image was one that resonated powerfully with her fans and it was also one that she scrupulously monitored to avoid a lapse into poor taste (ironically, she turned down a chance to record Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make it Through the Night," deeming it "too sexy" and then watching as Sammi Smith's version went to the top of the charts).
A first-rate songwriter and superb vocalist whose ballad performances exuded a palpable vulnerability, West rose from a dirt-poor hillbilly background to the height of acclaim and success in Nashville; she was the first performer to win the Grammy's newly-minted 'Best Country & Western Vocal Performance, Female" award in 1964, and later recorded a series of number one hit duets Kenny Rogers. West was also a Grand Ole Opry cast member for nearly forty years as well as a gifted actor, starring in a touring production of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and holding her own alongside Shelley Duvall and legendary Broadway star Mary Martin in the 1984 stage play Bring It On Home. Hers was an extraordinary resume (West's admirers included country legends Jim Reeves and Merle Haggard) but at age 59, it all tragically ended in a 1991 car accident.
The oldest of ten children, Dorothy Marie Marsh was born October 11, 1932 in rural Frog Pond outside of McMinnville, Tennessee. She grew up picking cotton and listening to the Opry radio broadcasts every weekend, but family life was anything but stable. After her abusive alcoholic father walked out on the family, her mother, Pelina, operated a restaurant in McMinnville, where Dottie worked as she schemed about how best to pursue a singing career and at age twelve had already made her radio debut on local station WMMT. After high school she enrolled in Tennessee Tech, earned a degree in music and a wedding band from fellow student (and steel guitar player) Bill West. Wed in 1953, they moved to Cleveland, Ohio and West did a five-year run on local television country music show Landmark Jamboree. On a 1959 trip to Nashville, the couple paid a visit to the offices of Starday Records, where West auditioned for veteran A&R man Don Pierce (who had already played an important role in the careers of famed girl singer Rose Maddox and Patsy Cline). The result was a series of Starday singles, but none of them caught on.
West would not give up. She and Bill moved to Nashville in 1961, mixing it up with such rising aspirants as Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Red Lane, who helped get a staff writer position at Tree Music. A deal with Atlantic in 1962 also failed to spark any interest, but after Jim Reeves' 1963 version of her "Is this Me?" hit number three, things began to look up. Reeves introduced her to Music City powerhouse Chet Atkins, resulting in a contract with RCA and her first country chart entry "Let Me Off on the Corner." The big payoff came with 1964's "Here Comes My Baby" which got her into the Top Ten, the Grammy award and an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. She personified a unique independent type of femininity, and with such titles as "Before the Ring on Your Finger Turns Green," "What's Come Over My Baby?," "Would You Hold It Against Me," "Paper Mansions," and "Country Girl," enjoyed a steady series of Top Thirty and Top Twenty records. Her almost twenty year marriage dissolved in 1972 (Why? Well, she almost immediately married her drummer, Byron Metcalf, a man twelve years her junior). The following year, West's signature tune "Country Sunshine" jumped into the country Top Three, became the theme song for a Coca-Cola TV ad campaign and won West a Clio Award, not to mention two more Grammy nominations.
With her song saturating the public thanks to the Coke promos, she capitalized on her burgeoning fame with ever more eye-popping hair styles and wardrobe, becoming the first Nashville Queen to really exploit her sex appeal, clearing the way for sultry up and comer Tanya Tucker and anticipating the future careers of Shania Twain and Faith Hill. Fate again smiled on West when singer Kenny Rogers happened to drop by a Nashville recording studio where West was cutting "Every Time Two Fools Collide," and stayed to contribute duet vocals. The song went to number one in 1977, as did their follow-ups "All I Ever Need Is You," "Till I Can Make It On My Own." The other West-Rogers collaborations, "Anyone Who Isn't Me Tonight" made the Top Three and in 1978, the pair won the Country Music Associations Best Vocal Duo award (they took it again the following year). West was on a roll, recording her own hits, doing stage work, and at age fifty posing for a racy spread published in men's magazine Oui. She also regularly mixed business with pleasure, dumping Byron Metcalf in 1983 to marry her sound man, Allen Winters--a man twenty-three years younger than West.
By 1990, the fun and games suddenly ended. She and Winters were divorced, and years of typically messy Nashville financial moves resulted in a lawsuit by her manager, the bank foreclosing on her home, her car repossessed and serious trouble with the IRS, who demanded one million dollars in back taxes that led to a public auction of just about everything she had to her name. The name was all she had left, that and her spot on the Opry. West remained optimistic, and had began work on an autobiography, but preparing to drive to Opryland for a show on September 4, 1991, found her car wouldn't start and prevailed on an elderly neighbor to give her a lift. The old guy lost control of the car, ran it off the road and West, with a horrific role call of internal injuries, died in a Nashville hospital five days later. While the loss was a shock, West's legacy was carried on by the performers whose careers she helped launch, most notably Jessi Colter and Jeannie Seely, and in 1995, West became a star all over again when bio-pic Big Dreams & Broken Hearts: the Dottie West Story pulled in the highest ratings that CBS achieved with a made for television movie.