Skeeter Davis - Biography

Skeeter Davis was an American country music singer and sometime songwriter best known for her string of crossover hits in the early 1960s. After starting out as one half of The Davis Sisters in the early 1950s, she continued as a solo artist and scored a series of hits with her teen angst-ridden country-pop ballads. As a result she became the first female superstar of country.

Mary Frances Penick, born December 30, 1931, was the first of seven children born to William and Sarah “Punzie” Penick. The Penicks lived in a two room cabin on the banks of Eagle Creek in Glencoe but Mary was primarily raised by her grandparents in rural Dry Ridge, Kentucky. Her grandfather nicknamed her Skeeter, slang for a mosquito. In 1947, the Penick clan moved north to the Kentucky-side suburbs of Cincinnati. At Dixie Heights High, Skeeter met Betty Jack Davis and the two became friends and musical partners, forming The Davis Sisters in order to enter the Dixie Follies Talent Show. They were regionally popular, appearing on the radio in Lexington in 1949, Detroit’s WJR radio program Barnyard Frolics in 1951, and WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia. Their big break, however, came from an appearance on the Cincinnati television program, Midwestern Hayride. They recorded a single, “Jealous Love,” for Detroit’s Fortune Record in 1952. Afterward they gained the attention of RCA producer Steve Sholes who signed the duo in 1953 and brought them to Nashville. Their first single, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” spent eight weeks in the number one spot on the country charts and even made the Top 20 pop charts. Tragically, just as they were experiencing their first taste of success, the two were involved in a serious car accident on August 2, 1953. In the accident, Skeeter’s arms and legs were broken and Betty Jack Davis was killed. Betty Jack’s domineering mother coldly insisted that The Davis Sisters continue with Betty’s sister Georgia in her place, virtually imprisoning Skeeter.

In 1955, Skeeter toured with RCA's Caravan of Stars as a solo performer alongside Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley. The Davis Sisters continued until 1956, when Skeeter married Kenneth Depew who helped free her from the clutches of her singing partner’s mother (although, the marriage did not last long). At RCA, Skeeter Davis (she kept the last name) was taken under the wing of Chet Atkins. “Lost to a Geisha Girl,” an answer song to Hank Lockin’s “Geisha Girl,” became her first solo hit and featured Davis’s multi-tracked voice singing parts in what was essentially a solo duo. Late in the year she again toured with Elvis. 1959’s “Set Him Free” was an even bigger hit and that year she joined the Grand Ole Opry. I'll Sing You a Song & Harmonize Too, released on RCA in 1960, followed. “(I Can't Help You) I'm Falling Too” was her first crossover hit, charting in the Top 40 — a relatively unheard of feat at the time. However, for Davis it was the beginning of what would become a regular occurrence over the next four years. In addition to her continued appearances on Grand Ol Opry and after establishing herself as a pop singer equipollent with Lesley Gore, Little Eva, or Diane Renay, Davis began appearing on American Bandstand as well. The year also marked the beginning of her tumultuous marriage to WSM DJ Ralph Emery.

The following year, Davis added her own lyrics to Floyd Cramer’s instrumental “Last Date” and released it as the answer song “My Last Date (With You),” which was another hit. An album of answer songs followed, Here’s the Answer (1960 RCA), which includes the originals (by the likes of Jim Reeves, Hank Locklin, Eddy Arnold, and Ray Peterson) interspersed with Davis’s answers.  In 1962, she released an album of duets with the Thin Man from West Plains, Porter Wagoner, called Porter Wagoner & Skeeter Davis Sing Duets (1962 RCA). In 1963, she scored her biggest hit with "The End of the World,” with which she became the only woman to ever reach the top five on the R&B, Country, Hot 100, and Adult Contemporary/Easy Listening charts simultaneously. It was taken from the album The End of the World (1963 RCA), which was followed by Cloudy, With Occasional Tears (1963 RCA). In 1964, she opened for The Rolling Stones for their first US tour. However, by that time Skeeter Davis’s relationship with the Top 40 had ended. 1964’s Let Me Get Close to You (RCA) included 1963’s "I Can't Stay Mad at You," her final crossover hit. It was also the year she ended her relationship with her second husband. Following her divorce, she released an album of duets with Bobby Bare, Tunes for Two (1965 RCA). 1965’s Written by the Stars (RCA) and Skeeter Davis Sings Standards (RCA) followed and marked the end of another relationship — this time with her producer and mentor Chet Akins.

Singin' in the Summer Sun (RCA) and My Heart's in the Country (RCA) were produced by new producer, Felton Jarvis, in 1966. Gone were Chet Akins’s countrypolitan string backdrops and in their place was a more traditional sound. The Felton Jarvis years were among Davis’s least commercially successful. The Jarvis-produced country gospel Hand in Hand with Jesus (RCA), Skeeter Davis Sings Buddy Holly (RCA) [featuring former Buddy Holly sideman/future outlaw Waylon Jennings], and What Does It Take [To Keep a Man like You Satisfied] (RCA) all appeared in 1967 although only the latter charted. Why So Lonely (1968 RCA), I Love Flatt & Scruggs (1968 RCA), The Closest Thing to Love (1969 RCA), and Mary Frances (1969 RCA) slunk successively further down the charts.

The 1969 release of “I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter)” was Davis’s biggest hit in several years and preceded the release of the 1970 album A Place in the Country (RCA), produced by her guitarist, Ronny Light. Light also produced the follow-up, Your Husband, My Wife (1970 RCA), another album of duets with Bobby Bare. That same year’s It's Hard to Be a Woman (1970 RCA) was less successful.  Skeeter, Skeeter, Skeeter (1971 RCA), Love Takes a Lot of My Time (1971 RCA), Skeeter Sings Dolly (1972 RCA), and Bring It On Home (1972 RCA), all followed within the next two years, but didn’t chart highly.

During a performance in 1972 at the Grand Ole Opry, Davis dedicated “Amazing Grace” to a group of street evangelists who’d been arrested by the Nashville Police. The Opry responded with this supposedly controversial political outspokenness with banishment, which led to other scheduled performances falling through. It was largely through the efforts of her friend and fellow country singer Jean Shepard that after fifteen months Davis was allowed to return. In 1973, she released The Hillbilly Singer (RCA) and I Can't Believe That It's All Over (RCA). The latter was her first hit since 1968. It was also her last album to provide her with a Top 40 hit and was her last release on RCA.

In 1976, during a brief stint with Mercury, Davis released her last charting single, "I Love Us," although it only rose to number 60 on the Country chart. In 1977, "It's Love That I Feel" followed. After five years, she returned to recording with a series of different labels, first with 1982’s Live Wire (51 West), followed by 1983’s Heart Strings (Tudor) and 1985’s She Sings, They Play (Roadhouse), on which she was backed by NRBQ. Two years later, Davis married NRBQ's bassist, Joey Spampinato. One year into marriage, Davis was diagnosed with breast cancer. She released her final album in 1989, a duet with Teddy Wilson called You Were Made for Me (Atlantic).

In 1993, Davis released the autobiography Bus Fare to Kentucky, which detailed her parents’ alcoholism, the murder of her grandfather at the hands of an uncle, her mother’s suicide attempt, and other sordid details typical of life in the Southern Appalachians as well as the ups and downs of life post-fame. In 1996, Davis and Spampinato were divorced. In 1998, Davis co-wrote a less controversial book, The Christmas Note. Two years later, Skeeter Davis officially announced the end of her performing career. By 2001, the cancer had advanced considerably and she gave one last performance at the Opry. She died in Brentwood on September 19, 2004 at the age of 72. Three days later Amy Grant, Ricky Skaggs, and Vince Gill performed a tribute to the first female country singer to achieve great stardom.

Although not generally afforded the serious critical attention lavished on her followers like Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette, Davis remains an influential female country vocalist, especially for musicians. Both her own work and the songs written for her have subsequently been covered by Agnetha Fältskog, Ann-Margaret, Anne Murray, Bobby Vinton, Brenda Lee, The Carpenters, Claudine Longet, Conway Twitty, Deborah Harry, Dottie West, Eddy Arnold, Exposé, Herman's Hermits, John Cougar Mellencamp, Johnny Mathis, Joni James, Julie London, Kay Starr, Leigh Nash, Lobo, Loretta Lynn, Michael Stipe, Nancy Sinatra, Nina Gordon, Pat Boone, Patti Page, Rosie Flores, Sonia Evans, Twiggy, The Vanguards, and Vonda Shepard among others.

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