Vocalist Patsy Cline (1932-1963) was one of the first women to break into the country and western music scene, which was, until then, dominated by men.
Up until Patsy Cline's recordings in the late 1950s and early 1960s there were only a handful of country and western female singers; and the title of queen belonged solely to Kitty Wells. It was Cline who dethroned Wells with classic performances on cuts like "Walkin' After Midnight" and the Willie Nelson composition "Crazy," which combined the pop characteristics of Patti Page and Kay Starr with the hillbilly traits of Hank Williams. All three singers were major influences on Cline's style.
Career Began at Age Four
Cline's entertainment career began at the tender age of four, when she won a local amateur contest for tap dancing in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia. By age eight she was playing the piano and singing in her church's choir. In 1948 the drugstore counter girl began singing in nightclubs with Bill Peer and his Melody Boys. Wally Fowler of the Grand Ole Opry convinced the 16-year-old to go to Nashville for an appearance on Roy Acuff's "WSM Dinner Bell" radio program. Cline hung around Nashville trying to break into the industry but ended up working as a club dancer.
Cline headed back home shortly thereafter and continued singing with Peer's band until 1954, when she returned to Nashville and signed a contract with William McCall's 4 Star Sales Co. out of Pasadena, California. Cline's first recording session was on June 1, 1955, and her first three songs were leased to Coral Records, a subsidiary of Decca. Part of her deal with 4 Star, which included one-time session fees with no royalties, stipulated that she could only record material that belonged to McCall's company. This may have been part of the reason that the majority of her early work did not sell very well. She was also tackling a wide variety of styles that made it hard to categorize her.
Producer Owen Bradley was trying to create a new genre with Cline by bathing her voice in full, jazzy orchestrations at his Quonset Studios in an effort to counter the rising popularity of rock and roll. According to The Listener's Guide to Country Music, "Patsy Cline was his ultimate country success. For him, she played down her country characteristics. For her, he played down his popular music background. The results were records full of tension and dynamics."
It would, however, take some time before the formula caught on, as the country scene was changing from hillbilly to country and western and was still mainly dominated by male artists. Cline's radical image as a two-fisted, hard-drinking woman definitely made her stand out from the rest of the Nashville crowd, but any chance of success would rely on her voice and songs. Her talents shined on both slow torchers and up-tempo cuts but her 4 Star sessions never did fully realize her potential, with the exception of "Walkin' After Midnight."
"Walkin' After Midnight" a Hit
Cline recorded the tune on November 8, 1956, but it was the rendition of the song she performed on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts television program on January 28, 1957, that got the industry's attention. She had debated performing the song but was finally convinced by one of the regulars on Godfrey's show, Janette Davis. The television audience went wild and gave Cline a standing ovation.
4 Star rushed to release the single on February 11 and it shot all the way to number three on Billboard's country chart. More importantly, however, "Walkin"' also rose to number 17 on the pop charts. Donn Hecht had originally written the tune for Kay Starr, who turned it down, but Cline and Bradley managed to use it as a vehicle to bridge the gap between hillbilly and pop. McCall, whose company was eventually shut down as a result of questionable business dealings, was unfortunately too slow in following up on the hit. He did convince Cline to renew her contract, but it took another six months before she recorded another session, "Fingerprints"/"A Stranger in My Arms." Her remaining work with 4 Star was unspectacular and in 1959 she jumped to Decca Records, insisting upon a $1,000 advance.
Vocals Soared to New Heights
It wasn't until 1961, one year after she became a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry, that Cline had her second hit, "I Fall to Pieces." The song went to number one on the country charts and was joined by "Crazy," another Top 10 hit of 1961. Cline's vocals began to soar to new heights on material that was less restrictive than 4 Star's catalog. For the next two years she recorded major hits with "She's Got You" (a number-one hit), "When I Get Through With You, You'll Love Me," "Faded Love," and "Leavin' On Your Mind" (all Top 10's).
Cline was just coming into her own when tragedy struck on March 5, 1963. On the way home from a Kansas City benefit for disc jockey Cactus Jack Callat, Cline, Randy Hughes, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins were killed when the airplane they were flying in crashed near Camden, Tennessee. At the age of 31 she had been performing for over twenty years, yet recording for less than eight.
Ironically, perhaps her most identifiable tune, "Sweet Dreams," was released posthumously and also broke the Top 10. Even with her relatively small collection of songs, Cline managed to break new ground and influence hundreds of female, and some male, country singers since. Loretta Lynn, undoubtedly Cline's most successful pupil, recorded a tribute LP, I Remember Patsy, featuring nine of Cline's songs.
"Patsy Cline knew how to cry on both sides of the microphone," wrote Donn Hecht in The Country Music Encyclopedia. "And the why of it all, explained by many, understood by few, is slowly becoming a legend unparalleled by any other country entertainer since Hank Williams."
Further Reading on Patsy Cline
Lazarus, Lois, Country Is My Music!, Messner, 1980.
Malone, Bill, Country Music U.S.A.—A Fifty-Year History, American Folk Society, 1968.
Oermann, Robert K., with Douglas B. Green, The Listener's Guide to Country Music, Facts on File, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grellun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin's Press, 1983.
Stars of Country Music—Uncle Dave Macon to Johnny Rodriguez, edited by Bill C. Malone and Judith McCulloh, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, KBO, 1974.