It has been said that "the light that shines twice as bright, burns half as long." The truth of that assertion seemed evident in 1963, when Patsy Cline, who had become the first huge, female country-to-pop crossover star, died in a Tennessee plane crash barely six years after her first chart appearance. Except that Patsy has since proved that a bright light cut short, can sometimes shine brighter that ever. That is because Patsy's sophisticated "country-politan" sound that hit in the late '50s and early '60s is more popular in the '90s than it was during her lifetime. She sells over a hundred thousand albums a year and continues to inspire new female country artists with a remarkable, seemingly endless career.
Patsy (b. Virginia Patterson Hensley, Sept. 8, 1932, Winchester, Va.) once credited a near-death experience for her million dollar voice. As a young girl she experienced a throat infection so severe, it briefly stopped her heart. A Washington, D.C. newspaper quoted her as saying, "I was placed in an oxygen tent and brought back to life. I recovered from the illness with a voice that boomed forth like Kate Smith." She grew up in a rural setting with parents wise enough to recognize her talent and provide her with music and dance lessons. She had to leave school as a teenager to help support the family after her father deserted them. She supplemented her drugstore wages by singing in area clubs and on a local radio show for station WINC.
Patsy was very confident of her talent and aggressive enough to take advantage of opportunities when they came along, such as the performance in her home town of Grand Ole Opry star Wally Fowler. She talked him into giving her an audition and he hired her to become part of his road show that eventually got her to Nashville.
In spite of wrangling an appearance on WSM Radio, she never cracked the Opry or a record company and soon returned to Virginia.
Patsy persisted and thanks in part to the door-opening success of Kitty Wells, she landed a contract with Four Star Records in '54. The first three years of her recording career were not happy ones as she battled over the kind of music she wanted to record. Trying to sound like Kitty Wells wasn't working and she didn't want to be recorded pop. In '57 she was about to lose her contract when she reluctantly recorded a song called "Walkin' After Midnight." According to the Don Hecht who wrote the song, Patsy balked at recording the tune yelling, "It's nothin' but a little old pop song!" Like most female artists of the time who had no control over the songs they recorded, Patsy relented and was soon glad she did. Before the song was released, she used it to audition for the nationally broadcast Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts show. She ended up singing that song and winning the contest. It sparked a nationwide demand for her and the song and her label, that had gone in partnership with Decca Records, had to rush to get the record out to radio stations and the public. "Walkin' After Midnight" became a huge country and pop hit, but Patsy's career didn't really take off until 1961 when she was signed exclusively to Decca. She released "I Fall To Pieces" that year and it became her first number one hit. She followed that up with a song written by a struggling writer named Willie Nelson called "Crazy." That was her third big country/pop hit and she had become one of the biggest stars in all of American music.
Patsy was certainly the biggest female act of the early '60s and was happy to help and encourage other aspiring artists like a young Barbara Mandrell and Loretta Lynn. Loretta was pretty green when they met and she says the Patsy became her closest friend in Nashville. Loretta told the American Countdown with Bob Kingsley show, "She helped me so much. She taught me how to go on and come off stage and advised me about what clothes to wear. She said, 'Don't wear a dress that's too sexy, too tight or revealing. Always leave enough for the imagination.".
Patsy became one of the chief purveyors (along with Brenda Lee) of the "Nashville Sound", a pop oriented sound that was dubbed "country-politan." Her record producer Owen Bradley was one of the architects of the sound and he says that pop oriented sound may be the reason for the longevity of her music. "She sounded like a pop singer in a lot of ways," says Bradley. "That was a minus for a long time and now, 30 some years after her death, it has become a plus! My bosses used to tell me to make albums that would last 10 years and I don't think anybody in their wildest dreams thought they'd last this long. A while back a got a platinum album for her Greatest Hits package that was full of old standards," he remarks.
Bradley, like all who loved or worshipped Patsy, was devastated by her death in March of '63, he says, "It was an unbelievable loss and it was a very terrible thing for Nashville and country music." From her vantage point in Hillbilly Heaven Patsy Cline can see that hers was not a wasted life. She only recorded a hand full of albums, but in the last three decades she has sold millions of copies of her original titles and over forty re-packaged compilations of her songs. No surprise then that she has inspired nearly every female artist from Loretta to Reba McEntire to Trisha Yearwood.
Patsy Cline Story (Decca, '63)
Patsy Cline Portrait (Decca, '64)
Greatest Hits (Decca, '73)
Walkin' After Midnight (Decca, '57, 2, Pop 12)
I Fall To Pieces (Decca, '61, 1, Pop 12)
Crazy (Decca, '61+, 2, Pop 9)
She's Got You (Decca, '62, 1, Pop 14)
Sweet Dreams(of You) (Decca, '63, 5)
Faded Love (Decca, '63, 7