In 1989 Rhino Records licensed Patsy’s recordings for the Four Star label, and released three compilation albums. This first volume concentrates on her very earliest sessions, with thirteen songs recorded between 1955 and 1957, with one later track added on for contrast. The selection offers an intriguing glimpse into a young artist struggling to find her musical direction. The earliest cuts reveal Patsy’s hillbilly roots in a way her more sophisticated later work perhaps glosses over.
Much has been written criticising label boss Bill McCall, but one benefit resulting from Patsy signing with him was that she was teamed up with producer Owen Bradley right from the start, and her first sessions were at Bradley’s Quonset studio in Nashville. Less beneficially, she was restricted to songs published by Four Star, but that did not mean that her material was poor, even the songs credited to McCall himself under the pseudonym W S Stevenson (I understand that in many cases these copyrights were purchased from the real writers). Indeed, an early highlight is the opening track, recorded at Patsy’s very first recording session on June 1, 1955, ‘A Church, A Courtroom And Then Goodbye’, which is credited to Stevenson and Eddie Miller. This song was suggested for Patsy by Ernest Tubb, and is a very traditional country song typical of its period with prominent fiddle, recounting the sad tale of a hurried marriage followed by divorce. Even at this early stage of her career, it was clear that Patsy had a great voice, and a natural ability to convey emotion, as she declares,
I hate the sight of that courtroom
Where man-made laws push God’s laws aside
The B-side of that single, which was recorded at the same time, was the sprightly ‘Honky Tonk Merry Go Round’, with Patsy sounding as though she is biting back laughter despite a lost-love lyric. A third song recorded at this first session, another Miller/Stevenson credit to be released as a single, was the excellent cheating song, ‘Hidin’ Out’, with honky tonk piano.
One of my favorite tracks is ‘I Cried All the Way To The Altar’, from Patsy’s second session, on January 5, 1956, which was for some reason not released during her lifetime. It is a sad tale of a love triangle with the protagonist regretting her choice of husband, set to a melodic tune. This song does not see divorce as an option, as the protagonist bewails:
I cried all the way to the altar
Now too late I see the damage I have done
Oh my darling now too late
We can’t go back and start anew
Now too late I’ve thrown away
My chance of happiness with you
Also very good is ‘I’ve Loved And Lost Again’, from April 1956, with prominent steel and an excellent heartfelt vocal. At the same session, Patsy recorded two religious songs from the pen of V F “Pappy” Stewart (best known for writing the classic ‘Just out of Reach’). Although it suffers a little from a rather too-polite approach vocally, the sinner’s plea ‘Dear God’ is a surprisingly frank declaration from a woman wanting to change her current hypocritical behavior:
I go to church on a Sunday,
The vows that I make, I break them on Monday
The rest of the week I do as I please
Then come Sunday morning I pray on my knees
‘He Will Do For You’ is more straightforward country gospel with a conventional message offering hope to others, but it is convincingly delivered. For some reason this is the only track sequenced here out of chronological order, having been tacked on as the penultimate track.
Although they were marketed by Decca on lease from Four Star, none of Patsy’s singles made any headway until she was persuaded into recording the bluesy ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ (written by Four Star writer Don Hecht and Alan Block) against her own wishes. Patsy initially dismissed it as “nothing but a little old pop song” and it was actually a pop reject, having been turned down by Kay Starr, one of the pop acts of the day. It definitely marked a change of style for her. The gamble paid off, however, as it was Patsy’s first commercial success, a #3 country hit and #17 pop hit in 1957, and is still one of the songs most associated with her.
Later in 1957 Patsy went back into the studio, this time in New York, with Decca’s Paul Cohen producing, and there she recorded another Don Hecht song (also credited to Stevenson), the lackluster ‘Fingerprints’, the only boring track on this compilation, and the slightly better ‘Stranger In My Arms’, which has a co-writing credit for Patsy under her real name Virginia Hensley. No doubt inspired by the successful change in direction signalled by ‘Walkin After Midnight’, the sound was a little more pop oriented than her earliest work, but she was never to have another hit on Four Star. The pleasant relaxed ‘Try Again’ and the very good ‘Then You’ll Know’ are the first recordings in what became Patsy’s signature torchy style, with backing vocals from the Anita Kerr Singers which do sound a little dated now. The best recording from this session was ‘Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray’, a beautifully developed portrayal of love gone wrong with a superb vocal performance, using the framework of the protagonist’s cigarette stubs. It was not a hit at the time, but it stands up well now alongside Patsy’s classics.
The album closes with a 1961 re-recording with full orchestra of ‘A Poor Man’s Roses (Or A Rich Man’s Gold’), a song she had recorded for Four Star in 1956 and which had been the B-side to Walkin After Midnight. It was included on this release to show her style in its full flowering, but I admit that I would have preferred the original version here.
Overall, this is a worthwhile release, both in its indications of Patsy as a developing artist and foreshadowing what was to come, and enjoyable listening in its own right.