From time to time throughout 2010, we’ll be taking a look at some of country music’s legendary artists. We’re starting with the great Patsy Cline, who was one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed vocalists, and whose influence is felt to the current day.
She was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Virginia, on September 8, 1932. When she was 15, her father abandoned the family, and Ginny, as she was then known, dropped out of high school to help support her mother and two younger siblings. From an early age, she’d wanted to be a singer. She entered a number of local talent shows and sang live on Winchester’s WINC-AM radio. This eventually led to a stint on Connie B. Gay’s Town and Country television show, which originated from Washington, DC. Among the cast members of Town and Country was an up and rising star and future sausage magnate by the name of Jimmy Dean. She even managed to take a trip to Nashville in 1948, landing a guest appearance on Roy Acuff’s Dinner Bell program on WSM-AM.
In 1953 she married a contractor named Gerald Cline, but the marriage ended in divorce after four years, due mainly to Cline’s lack of support of his wife’s (now known as Patsy Cline) career aspirations. In 1954, she met Bill McCall, who owned a song publishing company called Four Star Music. In what would prove to be the biggest mistake of her professional career, Patsy signed a five-year contract with Four Star. She returned to Nashville with McCall, who arranged a leasing agreement with Decca Records, whereby Decca would produce and distribute Patsy’s records, but Four Star would promote and retain ownership of the recordings and would have sole discretion over what material she recorded. This was a very one-sided deal in which Decca did most of the work and saw very little in financial renumeration, but Decca executive Paul Cohen and producer Owen Bradley recognized Patsy’s potential and agreed to McCall’s terms, in order to have the opportunity to sign Patsy to Decca when her Four Star contract lapsed.
This proved to be a disastrous arrangement for all involved. McCall would only allow Patsy to record songs for which Four Star owned the publishing rights. Both Patsy and Owen Bradley felt that much of the Four Star material was substandard, and though they experimented with a variety of musical styles, commercial success eluded them. The sole exception was “Walkin’ After Midnight”, which Patsy performed on the nationally-telecast Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts on January 21, 1957. Not only did Patsy win the competition, “Walkin’ After Midnight” became a smash hit, rising to #3 on Billboard’s country chart and #17 on the pop chart. Patsy became a regular on the Godfrey program, but was eventually fired after she repeatedly clashed with Godfrey over song selection. She wanted to sing country; he wanted her to sing pop.
1957 was also the year that Patsy met and married her second husband, Charlie Dick. After giving birth to a daughter in 1958, the family moved permanently to Nashville, where Patsy and Owen Bradley continued in their quest to find the elusive follow-up hit to “Walkin’ After Midnight”. Success continued to evade them, and by 1959 Bill McCall had written Patsy off as a lost cause and stopped promoting her singles.
Patsy’s fortunes began to change in 1960, which was the year that she was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. It was also the year that her Four Star contract expired, and she was formally signed to Decca Records. In her first session for Decca, she recorded “I Fall To Pieces”, which was written by Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran. It had been turned down by a number of other singers, and Patsy began to have second thoughts about it herself, after initially agreeing to record it. She feared that it was too pop. Bradley was experimenting with a hybrid style of music that Chet Atkins had pioneered at RCA with great success for artists such as Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves. A mixture of country and pop, it would eventually become known as “the Nashville Sound”. Bradley wanted to try this style with Patsy. Meanwhile, he and Patsy argued about cutting “I Fall to Pieces”; Bradley prevailed and was eventually vindicated when it became Patsy’s first #1 country hit, and a #12 pop hit in August 1961, ending a four-year dry spell.