One day in 1966, a receptionist was absent from her desk and the course of country music was forever altered. It sounds like an unlikely scenario, but an unattended receptionists’ desk is what prompted Wynette Byrd, an aspiring singer and divorced mother of three, to knock on the office door of producer Billy Sherrill. Sherrill tried to brush her off, telling her to leave a tape that he would listen to later. She didn’t have one, so she offered him a live audition, right then and there. He listened to her and then politely dismissed her, but shortly thereafter had a change of heart. He had been trying to obtain the rights to an independent label recording of “Apartment No. 9”, a tune written by Bobby Austin and Johnny Paycheck. When his efforts failed, he decided to have one of his own artists record the song instead. He offered it to Wynette, who, having been turned down by every major label in Nashville, was about to return home to Birmingham, Alabama and abandon her dream of becoming a singer.
“Apartment No. 9”, produced by Sherill, was a modest hit for Tammy Wynette, as she was now known, reaching #44 on the Billboard country singles chart. It performed well enough to secure her a contract with Epic Records. Her second single, “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad”, reached #3, was followed by a string of #1s, and a star was born. Tammy Wynette was eventually credited by her label as the first female country artist to have a million-selling album and became known as The First Lady of Country Music.
She was born Virginia Wynette Pugh on May 5, 1942 in Tremont, Mississippi. Her father died from a brain tumor when Wynette was nine months old. She was raised by her grandparents when her mother obtained work in a Memphis defense plant. After World War II ended, her mother remarried and returned to Mississippi. Like many mother s and daughters, they did not always get along. The desire to get out from under her mother’s control played a large part in Wynette’s ill-advised decision to marry Euple Byrd a month before she was to graduate from high school. Unsurprisingly, the union was not a happy one and Wynette left him prior to the birth of their third daughter. Shortly after obtaining work as a hairdresser in Birmingham, Alabama, she began to pursue her dream of becoming a country singer.
After securing her deal with Epic, success came quickly for Tammy. “I Don’t Wanna Play House” became her first #1 hit in 1967. That same year, “Take Me To Your World” also chopped the charts, as did “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” in early 1968. Then, one day in the recording studio she helped Sherrill finish a song that he had been writing. She had some reservations about the final product, but he convinced her to record “Stand By Your Man”, which became her signature hit and one of the most recognized songs in country music. In 2003, CMT ranked it at #1 on its list of top 100 country songs of all time.
Although very successful professionally, Wynette’s personal life continued to be tumultuous. She married her childhood idol George Jones in 1969, shortly after her brief second marriage to songwriter Don Chapel was annulled. She and Jones had a daughter together, Tamala Georgette Jones, who was born in 1970, and they also recorded a number of successful duet records. They divorced in 1975, primarily because of Jones’ alcoholism. Another brief marriage to Michael Tomlin ended after only 44 days. In 1978 Tammy married producer and songwriter George Richey, to whom she remained wed for the rest of her life.
Beginning in the 1970s Tammy was frequently plagued with ill health, which began with complications from a hysterectomy that she underwent shortly after Georgette’s birth. She was frequently hospitalized for bile duct infections and underwent dozens of surgeries, which led to a dependency on prescription painkillers. She entered the Betty Ford Center in 1986 to overcome her addiction.
Tammy’s hits began to taper off in the early 1980s, although she remained a concert draw. She continued to work a grueling schedule despite her continuing health problems. She landed a role on the CBS daytime soap Capitol in 1986.
The entire nation mourned when Tammy Wynette passed away peacefully in her sleep on April 6, 1998, at age 55. The initial cause of death was said to be a blood clot in her lung, but like her life, her death was shrouded in drama. Her daughters alleged that Wynette’s husband George Richey had overmedicated her and filed a wrongful death lawsuit against him. Wynette’s body was disinterred and an autopsy cited cardiac arrythmia as the cause of death. The lawsuit against Richey was subsequently dropped.
In 1998 the Country Music Hall of Fame voted to induct her into its hallowed halls. Wanting to keep the decision a surprise, her family kept the news from her. Sadly, she passed away shortly before her induction, unaware of the honor that had been bestowed on her.
Along with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette was a trailblazer for women in country music during the 1960s and 1970s. While we cannot do her rich legacy justice in a single month, we are attempting to cover at least some of the highlights as we spotlight her career during the month of November. Keep the Kleenex at hand.