A PATSY CLINE STORY

It was March 5, 1963 and I was in Tonelli’s, a neighbourhood corner store, when the news came over the radio that Country Music star Patsy Cline had died in a plane crash. Patsy, they reported, was only 30 years old, and at the height of her career. As they listed her hits, the first thought that entered this 13 year old’s head was “Again? Same as Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens? Why do they have to fly? Why not take a bus or a train?”

I didn’t know much about Patsy Cline other than seeing her once on American Bandstand and hearing that bluesy Country voice on the radio. Songs like “She’s Got You” and “I Fall to Pieces” surely tugged at the heart strings. (In addition to the radio, I heard those two songs sung constantly by our neighbours – the Mazerolle sisters. “Waterloo” by Stonewall Jackson and anything by The Everly Brothers were other favourites. I didn’t have to listen to a Country station with Marianne and Jeannine around).

As time passed, and I became more receptive to songs that I had little emotional connection to the first time around, I re-discovered Patsy Cline on a whole new level. I was quick to realize that once hooked by the purity of her voice you couldn’t shake it anytime soon. Especially “Walkin’ After Midnight”. After re-visiting that one it was evident to me that it rivalled anything that came out of Sun Records at the time.

Cline’s first national appearance was on the TV program, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, where she performed “Walkin’ After Midnight” for the first time ever. The response was so overwhelming that it froze the applause meter used to judge contestants. Cline was instantly invited back the next week, and her label Four Star Records immediately released the song. “Walkin’ After Midnight” became Cline’s first major hit single selling over a million copies and going to # 2 on the Country charts and # 12 on the Pop charts.

Virginia Patterson Hensley was born September 8, 1932 outside of Winchester Virginia. The strong willed and resilient “Ginny” – as she was known to friends – would tempt fate three times in the course of her life. She survived the first two challenges: Rheumatic Fever at 13 that left her hospitalized for months, and serious injuries sustained in a car accident in 1961 that once again required a lengthy hospital stay. But Cline, along with Country singers Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins and her manager Randy Hughes, fell prey to bad weather on a flight following a benefit concert in Kansas City, thus ending her short life in a plane crash near Camden Tennessee.

While her time may have not been long, her life was anything but uneventful. After recovering from her bout with Rheumatic Fever she boldly announced to her mother Hilda that she was going to be a singer and quickly went to work to realize her dream.

Cline, (self-taught on piano), started performing both solo and with her mother at the local Baptist church as well as at various church functions. (Patsy and her mother – who was only 16 at the time of Patsy’s birth – were very close and became increasingly so after her father deserted the family. Some onlookers believed that their relationship was more akin to sisters than that of a mother and daughter. They would maintain their close friendship for the rest of Patsy’s life).    

At 15 she walked into radio station WINC in Winchester and brazenly asked for an audition. Years later, reflecting on that day, the station manager said that Patsy was very raw but based on her determination he was convinced that she would improve. Patsy would go on to appear regularly on the station.

With no real breadwinner at home Patsy decided to leave school at 16 to help support the family. But never losing sight of her goal, Patsy worked as a drugstore clerk by day and singer by night for whoever would hire her, regardless of pay. And, never lacking gumption, Patsy would ask Country stars passing through if she could sing on their show (with limited success).

In the early 50’s she joined Connie B. Gay’s Town & Country Jamboree TV show in nearby Washington D.C. That led to some higher profile engagements like Louisiana Hayride, a TV show broadcast from Shreveport LA, (and a competitor of The Grand Ole Opry). Such appearances positioned her for a recording contract in 1954 with Four Star (who had a leasing and distribution agreement with the larger Decca Records; Patsy’s releases never appeared on the Four Star imprint.)

On the strength of a million seller, doors started to open for Cline. She moved to Nashville in 1958 and after guesting a number of times, became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry – the Mecca of Country Music – in 1960*. In addition Patsy started to tour Nationally, although admittedly on a small scale relative to later years.

*(If you would like to hear what Patsy’s vocals sounded like, unadorned and free of studio effects, check out “Live At The Opry”. Here on a series of songs taken from various Opry guest appearances, her singing, including that unmistakable lilt, is untethered and powerful).

Patsy would stay with Four Star – without a follow-up hit to “Walkin’” – until 1960 when her contract ran out. She then moved directly to Decca and began a prosperous partnership with the vice president of Decca – producer Owen Bradley. Up until that point Patsy had recorded some 50 sides for Four Star with only the one hit “Walkin’ After Midnight”. Accordingly, there was some pressure on Bradley to turn out some hits on Cline as he had already done so convincingly with label mate Brenda Lee.

A year later, in 1961, Bradley was presented with a song, “I Fall To Pieces”, that he knew had huge potential not only for the Country audience but had appeal for the general record buying public as well. Bradley initially offered it to Brenda Lee who turned it down because she saw it as “too Country” for her – a direction she wasn’t interested in pursuing. When he subsequently offered it to Patsy and she rejected it as well, the Decca executives stepped in. While acknowledging that Cline was a hugely popular live attraction, they were not pleased with the fact that Cline had no hits. They implied that “Pieces” might be her last chance with the label. Bradley, who envisioned Cline as not simply a Country star, but viewed her as song stylist in the league of Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, and Peggy Lee, pulled out all the stops. He assembled a “who’s who” of Country studio musicians and arranged with RCA to bring in The Jordanaires to sing back-up on the session. The result was that “I Fall To Pieces” would go to # 1 Country and # 12 Pop. It was Patsy’s first # 1 hit and Patsy, one of the first Country artists to cross over, did so again – a trend that would continue on the rest of the Cline singles that Decca would release.

With a winning formula of Patsy and The Jordanaires, hits followed soon after: “Crazy” (written by Willie Nelson), 1961, # 2 Country, # 9 Pop, “She’s Got You”, 1962, # 1 Country, # 14 Pop. And, not long after she passed away in 1963, Patsy would enjoy two more hits: “Leavin’ On Your Mind”, # 8 Country, # 83 Pop, and Sweet Dreams, #5 Country, #44 Pop.

Based on her hits and popularity Patsy Cline left quite a legacy. Patsy was the first female Country artist to headline a major concert and she would go on to play a wide range of celebrated venues including both Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

Posthumously, the accolades continued with Patsy being the first solo female inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Cline has also been the subject of numerous biographies and several musicals as well as a feature film, “Sweet Dreams” starring Jessica Lange in 1985. And, in addition to having fan clubs around the world, Patsy also was featured on a commemorative postage stamp, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame despite having never appeared in a movie.

Those close to “Ginny” are quick to remind all that she was more than a one dimensional personality. By all accounts, she was warm and generous almost to a fault. As an example, a story told more than once, is that although suffering significant injuries in the 1961 car accident, when help arrived she insisted that others involved be attended to first.

And friends Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee add their personal experiences to any such discussion. Loretta said that, although they were the same age, she was naïve before she met Patsy. Patsy pointed her in the right direction as it related to both the music business and life in general. And, Lynn said, Patsy was always there as her confidant. Brenda Lee tells a story of Patsy coming to her aid when she and her mother were left stranded after a promoter had stolen the proceeds from a show. Brenda Lee summed up the situation by simply saying that “Miss Patsy took us under her wing”.

That’s Patsy Cline – “The First Lady Of Country Music” – a true star.

A Patsy Cline Suggested Playlist:

  1. Walkin’ After Midnight 1957
  2. I Fall To Pieces 1961
  3. True Love 1961
  4. San Antonio Rose 1961
  5. Crazy 1961
  6. She’s Got You 1962
  7. You Belong To Me 1962
  8. Your Cheatin’ Heart 1962
  9. That’s My Desire 1962
  10. Back In Baby’s Arms 1962
  11. Leavin’ On Your Mind 1963
  12. Sweet Dreams 1963
  • Rico Ferrara, December 2020
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5 thoughts on “A PATSY CLINE STORY

  1. Patsy Cline – what a voice. I’ve never heard covers of her great hits that matched her renditions, despite better recording techniques in later years. The playlist is sweet. Those songs are timeless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for another history lesson and a great playlist! As with many of the artists from that era, the backstory is compelling and makes for an interesting read. The playlist brought back some memories for sure, and definitely improves on the sound that came through AM radio and a transistor radio or dashboard speaker.

    Liked by 1 person

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