Wells Kitty

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Wells Kitty

Wells Kitty (originally, Deason, Ellen Muriel), American country singer and guitarist; b. Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 30,1919. Wells was the most successful female country singer of the 1950s and 1960s. She was the first major female singer in country music and one of the few to emerge before the 1960s. Her biggest hit was her first, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” and among the 81 songs she placed on the country singles charts between 1952 and 1979, her other #1 hits were “One by One,” a duet with Red Foley, and “Heartbreak U.S.A.”

Wells’s father, Charles Deason, worked in the lumber business and as a railroad brakeman; he also played guitar and performed locally with his brothers. He gave his daughter her first guitar, which she began to play at 14. At 15 she dropped out of school and went to work at a shirt factory, but she also performed locally with her sisters and a cousin as The Deason Sisters. They made their local radio debut in 1936. On Oct. 31, 1937, she married Johnnie (John Robert) Wright (b. 1914), a cabinetmaker and aspiring musician. They formed a trio with Wright’s sister and performed on local radio as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls.

On Oct. 27, 1939, Wells gave birth to a daughter, Ruby Wright, who grew up to perform with her parents and on her own. As Wells took a less active role in the family band, Wright teamed with Jack Anglin to form Johnnie Wright and the Happy Roving Cowboys with Jack Anglin. The group moved to Greensboro, N.C., in 1940 and appeared on radio as The Tennessee Hillbillies. Over the next several years they appeared on several radio stations in the mid-South. They were in Charleston, W. Va., on March 30,1942, when Wells gave birth to a son, Bobby Wright, who grew up to perform with his parents and act on television. In 1945 she had a second daughter, Carol Sue, who also performed with her parents. After Anglin was drafted, Wells took a more prominent role in the group. Anglin returned from the service in January 1946, and, in 1947, as The Tennessee Mountain Boys, they spent a year on the Grand Ole Opry, moving to the Louisiana Hayride in February 1948.

Wright and Anglin signed to RCA Victor in 1949, making records as Johnnie and Jack. Wells also recorded for the label without success. Johnnie and Jack scored two Top Ten country hits in 1951 and were invited to become permanent members of the Grand Ole Opry at the start of 1952. Wells was all but retired at this point, but Wright arranged for her to record a demo of an answer song to Hank Thompson’s hit “The Wild Side of Life/’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” (music and lyrics by J. D. Miller). Released by Decca Records, it hit #1 in the country charts in August 1952, the first country chart-topper by a solo female singer. Soon Wells, too, was asked to join the Grand Ole Opry. She made her debut with the program on Sept. 13,1952.

Thereafter, Wells performed on the Grand Ole Opry, toured as part of the “Johnnie and Jack Show,” and recorded for Decca. Her next Top Ten country hit, which entered the charts in March 1953, was an answer song to Webb Pierce’s “Back Street Affair,” “Paying for That Back Street Affair.” Her third Top Ten country hit, “Hey Joe,” which charted in September, was another answer song to an identically titled hit by Carl Smith. Among her three Top Ten country hits in 1954, the most successful was a duet with Red Foley, “One by One” (music and lyrics by Johnnie Wright, Jack Anglin, and Jim Anglin), which hit #1 in July. She and Foley had two more Top Ten country hits in 1955, and she had four more of her own during the year, the most successful of which was “Makin’ Believe” (music and lyrics by Jimmy Work), which was held out of #1 only by the long- running success of Webb Pierce’s “In the Jailhouse Now.” She had another Top Ten country hit with Foley in 1956, “You and Me” (music and lyrics by Johnnie Wright, Jack Anglin, and Jim Anglin), as well as two others on her own. Her four Top Ten country hits in 1957 included “Oh, So Many Years Ago,” a duet with Webb Pierce.

Wells was less consistently successful over the next few years, scoring five Top Ten country hits between 1958 and 1960. But the chart-topping success of “Heartbreak U.S.A.” (music and lyrics by Harlan Howard) in July 1961 revived her career, and she scored four Top Ten country hits in 1962, three in 1964, and three in 1965. Her recording career cooled thereafter, although she continued to chart consistently through 1972. After Jack Anglin’s death in a car accident on March 7, 1963, Wright reorganized their touring package as the “Kitty Wells and Johnnie Wright Family Show.” Starting in 1969, the show was broadcast as a syndicated television program for a number of years. Wells left MCA Records, which had taken over Decca, in 1973 and signed to Capricorn, where she recorded the album Forever Young (its title song written by Bob Dylan) with members of The Allman Brothers Band. By the late 1970s she was recording on her own Ruboca Records label.

In 1988, Wells sang with Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn on a “Honky Tonk Angels’ Medley” on k.d. lang’s Shadowland album, resulting in a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Collaboration. Wells also sang on a remake of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” on Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette’s gold- selling 1993 album Honky Tonk Angels. Wells continued to tour regularly with her family show in the late 1990s.


Favorite Songs and Recipes (1973).


Country Music Hall of Fame (ree. 1952-61; rei. 1991); The Queen of Country Music (complete recordings; 1993).


A. Dunkleberger, Queen of Country Music, The Life Story of K. W.

—William Ruhlmann

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