When the single “The End of the World” burst onto the Billboard charts in 1962, it signalled a turning point in the career of country vocalist Skeeter Davis. As one half of the talented vocal duo the Davis Sisters, Skeeter had been poised on the brink of major stardom a decade before, until that group’s tragic demise. Her first gold record since going solo, Skeeter’s hit was also one of the most notable of the early “crossovers,” topping the pop and country charts simultaneously. “The End of the World” set the stage for the beginning of Davis’s rise as one of the most popular— as well as one of the most outspoken— female voices in country music in the decades that followed.
Davis was born Mary Frances Penick, in Glencoe, Kentucky, on December 30, 1931. She was the first of seven children born to William and Sarah Penick, and the strong moral values she developed while helping to raise her younger siblings in rural Dry Ridge, Kentucky, would strongly influence her musical career. When her family moved to Covington, Ohio, during her junior year of high school, young Mary Frances made the acquaintance of fellow home economics classmate Betty Jack Davis at Covington’s Dixie Heights High.
Thus began Davis’s country music career, on the traditional path of a country “sister” act. Although unrelated by blood, Skeeter and Betty Jack— B. J. to her friends— shared a common love of music; they soon sang together every day at lunch and spent so much time in each other’s company that they became almost as close as real sisters. Skeeter quickly joined her friend as a singer at the famed “Renfro Valley Barn Dance” broadcast from nearby Renfro Valley; the two also got a steady lunchtime job at a local television variety show while still in high school. The TV show emcee would always be in a rush to announce the girls, who would run over from school to perform on their lunch break. One day he fumbled the name Penick and dubbed the pair the “Davis sisters.”
The name suited Skeeter and B. J. ; after graduation in 1949, they went to Lexington radio station WLAX and performed regularly as the Davis Sisters. The two spent 1952 on Casey Clark’s “Big Bam Dance Frolic” on Detroit’s WJR. From there it was off to WKRC-Cincinnati and Wheeling, West Virginia’s WWVA. After recording several demo tapes with Detroit’s Fortune Records—including a cover of Hank Williams’s “Kaw Liga”— the Davis Sisters travelled to New York City in 1952 to meet Steve Sholes of RCA Victor. The trip netted them a record contract with the major label.
For the Record …
Born Mary Frances Penick, December 30, 1931, in Dry Ridge, KY; daughter of William (a farmer and electrician) and Sarah Penick; married second husband, Ralph Emery (a disc jockey), 1960 (divorced, 1964); married Joey Spampinato (a singer), 1987.
With friend Betty Jack Davis, formed duo the Davis Sisters, c. 1948; performed regularly on WLEX, Lexington, KY; signed with RCA Records, 1952; released debut LP,/ Forgot More than You 7/ Ever Know, 1953; seriously injured in an automobile accident that killed Betty Jack, 1953; performed with Georgia Davis as the Davis Sisters; began solo career, 1958; joined Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, TN, 1959; toured with the Rolling Stones, c. 1965; has toured extensively in the U. S., as well as England, Germany, Jamaica, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and Sweden.
Awards: Named most promising female country vocalist by Cash Box magazine, 1959; gold record, 1963, for End of the World; Peter DeRose Memorial Award, 1965, for “Somebody Loves You”; numerous awards for songwriting from performance rights societies BMI and ASCAP.
Addresses: Home — Brentwood, TN. Office — Grand Ole Opry, 2804 Opryland Drive, Nashville, TN 37229.
“Our singing style was never something we practiced or sat down and figured out,” Skeeter told Bob Allen in the Journal of the American Academy for the Preservation of Old-Time Country Music . “The vocal arrangements that we came up with were always completely spontaneous; it just came out when Betty Jack and I sang together.” The 1953 release of the Davis Sisters’ first album on RCA showcased a vocal duo poised on the edge of country superstardom. The Sisters’ harmonies would strongly influence future duos like the Everly Brothers. The album’s title cut, “I Forgot More than You’ll Ever Know,” quickly made the climb to Number One; it would stay on the Billboard country charts a record 26 weeks.
But 1953 proved to be a fateful year— not just for the Davis Sisters, but for country music as well. On January 1, while on his way to a concert date in Canton, Ohio, 29-year-old country superstar Hank Williams succumbed to a decades-long addiction, quietly dying of a drug and alcohol overdose in the back seat of his Cadillac. Almost exactly eight months later, on August 2, Skeeter and B. J. would also be involved in tragedy while on the road; a car whose driver had fallen asleep at the wheel struck the duo as they were driving home to Cincinnati from a performance on WWVA. The head-on collision left Skeeter with a concussion and serious internal injuries. It left her best friend dead. Months would pass before Skeeter would recover sufficiently from the shock to resume her musical career.
Stricken by grief, Betty Jack’s family clung to Skeeter. She was paired with B. J. ’s sister, Georgia Davis, in an attempt to get a new version of the Davis Sisters out before paying audiences. The two recorded several albums and toured with country talents Hank Snow, Maybelle Carter, and Elvis Presley before Georgie left the music business in 1957 to raise a family. A year later, Skeeter finally broke away from the control of the Davis family and went solo, becoming one of the first RCA artists to work under the guidance of guitarist/producer Chet Atkins. 1959’s Set Him Free was a success: Davis received her first Grammy nomination for the record, which established her on the country charts and gained her entry into the Grand Ole Opry, the venerable “mother church” of country music then lorded over by the legendary Roy Acuff.
In 1960 Davis married popular WSM radio personality Ralph Emery. But the stress of music-industry demands— as well as Emery’s battle with pills and alcohol— would destroy their marriage in four years. Despite the turmoil in her private life, Davis— who had enjoyed several career boosts during the 1950s— achieved star status in the early years of the 1960s. Combining her traditional country roots with pop influences, she co-wrote and recorded “My Last Date With You,” her first crossover success. In addition to writing many other songs, Davis began pairing with Connie Francis, Bobbie Vinton, Duke Ellington, and other pop celebrities on vocal collaborations.
When television host Dick Clark welcomed Davis to his rock and roll-oriented American Bandstand, it was clear that the road she was travelling circled a mighty long way around the local honky tonk, a fact that dismayed many of her country fans; the increasing notice Davis was receiving outside traditional country music circles didn’t seem fitting or proper for an Opry regular. Her continuing flirtation with the works of pop and rock artists— such as the late Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones, not to mention jazz great Ellington— diminished her appeal to hard-core country fans further. But Davis continued to proclaim her deep country roots, despite her personal satisfaction in broadening her musical scope. As she has often said, “I’ve been with the Opry since joining in 1959— which proves that my heart’s in country.”
Davis’s continued experimentation with musical genres over the years has made her somewhat difficult for critics to pigeonhole. During the 1970s, she became well known for her renditions of sacred music; her work with televangelist Oral Roberts brought her vocal talents into the living rooms of Americans unfamiliar with her work as a pop/country artist. But, in 1965 she had toured with the Rolling Stones, and in 1985 she was hard at work in the studio recording an album with the rhythm and blues band NRBQ. Davis would marry Joey Spam-pinato, a member of NRBQ, in 1987.
In addition to recording and her work on television, Davis toured extensively throughout North America and beyond— she claims that she has performed in every major U.S. city at least once during her career. In booking her live performances, however, she has demanded an unusual restriction: that performances not be scheduled where liquor is served. It was not that she personally objected to drinking; rather, she didn’t want to put temptation in the path of loyal fans who did not already have a taste for alcoholic beverages. A devout Christian since she was 18, Davis has demonstrated the tenets of her faith by remaining active in community projects for the less privileged residents of the greater Nashville area and performing for church-related events. In fact, her ethical standards once caused her temporary dismissal from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry; in 1973, she spoke out during an Opry broadcast on WSM to criticize the Nashville Police Department’s handling of a local altercation. Opry head Acuff, a staunch traditionalist, had no choice but to temporarily censure the popular star.
Despite her somewhat controversial profile, Davis has enjoyed numerous successes throughout her long career. Recording over 60 singles and 30 popular albums for RCA, she has been nominated for five Grammy awards. Her hits have included 1960’s “I’m Falling Too,” “Where I Ought to Be” in 1962, “He Says the Same Things to Me” in 1964, and “One Tin Soldier,” the Top Ten theme to the 1972 movie Billy Jack . Her duets with country singers like Bobby Bare, Porter Wagoner, and George Hamilton IV, as well as her strong and continued support of young talent and of the Grand Ole Opry, have more than reaffirmed Davis’s roots in country music.
With the Davis Sisters
Hits with The Davis Sisters, Fortune, 1952.
I Forgot More than You’ll Ever Know, RCA, 1953.
Set Him Free, RCA, 1958.
End of the World, RCA, 1963.
Cloudy, RCA, 1963.
Let Me Get Close, RCA, 1964.
(With Bobby Bare) Tunes for Two (includes “A Dear John Letter”), RCA, 1965.
My Heart’s in Country, RCA, 1967.
Skeeter Davis Sings Buddy Holly, RCA, 1967.
Hand in Hand, RCA, 1969.
Bring it on Home, RCA, 1972.
(With NRBQ) She Sings They Play, Rounder, 1985.
The Essential Skeeter Davis, RCA, 1995.
Davis, Skeeter, Bus Fare to Kentucky: The Autobiography of Skeeter Davis, Birch Lane Press, 1993.
Malone, Bill C. and Judith McCulloh, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1983.
Strobel, Jerry, The Official Opry Picture-History Book, Opry-landUSA, 1994.
Country Music, July/August 1995.
Journal of the American Academy for the Preservation of Old-Time Country Music, December 1993.
—Pamela L. Shelton
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