“Kitty Wells opened the door for Patsy [Cline], Loretta [Lynn], Dolly [Parton] and every other female country singer since,” Country Music magazine neatly concluded in 1988. With her 1952 hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Wells became the first female vocalist to have a Number One record on the country charts. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she continued to score successful singles, including “Making Believe,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Love Makes the World Go ’Round.” Wells also released acclaimed duets with country artists Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Webb Pierce, and her husband, Johnny Wright, with whom she toured Canada and Europe during the heyday of her stardom. She is widely hailed as the influence on female country singers from Cline to Canadian upstart k. d. lang, who invited Wells to lend her famous voice to “Honky Tonk Angels Medley” on lang’s 1988 release, Shadowland.
Wells was born Muriel Deason on August 30, 1919, in Nashville, Tennessee. She showed an early preference for country music, singing along with the radio as a child. By the age of 15, she had honed her skills on the guitar sufficiently to become a popular performer at local dances. By 1936 Wells was playing on Nashville radio station WSIX. In 1938, however, her career took an important turn when Wells married Johnny Wright, half of the country duo Johnny and Jack. Presented with her stage name by Wright—from an old song called “Sweet Kitty Wells”—she began to perform on radio stations throughout the South with Johnny and Jack.
Despite the opportunities provided her through her husband’s act, Wells did not concentrate on her career during the late 1930s and early 1940s, opting instead to devote her full time to raising children. When the youngsters got older, however, Wells redoubled her previous efforts to gain fans’attention; she cut some country and gospel records for RCA, and in 1947 made a guest appearance on the famed Grand Ole Opry. Also during that year Wells, Wright, and Wright’s partner Jack Anglin became a regular feature of the radio show Louisiana Hayride. These appearances meant that Kitty Wells had arrived as a force in country music.
The year Wells left Hayride, 1952, was also the one during which she was catapulted to country stardom with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” At the time, Wells was under contract to Decca Records, with which she stayed through its transition to MCA. “Honky Tonk Angels”—an answer to Hank Thompson’s hit, “The Wild Side of Life”—quickly sold 800,000 copies, eventually reaching the million-seller mark. Shortly after Wells’s single topped the country charts, she and Johnny and Jack were invited to become regular performers at the Grand Ole Opry.
Born Muriel Deason, August30, 1919, in Nashville, TN; married Johnny Wright (a musician), 1938; children include son, Bobby.
Played guitar at local dances in the Nashville area during the early 1930s; began appearing on Nashville radio station WSIX, 1936; appeared on radio stations, including WCHS, Bluefield, West Virginia, WNOX, Knoxville, Tennessee, WPTF, Raleigh, North Carolina, and WEAS, Decatur, Georgia, with country act Johnny and Jack, during the late 1930s and 1940s; appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, 1947; appeared with Johnny and Jack on the radio show Louisiana Hayride, 1947-52; regular performer with Johnny and Jack on the Grand Ole Opry, beginning 1952; solo and duet performer and recording artist, beginning 1952. Appeared on syndicated television show The Kitty Wells/Johnny Wright Family Show, beginning 1969.
Awards: Named Outstanding Tennessee Citizen by Governor Frank Clement, 1954; elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1976; Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, 1991.
Addresses: Home —Nashville, TN. Record company —UNI Distribution Corp. (formerly MCA Records, Inc.), 70 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.
she and Johnny and Jack were invited to become regular performers at the Grand Ole Opry.
Meanwhile, Wells continued to produce hits. She followed up “Honky Tonk Angels” with 1953’s “I’m Paying for That Back Street Affair.” In 1954 two duets with Foley, “One by One” and “As Long as I Live,” as well as the solo singles “Making Believe” and “Lonely Side of Town” became chart-toppers. Wells’s later 1950s releases included “Searching Soul,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and “Amigo’s Guitar,” which she wrote with John Loudermilk. Wells also entered the 1960s on top with songs like “Heartbreak U.S.A.,” “Day into Night,” “You Don’t Hear,” and “Love Makes the World Go ’Round.” But, as Newsweek reported, after achieving 22 Number One country songs, “her churchy, four-square singing fell from favor in the mid-’60s and new country queens like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette won even larger followings.”
Nevertheless, Wells was popular enough to start her own syndicated television program with her husband in 1969. The Kitty Wells/Johnny Wright Family Show also featured appearances by their children, including actor Bobby Wright, and stayed on the air for several years. At the same time, Wells continued recording, until the 1970s, when her contract with MCA expired. She attempted a comeback with a smaller record label, but slow sales proved prohibitive.
Despite her waning popularity, Wells remained a successful concert attraction at smaller venues throughout the country and was still performing on the summer resort circuit as late as the mid-1980s. Unforgotten by her millions of fans, Wells was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976. In her seventies, she received a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, appearing in fine form on the international telecast of the 1991 Grammy Awards presentation. Newsweek attested in 1985 that “these days, as in 1952, [Wells’s] voice is clear and tart, her delivery without a hint of artifice,” qualities that made her a pioneering female vocalist and one of the true giants of country music.
Singles; on Decca/MCA
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” 1952.
“I’m Paying for That Back Street Affair,” 1953.
(With Red Foley) “One by One,” 1954.
(With Foley) “As Long As I Live,” 1954.
“Making Believe,” 1954.
“Lonely Side of Town,” 1954.
“Searching Soul,” 1956.
“I’ll Always Be Your Fraulein,” 1957.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” 1958.
“Amigo’s Guitar,” 1959.
“Mommy for a Day,” 1959.
“Left to Right,” 1960.
“Heartbreak U.S.A.,” 1961.
“Day into Night,” 1962.
“Unloved, Unwanted,” 1962.
“We Missed You,” 1962.
“Will Your Lawyer Talk to God,” 1962.
“The White Circle on My Finger,” 1964.
“You Don’t Hear,” 1965.
“Love Makes the World Go ’Round,” 1966.
Also released “Cheatin’s a Sin,” “I Don’t Claim to Be an Angel,’“God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud,” and “How Far to Heaven.’
Albums; on Decca/MCA except where noted
Lonely Street, 1958.
After Dark, 1959.
Dust on the Bible, 1959.
Kitty’s Choice, 1960.
Seasons of My Heart, 1960.
Golden Favorites, 1961.
Heartbreak U.S.A., 1961.
Queen of Country Music, 1962.
Singing on Sunday, 1963.
Especially for You: The Kitty Wells Story, 1963.
Country Music Time, 1964.
Burning Memories, 1965.
Lonesome, Sad, and Blue, 1965.
Family Gospel Sing, 1965.
Songs Made Famous by Jim Reeves, 1966.
All the Way, 1966.
Kitty Wells Show, 1967.
Love Makes the World Go ’Round, 1967.
(With Foley) Together Again, 1967.
Queen of Honky Tonk, 1967.
Greatest Hits, 1968.
The Golden Years: 1949-1957, Rounder, 1988.
Favorite Songs and Recipes, 1973.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1984.
Country Music, May/June 1988.
Newsweek, August 12, 1985.
Rolling Stone, November 17, 1988.
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