Cline, Patsy (1932-1963)
Cline, Patsy (1932-1963)
Known for her smooth, powerful delivery, Patsy Cline became the first successful crossover female country vocalist with hits in the pop market during the early 1960s. Cline was an aggressive artist who fought against efforts to mold her into a pop sensation. She initially disliked many of the songs that became her biggest hits, preferring uptempo country tunes to the more accessible ballads that made her famous. As her relatively brief career came to an end in 1963 when she died in a plane crash, the slick recording style known as the "Nashville sound" was taking over the industry. In Country Music, U.S.A., historian Bill C. Malone notes that Cline "moved female country singing closer to the pop mainstream and light years away from the sound" of artists with a more traditional, rural style such as Kitty Wells. Despite her resistance to being typecast as a pop artist, Cline played a major role in Nashville's transformation from hillbilly to "countrypolitan."
Born Virginia Patterson Hensley on September 8, 1932, in Gore, Virginia, Cline began performing at an early age. She won a dancing contest at the age of four, and a few years later she was playing the piano by ear. By the time her family moved to the larger town of Winchester, the teenage Cline was interested in singing professionally. She began appearing regularly on a local radio show after approaching the announcer, who recalls being impressed by her nerve and her voice. In 1948, she traveled to Nashville to audition for the Grand Ol' Opry, and appeared on Roy Acuff's radio program on WSM. Without an immediate offer, however, she could not afford to stay in town for long and returned home after a few days. Winchester band leader Bill Peer hired Cline to be the lead singer of his act, the Melody Boys and Girls, in 1952. Peer became her manager, and proposed that she use the stage name Patsy; shortly thereafter, she met and married Gerald Cline.
In 1954, Cline signed a recording contract with Four Star Records that would prove to be a major stumbling block in her career. The contract paid her only small royalties and included a stipulation that her material had to be approved by the label. As a result, almost all of Cline's pre-1960 recordings were songs chosen by the label's owner, Bill McCall, and published by Four Star, enabling the label to profit from the publishing royalties. Four Star made a deal that allowed major label Decca Records to lease Cline's music, giving her the opportunity to work with top Nashville session musicians and a gifted producer, Owen Bradley. Although Cline's talent was apparent to those who heard her sing, the recordings she made in the mid-1950s were largely ignored. A fan of pop singer Kay Starr, she was capable of styles other than country, and Bradley quickly recognized this. Though Cline preferred country material, the songs from her early recordings ran the gamut.
At the end of 1956, at McCall's insistence, Cline recorded "Walkin' After Midnight," a tune she reportedly described as "nothin' but a little ol' pop song," according to biographer Ellis Nassour. Before the record's release she made her national television debut on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in January of 1957. Cline favored the western outfits commonly worn by country singers of that era, but for this performance she was told to wear a cocktail dress. Godfrey's staff also encouraged her to abandon country music and move to New York. She was not persuaded, however, and continued to promote the record with appearances on the Opry and a rock 'n' roll show in New York hosted by Alan Freed. The song became a Top Ten hit on the country charts and went to number 17 on the pop charts.
That same year, Patsy and Gerald Cline were divorced, and in the fall she married Charlie Dick. Over the next two years, she released several singles and gave birth to her first child. During the summer of 1959, she hired Ramsey "Randy" Hughes as her manager. As the result of Cline's failure to record any major hits after "Walkin' After Midnight," McCall chose not to renew her Four Star contract. At the beginning of 1960, she began performing regularly on the Opry, fulfilling a childhood dream. Decca signed her later that year, and Bradley found the perfect song for her first session. In 1961, "I Fall to Pieces," featuring the background vocals of the Jordanaires, became her first number one country hit, reaching number 12 on the pop charts. The success of this record confirmed Bradley's belief that Cline could capture a much larger audience by focusing her efforts on pop ballads. Later hits such as "Crazy" and "She's Got You" established her as a torch singer, and Bradley began using string accompaniments on a semi-regular basis. These lush arrangements typified the Nashville sound, and Bradley became a proponent for this new style. By late 1962, she was headlining a month long engagement in Las Vegas, wearing evening gowns. On March 5, 1963, a plane crash outside Camden, Tennessee, killed Cline, along with Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Randy Hughes.
Throughout her career, Cline had a reputation for being outspoken and opinionated. Those who knew her described her as a "brassy" woman who drank and cursed along with her male counterparts. She was also noted for being kindhearted and generous, particularly toward other female country artists struggling for success. The male-dominated recording industry of the 1950s was unaccustomed to self-confident women, and Cline's headstrong temperament led to arguments with Bradley over her material. The contradictions between her professional image and her personal background reflect the conflicting forces that were shaping country music in the early 1960s. Despite changes in country and pop styles, the legendary voice of Patsy Cline remains timeless. She gained a new following in 1985, when Jessica Lange starred in the film biography Sweet Dreams. Over three decades after her death her recordings continued to appear on the charts.
—Anna Hunt Graves
Jones, Margaret. Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.
Kingsbury, Paul. The Patsy Cline Collection. Nashville, MCA Records/Country Music Foundation, 1991.
Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Nassour, Ellis. Patsy Cline. New York, Dorchester, 1985.