Cline, Patsy (1932–1963)
Cline, Patsy (1932–1963)
Legendary American pop, rock, and country singer who pushed the boundaries for women in country music. Name variations: Virginia Dick. Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Virginia, on September 8, 1932; died in a plane crash on March 5, 1963; daughter of Samuel Lawrence Hensley (a master blacksmith) and Hilda Virginia (Patterson) Hensley; married Gerald Cline, on March 7, 1953; married Charlie Dick (a linotype operator), in 1957; children: (second marriage) Julia Simadore Dick (b. August 25, 1958); Allen Randolph (b. January 22, 1961).
Discography: "Walkin' after Midnight," "Don't Ever Leave Me," "Then You'll Know," "Try Again," "Today, Tomorrow, and Forever," "Fingerprints," "Too Many Secrets,"Lillian Claiborne 's "A Stranger in My Arms," "That Wonderful Someone," "In Care of the Blues," "Hungry for Love," "I Can't Forget," "Stop the World," "Walking Dreams," "Cry Not for Me," "If I Could See the World," "Just out of Reach," "I Can See an Angel," "Come on In," "Never No More," "If I Could Only Stay Asleep," "Crazy," "She's Got You," "Seven Lonely Days," "I Love You So Much It Hurts Me," "Have You Ever Been Lonely," "Foolin' Around," "South of the Border," "Who Can I Count On," "When I Get Through with You," "Leavin' on Your Mind," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Faded Love," "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)," "Always," "Sweet Dreams (of You)," "Does Your Heart Beat for Me?," "Bill Bailey," "Lovesick Blues," "There He Goes."
She sang in clubs. She sang in fire-halls. She sang in gin mills and juke joints. She sang in the annual minstrel show and on the roof of the refreshment stand at the Winchester Royal Drive-In. She sang at county fairs in towns called Brunswick, Barryville, Warrenton, Elkton, and Martinsburg. But in her hometown of Winchester, population 15,000, the conventional wisdom was that she wouldn't amount to a hill of beans.
Patsy Cline was born in Winchester, apple capital of Virginia. Proud of being the oldest English colonial settlement west of the Blue Ridge, the town venerated its genteel, well-bred ladies, a circumstance that "put Patsy on a collision course with Southern Womanhood," writes her biographer Margaret Jones . In May 1957, with her career on the rise, the 25-year-old Cline was selected queen Shenandoah XXX of the Apple Blossom Festival. She wore makeup, dressed like a cowgirl, had a womanly figure, and was from Kent Street—the wrong side of the tracks. Winchester was not about to have this singer with her newfound pop success shoved down their throats; Cline was greeted with cat calls from the curb. "Sonsabitches," she muttered, "I'll show them yet."
Descended from prime "hillbilly" stock, Cline's paternal grandfather was a major landowner. Her father Sam Hensley, who lost the family property in the Depression, was a master blacksmith and a talented singer and piano player, whose sisters attended the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music and whose brother was a guitarist. Sam was also known for his uncontrollable temper. Following his return from World War I and a tour of the Argonne Forest, he took to periodic drinking. Then his first wife and one of his children were killed in an auto accident, and he sent his surviving son and daughter to live with the local music teacher, Sally Mann . At age 43, Sam Hensley was essentially a bachelor and a mean drunk when he married 15-year-old Hilda Patterson six days before the birth of their daughter Virginia Patterson Hensley on September 8, 1932. The bride's stepfather, a guard on a prison chain gang, provided the motivation. Called Ginny at first, then Patsy, a corruption of her middle name, the child was precocious; at age four, she won a street-fair talent contest with her tap dancing.
Though charming to others, Sam Hensley terrorized his family. Patsy was aware that her teenaged mother, who worked at the apple processing plant, lived in constant fear. Often the beneficiary of her father's temper, Patsy had the fire to go toe to toe with him, though she lost every round. Mother and daughter formed an alliance that would last for the rest of their lives.
There was a more serious problem. In later years, careful to avoid particulars, Cline spoke tearfully of a relative who made frequent sexual advances toward her. Prefacing her admission with "take this to your grave," she confided in Loretta Lynn that the abuser was her father. Knowledge of the incest would become public after Cline's death, when in 1985, her mother disclosed the abuse to producer Bernard Schwartz while he was filming Cline's bio-pic Sweet Dreams, with Jessica Lange . Though discreet scenes were shot and Lange wanted the scenes in the movie, director Karel Reisz left most of this footage on the cutting-room floor. Instead, the film became a love story between Cline and Charlie Dick.
When Patsy was about seven, a younger brother Sam, Jr., known as John, was born (1939), followed by a sister Sylvia Mae (1944). During Patsy's youth, the family moved 19 times—from Lexington to Norfolk, from Norfolk to Frederick County. Sam would find a large Victorian house that Hilda would fix up. Spending freely, Sam would get behind on the rent; they'd move again.
Music was Patsy's solace. To mother and daughter religion was "problematic," but Patsy loved to sing gospel. At times, Sam Hensley would find religion and join the choir. Patsy was given an old upright, at age eight, and learned to play piano by ear. Her influences were the women with the booming voices: Kate Smith and Helen Morgan . The singer who had the most impact was Rubye Blevins, known professionally as Patsy Montana , the first country-singing woman to don cowgirl clothes, complete with a six shooter. In 1936, Montana sold a million copies of "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." By the 7th grade, Cline was wearing a scarf around her neck, country style. By 16, she was listening to Grand Ole Opry on Nashville's WSM radio and begging to wear cowboy boots and a fringed vest.
In 1948, the Hensleys moved from Gore, Virginia, to a run-down duplex in Winchester. That December, Patsy re-enrolled at Handley High School for the 9th grade, just before Sam abandoned the household. To help support her mother and siblings, the 16-year-old Cline dropped out of school and lied about her age to get work—at the Rockingham Poultry butchering chickens, at the Greyhound Bus depot as a countergirl, finally at the local drugstore as a sodajerk. Her mother filled the gap by taking in sewing.
But Cline had a dream. She began to make the rounds for singing jobs, both pop and country. Driven, she made cheap discs and sent them to magazine advertisers. She entered an amateur contest at the local movie house and took first prize. With no connections, she walked into WINC, Winchester's radio station, and asked to sing with a local hillbilly band, the Melody Playboys, who played on a Saturday morning show. It was her first radio broadcast. Then she was offered a job fronting a band at Yorks Inn, a high-class nightclub. Cline would arrive home at 3 AM then roust out of bed early the next morning for her post at the drugstore. She sang anywhere, with anybody, to anyone. When she landed an audition for the Opry, she and Hilda, with no money for a hotel, slept in the car in Nashville. Though impressed, the Opry told her she was too young; besides, girls singing solo … well, it wasn't considered a nice thing to do. In 1948, "girl singers were rare and girl soloists were an anomaly," writes Jones:
The girls worked with their husbands, like cowgirl Texas Ruby , or Annie Lu , or their families, like the Cackle Sisters or the Poe Sisters . And if they didn't have any family, they invented them…. It was said that girls would never be stars [of the Opry] because the good old boys in the audience with their wives 'would get their ears slapped down if they stared at a strange female.'… The only way a woman could get a star billing was if she cultivated a homely image, like Sarah Ophelia Colley, who, as Minnie Pearl , was the Opry's reigning female icon.
Cline's experience at the Opry made her more determined. Turning away from the pop music she loved, she majored in country, while her mother sewed fringe on cowgirl outfits. In 1952, Kitty Wells broke ground with her smash hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels," releasing the first important country recording by a woman since Patsy Montana. That year, bandleader Bill Peer took Cline in hand. Quitting her drugstore job, she began singing full time at his Moose Lodge in Brunswick, Maryland. Under pressure from Peer, she reluctantly began an affair with him, to the consternation of her mother and the ruination of her reputation in Winchester.
On March 7, 1953, Patsy married Gerald Cline, a regular at Moose Lodge. Seven years her senior, Gerald was a short, heavy-set, big spender from a well-off family; he also owned a Buick. For Patsy, he looked like a first-class ticket out of town. "She thought she could learn to love him," said a friend. But Gerald's expected wealth would remain just that. In reality, he wasn't the Cline Construction Company; he was only working for his family. Though he treated her well, Gerald had little interest in his wife's ambitions. He was also deadly dull. During their marriage, Cline continued her relationship with Peer.
Then, on September 30, 1954, she signed a two-year, 16-side contract with Bill McCall and his 4 Star records (Decca was his distributor). Since McCall was one of the biggest shysters in the business, Cline's royalties turned out to be half the going rate and the fine print would handcuff her for years. When she was broke and needed an advance, McCall would gladly oblige, but only if she signed an extension on her contract. Cline, who would receive little in royalties, was generally broke.
That year, she took first at the National Country Music Championships, caught the attention of Connie B. Gay, a deejay, producer,
and power broker in country music, and joined his daily "Town and Country" television show in Washington D.C. as a regular, becoming a regional star. Between that and the nightclubs, 22-year-old Cline was finally making enough money on singing alone to help support her family. But the response to her first single for 4 Star, "A Church, a Courtroom and Then Goodbye," was tepid.
By 1956, she was separated from Gerald. That April, on Friday the 13th, she met Charlie Dick, a Winchester man with a wild-boy reputation, and formed an instant attachment. Her mother's response was just as instant: total dislike. Charlie Dick was decent when sober but a mean drunk, and he was drunk often. He, too, had not lived a storybook life: Dick was 15 and in his bedroom when his father shot himself in the downstairs kitchen.
By now, Cline had recorded four singles, all duds. When Donn Hecht urged her to record his song "Walkin' after Midnight," originally written for Kay Starr , she demurred, convinced it was another dud; besides, she didn't think it was country. They compromised. Cline agreed to record "Walkin'" if she could choose the flip side, "A Poor Man's Roses"; still, she was not keen on the deal.
She was a tough-talking survivor—a strong woman in country music when strong women weren't wanted or tolerated.
Early in 1957, she brought her mother by Greyhound to New York on borrowed money, stayed at the Dixie Hotel across from the bus station, and tried out for Arthur Godfrey's "Talent Scouts," an enormously popular prime-time TV show of the 1950s. Godfrey, with his red hair, easy manner, and nasal patter, made headlines if he sneezed. It was his producer and sometime regular singer Janette Davis , however, who nixed four of Cline's offerings and convinced her to sing the yet unreleased "Walkin' after Midnight." Wearing a linen dress, which prohibited sitting for fear of wrinkles, and singing a song she had no faith in, Patsy Cline went on "Talent Scouts" the night of January 21 and won. The next day, Gerald Cline filed for divorce.
Following Cline's appearance, Decca had to race to press the master for "Walkin' after Midnight" to satisfy eager distributors; it was an instant crossover hit, both country and pop. The song peaked at No. 12 on the pop charts and No. 2 on country, but when her royalty statements arrived from 4 Star, she saw no money after "expenses." Cline needed an advance; McCall gladly extended her contract. "Walkin'" sold 2.5 million records in her lifetime, and she made $900 from the royalties.
She was, however, finally making money on bookings. Though shy, and fearful of her grammar, Cline was invited to become a regular on Godfrey's show, performing every three months for about a year and a half, at $1,000 a week. She was also named Billboard's "Most Promising Country & Western Female Artist" for 1957. Moving up, she rented a brick house for her family on the same street as before and, for a friend, signed records at McCrory's 5&10 in Winchester. In April 1957, she cut eight more songs and had recording dates in May, December, and February (1958). None of these recordings made the charts. She knew the songs were not good enough—everyone at the sessions knew—but Cline, and the talent around her, had no say; 4 Star chose the material. Cline was so broke that she'd record anything for the 50 bucks a side.
She became close with June Carter (Cash) , seeking her out to discuss problems of the heart. Charlie Dick was Cline's passion, and he was cheating on her. Their relationship was in constant turmoil; they had mammoth fights. Even so, when Charlie was drafted in 1957, she married him. "That was the only time Patsy ever went against her mother," said a friend. For awhile, she lived off-base in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was stationed at Fort Bragg. When Cline gave birth to Julia Simadore Dick on August 25, 1958, Charlie encouraged her to stay home and raise a family, to let him become the breadwinner. Tired after a heady year, she agreed. Between fights, she would return home to mother, while Charlie lived on the base. After one year, she missed singing—not the business, just singing.
She took to the road, long before there were touring buses. Charlie was out of the army, hanging around her shows, flirting with women, getting drunk and, at some of her appearances, making scenes. Her weight fluctuated, she started smoking, drinking a little more. Sometimes she showed up at sessions with a bruised face. When asked, she'd reply: "I can hand it back."
Cline's new manager Randy Hughes advised her to ride out the contract with 4 Star, no extensions. With his encouragement, she moved to Nashville. Though she and Charlie couldn't afford a phone, her hopes were high. "We haven't had a fuss since we been here," she wrote her mother. When another baby, Allan Randolph, arrived on January 22, 1961, Charlie was passed out from an evening revel, and she had to ask a neighbor to take her to the hospital.
Finally out of 4 Star's clutches, Cline signed with Decca for three years, and Owen Bradley, a well-known arranger-producer, was free to choose her material. Bradley liked a ballad called "I Fall to Pieces," but once again Patsy wasn't sure, especially when she heard that Brenda Lee had turned it down. Another compromise was reached: they would record one of his, one of hers. More comfortable with swing, she hated Bradley's slow arrangement, but session musicians urged her to try it. During the playback, Cline reluctantly admitted, "I like that, even if it isn't me."
Though her new record was released with slight promotion from Decca, Pamper Music (publishers of "I Fall to Pieces") gave it their all for six months. Across the nation, Cline did a host of sock hops. Soon tiring of the road, she took a gig at the Winchester Drive-In theater, just to come home. The event was a fiasco. As she sang on the roof of the refreshment stand, she heard more horns than cheers. "Why do people in Winchester treat me like this?" she asked, leaving the stage in tears.
On May 22, 1961, "I Fall to Pieces" made the charts. By August 7, it was No. 1 on country charts; by September 12, it peaked at No. 12 on the pop charts. Cline was thrilled; the repossessors could no longer threaten to take her refrigerator. On the strength of the song, she bought her mother a car and made a down payment on a modest home in Madison, a suburb of Nashville.
Throughout her life, Cline maintained she had premonitions. In April 1961, certain that an accident was imminent, she made out a will, leaving everything to her mother, including her children. To Charlie, she left "whatever make car we have at the time of my death." On June 14, a rainy day in Nashville, she was driving with her brother John on a two-lane road when a passing car came roaring toward them as they topped a hill. In the head-on collision, Cline was thrown through the windshield onto the hood, while John, who had been at the wheel, had a puncture in his chest and cracked ribs. In the other car, a woman and her six-year-old son were killed. Unaware of how badly she was injured, Cline told the ambulances at the scene to take care of the others.
The admitting physician said Cline was a "gory mess" on arrival at the hospital. Her scalp was peeled back; she had a deep gash across her forehead from temple to temple, crossing the right eyebrow, the bridge of her nose, and left eyebrow; she also had a dislocated hip, a broken wrist, and enormous blood loss. Twice, the doctors thought they lost her. Cline, who claimed a near-death experience, told a visiting minister, "All my life I have been reaching for God and today I touched him." Most agree that the hard-talking, cussing singer changed after the accident, and she made a pact with God to make her marriage work for the kid's sake. Charlie was at the hospital throughout.
While in the hospital, Cline heard Loretta Lynn sing "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl" on Opry radio. That night, Lynn, who had only been singing for six months and was still pretty green, dedicated her next song to Patsy Cline, saying "I love her and love her singing," Lynn then sang "I Fall to Pieces." Touched, Patsy sent Charlie to bring Lynn to the hospital. They were close friends from then on. Wrote Lynn:
[Patsy] was my protector…. She taught me how to get on and off the stage, how to wear makeup, how to start a show and how to leave people wanting more at the end. She made sure I had clothes to wear and many times when she bought an outfit for herself, she'd buy one for me just like it. She bought curtains for my house because I was too broke to buy 'em. She protected me with the radio stations all she could. She'd tell those disk jockeys, "If you want to talk to me, you'll have to talk to both of us." … Maybe she saw something of herself in me, 'cause she and I both grew up the hard way, had to be women when we were children, and she was a woman, a wise, older woman, even though she was so young when she died.
Known for her generosity to other female singers, Cline had a tendency to take kid stars, like Brenda Lee, Dottie West , and 13-year old Barbara Mandrell , under her wing. Many looked up to her. "She was the first woman in country music to step out of the boundaries they had been placed in," wrote Lynn.
Because of the accident, deejays could not resist the irony, and "I Fall to Pieces" received a great deal of airplay. Letters poured into her hospital room. After a small amount of cosmetic surgery (she was frightened of, and avoided, the major one needed), Cline pulled her bangs down over the scar across her forehead, drew on eyebrows in place of those that were no longer there, and returned to the stage on crutches.
She was brought a song called "Crazy" by a newcomer named Willie Nelson. In August 1961, still on crutches—with sore ribs, painful breathing, and severe headaches from her head injury—she had another recording session. Slowing Nelson's tempo, she attempted "Crazy," but her ribs hurt so much that she couldn't hold her breath long enough to sustain the notes. Returning two weeks later, she tried again. Decca released "Crazy" on October 16. The song was an instant hit, in Europe as well as America, and even cracked the tough sophisticated New York market. In fact, the Grand Old Opry, with Cline aboard, played Carnegie Hall in November 1961, much to the distaste of New York columnist Dorothy Kilgallen . Billboard named Cline "Favorite Female Artist" for two years running (1961 and 1962), an honor that had been given only to Kitty Wells for the preceding nine years. In December 1961, Cline recorded "She's Got You," her third smash hit in a row.
In 1962, she toured off and on with the Johnny Cash Show, one highlight of which was playing the Hollywood Bowl. With money finally coming in, Charlie quit his job and stayed home to take care of the kids. He continued to cheat on Cline, and she began to look for love elsewhere. She also bought a split-level house for the family, nothing grand, on Nella Drive in Madison. The following year, "Leavin' on Your Mind" was released, and Cline recorded an album that included "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)," and "Sweet Dreams (of You)." That January, the 30-year-old had another premonition. Write this down, Cline told June Cash, "I'm going out soon." She then instructed Cash on everything she wanted her mother, husband, and children to know.
On Sunday, March 2, 1963, Cline and her manager Randy Hughes flew to Kansas City for a couple of shows at the Memorial Building. Hughes had only recently taken up flying. Though he had little experience and was not rated for instruments, he sometimes transported them to dates. The next morning, Monday, was rainy and foggy. Hughes, Cline, and singers Lloyd "Cowboy" Copas and Hawk Hawkins sat at the airport, waiting out the weather. Though Dottie West, who had appeared with them the night before, offered her friend a ride back to Nashville, Cline decided to wait. The group flew out on Tuesday. The only thing that could be concluded about the crash near Camden, Tennessee, was that it was raining at the time, and Hughes must have thought he was gaining altitude when in reality he was nosediving at 120 miles per hour into a hillside. In Cline's hometown, the Winchester Star gave the tragedy a banner headline: PATSY CLINE, 3 OTHERS KILLED IN PLANE CRASH. Writes her biographer Margaret Jones: "Hit records, awards, appearances on network television notwithstanding, her demise was, by far, the biggest press she'd received from the hometown newspaper."
In March 1995, along with Peggy Lee , Henry Mancini, Curtis Mayfield, and Barbra Streisand , Patsy Cline was inducted into Grammy's Hall of Fame by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Over time, her Greatest Hits album was No. 1 on Billboard's chart for 165 weeks, going multiplatinum in 1992. In 1986, 23 years after her death, the Winchester City Council met to vote on changing the name of Pleasant Valley Road to Patsy Cline Boulevard. The vote was 11–1, against.
Jones, Margaret. Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline. Foreword by Loretta Lynn. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.
Woods, Gerry. "Patsy Cline, The Legend Continues," in Country Weekly. March 7, 1995.
Nassour, Ellis. Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. St. Martin's, 1993 (rev. abridgement of 1981 version published as Patsy Cline).
Sweet Dreams (115 min.), starring Jessica Lange and Ed Harris, produced by Bernard Schwartz for Tri-Star, 1985.
Coal Miner's Daughter (125 min.), a musical biography of Loretta Lynn, starring Sissy Spacek (who won an Academy Award for Best Actress), Tommy Lee Jones, and Beverly D'Angelo (who portrayed Cline), produced by Bernard Schwartz for Universal, 1980.
Patsy Cline: The Birth of a Star, audio collection of her TV appearances with Arthur Godfrey, produced by Razor & Tie Records, 1996.
Always … Patsy Cline, stage show first produced in Nashville, starring Mandy Barnett .