Wells, Kitty (1919—)

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Wells, Kitty (1919—)

American singer, the first female vocalist to have a number one country music song on the national record charts, whose lengthy and influential career earned her the title of "the Queen of Country Music." Born Ellen Muriel Deason on August 30, 1919, in Nashville, Tennessee; daughter of Charles Carey Deason (a brakeman) and Myrtle (Street) Deason; graduated from Lipscomb School in South Nashville; attended ninth grade at Howard High School; married Johnny Wright (a musician), on October 30, 1937; children: Ruby Jean, Johnnie Robert III, Carol Sue.

Sang for the first time over the radio (1936); moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, the first of a number of relocations (1941); adopted Kitty Wells as her stage name; moved to Knoxville with family and sang on station WNOX; moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and performed on station WPTF; appeared on the initial performance of "The Louisiana Hayride" over station KWKH, Shreveport, Louisiana (April 3, 1948); made her first RCA recordings (1949); father died (May 3, 1951); moved to Nashville; recorded "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" (May 1952); first duet with Red Foley (1953), with Roy Acuff (1955), with Webb Pierce (1956), and Roy Drusky (1960); mother died (September 18, 1967); premiered "The Kitty Wells-Johnny Wright Family Show" (1969); made her first appearance in Britain at Wembley Festival (1974); elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame (1976); received Academy of Country Music's Pioneer Award (1986); received National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award (1991); named a TNN-Music City News Living Legend (1993); elected to Grammy Awards Hall of Fame (1997); went on last concert tour (April 2000).

In explaining the success of her signature song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," recorded in 1952, Kitty Wells once said that it was the right song at the right time. The years of World War II had seen women working in vast numbers in previously male-dominated industries, adjusting themselves to living independently of husbands or fathers, and generally experiencing a higher level of social and personal autonomy while thousands of American men fought against totalitarian regimes overseas. When the war was won and the world again made safe for democracy, the men came home, returning to the jobs that women had filled and expecting social roles and mores to have remained the same. Wells' song was an "answer" and in a certain sense a protest against a hit country-music song of the day, "The Wild Side of Life," which implicitly condoned men's questionable conduct while looking unfavorably on the behavior of a woman (a "honky tonk angel" or one who, heaven forbid, frequented honkytonks just like men did) who has jilted the male singer. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" reflected many women's understanding of the double standard and sexual inequality that remained in America. It immediately became the nation's most popular country-music song, and even made a respectable showing on the pop charts. An instant star (with years of work already behind her), Wells became the first woman to rise to the top of country music, and there she would stay, in influence if not in sales, as country-music styles changed radically over the decades.

The "Queen of Country Music" was not reared in a palace. She was born Ellen Muriel Deason on August 30, 1919, in Nashville, Tennessee, the daughter of Myrtle Deason and Charles Deason, a Tennessee Central brakeman. While her father and mother were unable to give her wealth, Wells inherited a legacy of love, a sincere religious faith, and a passion for country music. She recalled that after a day's work her father would often pick up his guitar and lead a "family sing" at their home on Wharf Avenue. "My mother loved to sing hymns," said Wells. "While I was growing up, we would go to church and to prayer meetings" where Myrtle Deason would "sing her heart out." She also took her young daughter to the Grand Ole Opry. At the time, Wells had no thought of ever being on stage. "To me the performers on stage seemed larger than life. I thought that I'd be like my mother; that is, grow up, get married and raise a family—and not have a career." She spent her childhood and adolescent years like hundreds of other Tennessee girls, faithfully attending Sunday school and learning from her mother how to cook and sew.

At about the age of 14, Wells "really started getting serious about the guitar" and shortly thereafter began playing at prayer meetings and church socials. It was the era of the Great Depression, and her parents' financial resources were limited. She helped supplement the family income by ironing, cleaning, and babysitting outside her home. Wells attended the Lipscomb School in South Nashville, graduated from the eighth grade, and enrolled in high school. She began the ninth grade at Howard High School and then dropped out of school, never to return. Although she dated boys from the family's Nazarene Church, Wells' idea of a good time "was singing and playing" guitar with her best friend Josephine Allison or her cousin Bessie Choate . Her father, she wrote, "was so pleased that I had learned to play, and could follow myself on the different songs I was singing, that one day he brought his guitar to me." Rather pensively she added, "I never did hear him play anymore after that."

Wells met her future husband Johnny Wright when his sister Bessie, who lived next door to the Deasons, invited her brother to hear Kitty Wells—or Muriel Deason as she was then called—sing. Wright began to visit his sister more often. Around that time, Wells started singing with her cousin Bessie Choate at local dances, billing themselves as the Deason Sisters. In 1936, radio station WSIX in Nashville initiated a Saturday afternoon amateur hour called "The Old Country Store," and the Deason Sisters decided to participate. When they sang "Jealous-Hearted Me," which included the line "it takes the man I love to satisfy my soul," the station judged it too risqué and cut them off the air. However, the Deason Sisters had enough fan support to persuade the station to grant them a regular slot on an early morning show where they sang such standards as "The Crawdad Song" and "There's A Big Eye Watching You." After dating for two years, Wells and Wright were married on Halloween Eve, 1937.

Wells' sister-in-law, Louise Wright , then joined Wells and Choate to form a trio, billed as Johnny Wright and the Harmony Girls. Though they performed each morning on WSIX, both Johnny and Kitty kept their regular jobs. Neither earned enough as performers to support a family that on October 27, 1939, increased to three with the birth of their first child, Ruby Jean Wright (who would later team up as a singer with Anita Carter and Rita Robbins ). In early 1941, the family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where Johnny's band The Happy Roving Cowboys performed on station WBIG. The band's popularity annoyed Charlie Monroe, a WBIG musician who felt Wright was encroaching on his territory. Monroe's clout meant that the Wrights were soon packing their bags and heading for Charleston, West Virginia, where they performed on WCHS, a 50,000-watt station. Despite the fact that the Wright family temporarily had to share a room with Louise and her husband, Wells remained upbeat. At times, Kitty and Louise performed together as the Wright Sisters.

On March 30, 1942, the Wrights welcomed a fourth member to their family when Johnnie Robert Wright III was born at Charleston's St. Francis Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, where The Tennessee Hillbillies, as Johnny Wright's band was now called, had been invited to perform on WNOX's popular "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round." At the end of 1942, with the U.S. now fully engaged in World War II, The Tennessee Hillbillies broke up; the family returned to Nashville where Johnny began working for the Dupont Chemical Company. Both Johnny and Kitty, however, missed the stage. When a fellow named "Smiling" Eddie Hill encouraged Johnny to revive the band, Wright agreed to do so, and the family returned to Knoxville and station WNOX. At the suggestion of Lowell Blanchard, WNOX's station manager, Wright urged his wife to become Kitty Wells, after his favorite boyhood ballad, "Sweet Kitty Wells." Wells "started to draw more mail than any other person on the show," said Eddie Ferguson, one member of the band. "She had that little tremor to her voice, and I think that's what sold her."

Wells gave birth to her third child, Carol Sue Wright, on July 8, 1945, the year the family moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Wright created the popular "Carolina Barn Dance" on WPTF. One of the performers on this station was Chet Atkins, a new friend and guitarist par excellence. For a time Wells seemed content to give all of her time to rearing her children. On April 3, 1948, however, she joined the premiere broadcast of "The Louisiana Hayride" on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. This program, aired on a powerful 50,000-watt station, hoped to rival the "National Barn Dance" on Chicago's WLS, the "Original Jamboree" on WWV out of Wheeling, West Virginia, and the Grand Ole Opry which aired over Nashville's WSM. "The Louisiana Hayride" helped launch the careers of several well-known performers, including Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, and Elvis Presley.

Christmas 1951 saw the Wright family back in Nashville. About that time, country singer Hank Thompson was recording a song titled "The Wild Side of Life" which by May 10, 1952, was the nation's most popular country tune. The song had been written by William Warren in response to his ex-wife's refusal to grant a reconciliation. Though Wells liked the song, she believed that there were two sides to every story and that Thompson's hit presented only the man's side. Songwriter J.D. Miller also believed it was one-sided and "cried" for an answer. The rather accusatory "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels," one line in Thompson's song, provided the title for the song that would make Wells famous. In the prelude to "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," she sings of listening to "The Wild Side" on the jukebox and having it evoke "mem'ries when I was a trusting wife." The song continues:

It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they're still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.

Nashville music promoter Troy L. Martin, together with Decca Records' Paul Cohen, thought the song might sell.

An instant smash hit, it became the nation's most popular country-music song within three months, and remained so for six weeks. Eventually it would sell over a million records. Kitty Wells had become the first female country music vocalist to climb to the top of the charts, and "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" became the first important recording by a woman in country music since Patsy Montana 's 1936 rendition of "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." Saluting Wells, Hank Thompson said, "I think that was the starting point that opened the door for all the very fine girl vocalists we have in country music today."

Wells' second hit, "I'm Paying for That Back Street Affair," was also an answer song, in this case to Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair." Her "Hey, Joe" was in response to Carl Smith's best-selling tune of the same name. "I'll Always Be Your Fraulein," in 1957, was a reply to Bobby Helm's number-one hit "Fraulein." Her listeners seemed eager to hear Wells present a woman's point of view on a lifestyle that heretofore had seemed to glorify men and denigrate women. By the end of the 1950s, 35 of Wells' songs had become Top 20 choices, with 24 making the Top 10. She continued to experience success in later years, with 11 more tunes becoming Top 10 favorites. She also encountered opposition because of her sex. For example, she was tardily invited to appear on the Grand Ole Opry because, it was said, she "lacked exuberance in performance." Roy Acuff, who came to be called the King of Country Music, took her part, as did Ernest Tubb, the Texas Troubadour. With the support of these and other musicians as well as her own sustained popularity, she eventually made it to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

Wells' immense popularity can be attributed to various factors. She teamed up with certain male performers who also were well liked and well known: Roy Acuff, Red Foley (with whom she sang the number-one hit "One by One" in 1954), Webb Pierce, and Roy Drusky. She also recorded several duets with her husband, who was perhaps her biggest booster and forever on the lookout for songs that fit her style. But Wells had much to do with her own success. Sarah Colley Cannon—better known as Minnie Pearl , a long-time favorite on the Grand Ole Opry—attributed Wells' success to "her soft-spoken, unassuming ways. It was that wholesome image that people loved in Miss Kitty." Pearl declared that there "was a sort of instant communication with an audience" when Wells sang "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." "It was as though a spell was cast over the crowd. I was simply amazed at the way she electrified them. I had seen it once before, when Hank Williams sang his 'Lovesick Blues' at the Opry."

Charles Lamb, the one-time publisher of Music Reporter, noted, "I think what made Kitty such a big female favorite with country fans was her distinctive sound, vocally and musically." Lamb explained, "Kitty's vocals weren't the lush, sophisticated kind of singing like Crystal Gayle today. It was simplicity itself, songs from the heart, bolstered by lots of feelings." He believed that the way Wells projected songs made one feel "she was telling you a true story.

The songs were like plays which acted out the woman's dilemma with great emotion and intensity." Her producer Owen Bradley believed that Wells' strength was "a very unique style that's very easily identifiable," similar to that of popular male performers like Tubb, Pierce, and Foley. He described her songs as "sagas" about "misunderstood or mistreated wives." Today her music is described as "traditional." Said Bradley, "I would say it has to be traditional because Wells started all that. She was the first gal to really start it all."

Wells' achievements have been recognized in various ways. In 1976, she became the first living solo female vocalist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. "That's probably the highlight of my whole career," said Wells. (One congratulatory note, which read, "Congratulations on being nominated and entered into the Country Music Hall of Fame. One of your devoted fans," came from Ringo Starr.) On April 14, 1986, at the awards telecast of the Academy of Country Music, Wells was named winner of the Pioneer Award. Presenter Crystal Gayle hailed Wells by noting that she had been the top female country singer for 14 years "and no one has ever done that either before or since." On December 17, 1988, the Nashville Tennessean reported that a portion of Old Hickory Boulevard was being renamed Kitty Wells Boulevard. In addition, on February 20, 1991, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences bestowed on Wells a NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award. She was in distinguished company that evening; similar citations were also granted to Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Marian Anderson . Female singers including Patsy Cline, Hazel Dickens, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Skeeter Davis, Tammy Wynette and Norma Jean have sung her praises (and her songs) while acknowledging their debts to Wells, who continues to be recognized as the Queen of Country Music.

Even though Wells' "churchy, four-squaresinging," as Newsweek once characterized it, is not as popular as it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, Wells retains a loyal following. She made personal appearances throughout the world for decades, often with her husband, and as late as 1979 had two hit records. In 1969, she and her husband had begun hosting a syndicated television program, "The Kitty Wells-Johnny Wright Family Show," featuring different members of the Wright family, which ran for several years. Wells made appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and toured through the last years of the 20th century, performing before live audiences across the country. She made her last tour at the age of 80, in the early months of 2000, and has continued to perform live on rare occasions since then, always to enthusiastic audiences who wait to hear her sing songs they love, including "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

sources:

Brown, Charles T. Music U.S.A.: America's Country and Western Tradition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

"Country's First Queen," in Newsweek. August 12, 1985, p. 60.

Dellar, Fred, Roy Thompson, and Douglas B. Green, eds. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music. NY: Harmony, 1977.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, eds. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Vol. 4. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Larkin, Colin, ed. The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Vol. 6. NY: Stockton, 1995.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Trott, Walt. The Honky Tonk Angels. Nashville, TN: Nova, 1993.

suggested reading:

Grattan, Virginia L. American Women Songwriters: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Marschall, Rick, ed. The Encyclopedia of Country and Western Music. Reading, PA: Exeter Books, 1985.

Pendle, Karin, ed. Women and Music: A History. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Robert Bolt , Professor of History, Emeritus, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan