Though she hardly lived past the age of thirty and recorded music for less than ten years, Patsy Cline’s profound achievements in country music (and pop music as well) cannot be overstated. Outspoken, highly opinionated and stubborn as a mule, Patsy never failed to let people know what she thought. Her spirit and determination were the chief features in a woman, who would become far more respected in the decades to follow her untimely death in an airplane crash in 1963. In 2003, George Hamilton IV, her longtime guitarist, and a country singer in his own right, put her career in clear perspective. “When it came to Patsy clearing a place for women in country music, she was what I call a pre-feminist woman. She didn’t open doors; she kicked them down.”
Though she never had a million selling record during her lifetime, Patsy Cline left an indelible mark on country music. Her influence on singers, such as Dottie West and Loretta Lynn- whose careers she helped to launch- Brenda Lee and Barbara Mandrell (who, at age twelve, toured with Patsy in 1962), and countless other women in the generations to follow after her, cannot be fully measured. Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette have all credited Patsy for their success. Her rich, honeyed voice and sonorant delivery spoke directly to the hearts of millions of fans; hearts which were broken on the day of her tragic death.
Virginia Patterson Hensley was born on September 8th, 1932 in the Shenendoah Valley town of Winchester, Virginia; the daughter of Sam Hensley, a blacksmith and mechanic, and a sixteen year old seamstress, Hilda Virginia (Patterson) Hensley. Her family called her Ginny.
From infancy, Ginny adored Shirley Temple. She is said to have been entertaining her neighbors, singing and carrying on, at age three. Her musical talent was inherited from her parents. Her father was an accomplished singer and her mother sang in the church choir. By age four, Ginny had taught herself to tap dance, just like her idol. She even won a local talent competition, dancing to Temple’s signature song “The Good Ship Lollipop.” Shortly after that, she abandoned dancing to pursue a stronger desire to sing and play the piano.
Hilda arranged for piano lessons for Ginny, but the instructor felt that the young girl had such a natural ear for music, that formal lessons might ruin her gift. On her own, Ginny persisted with the instrument. By the age of seven, Ginny could be found either playing the piano or listening to country music on the radio. Her ambition was to become a star on the Grand Ole Opry.
She began her musical career singing duets with her mother in the Baptist church choir. But at the age of thirteen she became seriously ill with rheumatic fever. In an interview in 1956, Patsy described the illness: “I developed a terrible throat infection and my heart even stopped beating… The fever affected my throat and when I recovered I had this booming voice like Kate Smith’s.”
Ginny had no real interest in her education. Due, in part, to her family’s frequent moves (they moved over twenty times during her childhood), she attended a different school nearly every year. She dropped out of school at age fifteen, when her father deserted the family, leaving Hilda and her children to fend for themselves. Ginny immediately went to work, to help support her mother, her younger siblings, brother Sam and her sister Sylvia.
But Ginny’s chief ambition remained to become a professional singer. To that end, Hilda attempted to help her daughter by contacting an acquaintance, piano player Jumbo Rinker, who had a regular engagement at the Melody Lane supper club in Martinsburg, West Virgina, about twenty miles north of Winchester. Rinker agreed to give Ginny an audition at one of his shows. She quickly became a regular part of Rinker’s act
Ginny sang with Rinker for several months, while her mother taxied her back and forth between engagements in the family car. Hilda would pick Ginny up from her job at the soda fountain in Gaunt’s Drugstore, driving her to her performances, which would typically run from 10:00 pm to 1:00 or 2:00 am. At the end of the night, she would take the girl back home again, often arriving as late as 3:00 am. Then Ginny would get up early the next morning to go to work at the drugstore. “I would never have gone anywhere,” she later said, “if it hadn’t been for Mother’s faith and support.”
In May of 1949, Ginny heard about an appearance that summer of Wally Fowler (known as “Mr. Gospel Music”) with the Oakridge Quartet at the Palace Theater in Winchester. A big fan, she knew that Fowler sometimes invited singers to join him on the stage. She succeeded in getting a spot in his show. Fowler was so impressed with Ginny‘s performance at the Palace that he arranged for an audition with the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.
Accompanied by notorious pianist Moon Mullican (whose style Jerry Lee Lewis later imitated), Ginny impressed Opry talent manager Jim Denny and performing mainstay Roy Acuff at her audition. Acuff, universally acknowledged as the “King Of Country Music,” invited her to sing the very next day on his radio show, Noon-Time Neighbors. Shortly thereafter, Ginny made her WSM (home of the Grand Ole Opry) radio debut.
Denny had hoped that Ginny would stay in Nashville, so that they could work together further. But Ginny was still only seventeen. A female singer had to be at least eighteen in order to perform at the Opry. So, for the time, the matter was closed. Ginny continued to play engagements around Winchester for the next few years, joining for a time, a group called Gene Shiner’s Metronomes.
In 1952, Ginny prevailed upon Jumbo Rinker to introduce her to Bill Peer, a local country bandleader whose band, the “Melody Boys” were very popular. Upon their first meeting, Ginny boldly asked Peer if she could sing with his band. He consented, and on September 27th, 1952, Ginny showed up in full cowgirl regalia at the Brunswick Moose Hall in Brunswick, Maryland, confidently stating, “Hey there, you remember me? Well, I’m ready.”
That night, Ginny bowled the audience over with her performance. Peer hired her for his band, on the spot. That same night, she was persuaded to change her name. Peer felt that the name “Ginny Hensley” was simply too old-fashioned. So, when she mentioned that her middle name was “Patterson,” Bill hastily christened her “Patsy Hensley.” Soon thereafter, Peer became Patsy’s manager. Shortly after that, she met Gerald Cline from Fredricksburg, Maryland. Within six months, the couple was married. The transformation was complete. Ginny Hensley had become Patsy Cline.
A month later, in April 1953, the Clines and Bill Peer, and his wife, traveled to Nashville, intent on making Patsy Cline a household name. Peer called on his friend Ernest Tubb, who invited Patsy to sing two songs with him on his Mid-Nite Jamboree radio show.
The following year, in August 1954, Patsy won the National Country Music Championship Contest in Warrenton, Virginia, performing “Faded Love,” with Peer’s troupe. Connie B. Gay, who had very popular radio and television shows in Nashville, was in the audience that night. He hired Patsy for tour dates with the Texas Wildcats, and asked her to be a regular on his shows.
On September 30th, 1954 Patsy signed her first recording contract with Bill McCall (who, in later years, Patsy would refer to as “The Snake”) and Four Star Records. The stipulations in that contract would control Patsy’s career for the next five years. For, by contract, Patsy was bound to record material published only by McCall. If a song were to become a hit, the money it generated would be used to write-off the costs of unsuccessful songs. In the meantime, each song she recorded earned Patsy the paltry sum of fifty dollars.
Under the terms of her contract with McCall, she received only about half of the royalties that would typically have been her due. To his advantage, McCall worked out a leasing and distribution arrangement with Decca Records for Patsy’s services. Decca secured control of the recording sessions and the choice of a producer. Under the supervision of renowned producer, Owen Bradley, Patsy entered the studio in Nashville on June 1st, 1955, for her very first recording session. She had no hits develop from the four songs that came out of that session.
A month later, Patsy made a guest appearance with Ernest Tubb on the Ralston-Purina portion of the Grand Ole Opry, for which she sang, “A Church, A Courtroom, and Then Goodbye” (which was also her first single). Her performance was a huge success with the audience (though Patsy didn‘t think so).
That fall, she began appearing as a regular performer (along with Jimmy Dean) on Connie B. Gay’s Town And Country Jamboree television show. It was there, that Patsy first began to display her trenchant wit and gregarious personality. Once, while on the air, she advised newcomer George Hamilton IV: “You’re a star. When you’re doing your songs, take command, Hoss!” (Hoss was her nickname for nearly everyone). Patsy was at the doorstep of stardom.
However, at the same time, her personal life was in a shambles. As a result of an ongoing affair with Patsy, Bill Peer was forced into a divorce. Ultimately, in October 1955, it became necessary for Patsy to leave Peer’s band. Her marriage to Gerald Cline was in pieces. They separated early in 1956, later divorcing. Shortly thereafter, in April of 1956, while performing in Berryville, Virginia, Patsy met Charlie Dick- who was to become the great love of her life.
Patsy attended three more recording sessions during 1956- in January, April and November. In the April session, Patsy was offered a demo of a song called “Walking After Midnight,” to which she responded, “that song’s got no balls.” But Owen Bradley convinced her to record the song, though it was not the first single to be released from the session, nor even the second.
But, in January of 1957, Patsy’s fortunes turned for the better, when she made her national television debut as a performing contestant on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, a launching pad for the careers of numerous newcomers (most prominently Carol Burnett). Despite her misgivings about the song, Patsy was encouraged to sing “Walking After Midnight” on the show. Patsy won the Godfrey contest and, instantly, she had a hit record on her hands. “Walking After Midnight” was rush-released in February of 1957. In all, she received only nine hundred dollars from Bill McCall for her contributions to the hit song.
Meanwhile, Patsy became a regular on Godfrey’s program, while appearing on several other television variety shows, as well. But Godfrey adamantly rebuffed her repeated requests to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. In September of 1957, Patsy married Charlie Dick. She promptly became pregnant with her daughter, Julie, stalling her career for the next several years. During her hiatus, Decca released five more singles, none of which met with any real chart success. Her first post-maternity session, in January, 1959, also included the fine male quartet, the Jordanaires (who also backed Kitty Wells and Elvis Preley), in a backing vocal role. Her contract run out at last, she recorded her final session for Bill McCall, in January of 1960.
While she was absent from the scene, Owen Bradley had been promoted to a new position at Decca, one that afforded him far more control over Patsy‘s career. In November of 1960, she returned to the studio to record her first tracks under her new contract with Decca.
However, it was not long before Patsy and Owen were arguing over what song would be her first release. Bradley adamantly favored the Harlan Howard/Hank Cochran song “I Fall to Pieces.” “It’s a pretty song,” she retorted, “but it’s not for me.” But Bradley eventually won out. Released in January, 1961, “I Fall To Pieces,” slowly made its way up the charts- finally reaching #1 in the country charts and #12 in the pop, nearly eight months after its release.
On January 22nd, 1961, Patsy gave birth to a son, Randy. But with this child, there was no time for a hiatus. Patsy was soon back to touring behind her new hit song. In June of 1961, Patsy and her brother Sam were involved in a head-on auto collision, throwing Patsy through the windshield and nearly killing her. Six weeks later, a wheelchair-bound Patsy Cline returned to the Opry, to a heart-touching response.
Back in the studio in August 1961, Owen Bradley gave Patsy a demo of “Crazy,“ written by a twenty-seven year old unknown songwriter named Willie Nelson. Patsy profoundly detested the song. But, once again coaxed by her producer, she recorded it, nailing the vocal in a single take. “Crazy” entered the charts in November 1961, climbing much more rapidly than “I Fall To Pieces” had. By December 3rd it reached #9 in the pop charts, peaking at #2 in the country charts in January of 1962. That same month, Decca released “She’s Got You,” which quickly climbed to #1 in the country charts, while making it to #14 on the pop charts.
Not without some trepidation, Patsy appeared on American Bandstand in February of 1962. For, she was acutely conscious of the differences between the pop and country markets; constantly wary of alienating fans from either camp. In June of 1962, Patsy traveled the Southwest states with the Johnny Cash tour; a trip which culminated in a performance at the Hollywood Bowl in California. Patsy returned West in November, with a six-week club stint in Las Vegas.
Back in the studio in February of 1963, with a profound sense of urgency, Patsy recorded an astounding body of work at an astonishing pace, in a very short time; only breaking up a string of extraordinary sessions with a performance on February 9th, at the Grand Ole Opry. Back in the studio, Patsy recorded her final song of the session, “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” (a song recorded by Moon Mullican in 1947), having recorded, through the course of her career, fifty-one songs for Bill McCall and Four Star and fifty-one songs for Decca .
On March 3, 1963, Patsy joined numerous other performers for a benefit concert in Kansas City. She nearly went via automobile for the return trip, with Dottie West, as it was far too stormy to fly. But, at the last minute, she decided to wait out the storm with her manager in Kansas City, then fly home in his single-engine plane. Two days later, at 6:20 pm on March 5th 1963, the plane, carrying Patsy crashed, just west of Camden, Tennessee in a fierce storm.
The sweetheart of country music was gone. But the legacy of her music continued on, memorialized in film and song. Patsy achieved several hits after her death, including “Sweet Dreams (of You) and “Faded Love,” In 1963, for the third consecutive year, Patsy was named Best Female Vocalist by leading industry publications, including Billboard and Cashbox magazines. In 1973 Patsy Cline became the first female soloist elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. The film, Sweet Dreams, starring Jessica Lange in the lead role, rendered an overstated account of Patsy’s life, which, in reality, required no embellishment. For, she was truly one of a kind.