Patsy Cline Biography

Virginia Patterson Hensley, 8 September 1932, Gore, near Winchester, Virginia, USA, d. 5 March 1963, Camden, Tennessee, USA. Her father, Sam Hensley, already had two children from a previous marriage when he married Hilda, Patsy’s mother - a woman many years his junior. Hilda was only 16 when Patsy was born and they grew up like sisters. At the age of four, Patsy was influenced by a film of Shirley Temple and, without tuition, learned tap-dancing and showed an interest in music that was encouraged by the piano-playing of her step-sister. In spite of financial hardships, her parents gave her a piano for her seventh birthday, which she soon learned to play by ear. Hilda could never understand her daughter’s affinity with country music, since neither she nor Sam was interested in the genre. At the age of 10, Patsy was eagerly listening to broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry and informing everyone that one day she too would be anOpry star. In the early 40s, the Hensleys relocated to Winchester, where Patsy became interested in the country show on WINC presented by Joltin’ Jim McCoy. Apart from playing records, he also fronted his own band in live spots on the show.

At the age of 14, Patsy contacted McCoy and told him she wanted to sing on his show. He was impressed by her voice and Virginia Hensley quickly became a regular singer with his Melody Playboys. She also became associated with pianist William ‘Jumbo’ Rinker with whom she sang at local venues, and she left school to work in Gaunt’s Drug Store to help the family finances. In 1948, Wally Fowler, a noted Opry artist whose gospel show was broadcast live on WSM, appeared at the Palace Theatre in Winchester. Patsy brazenly manoeuvred herself backstage on the night and confronted Fowler. Taken aback by her approach, he sarcastically suggested that perhaps she was ‘Winchester’s answer to Kitty Wells’, but nevertheless let her sing for him. She sang unaccompanied and impressed Fowler so much that he included her in that night’s show. Having sought Hilda’s permission for her to audition for WSM in Nashville, a few weeks later, Patsy went to see Jim Denny, the manager of the Opry. Accompanied by the legendary pianist Moon Mullican, Patsy impressed Denny who asked her to remain in Nashville so that he could arrange an Opry appearance. However, without money, although too embarrassed to admit it, and accompanied by the two younger children, Hilda pleaded that they must return to Winchester that day. Before they left, Roy Acuff, who had heard Patsy’s singing from an adjoining studio, asked her to sing on hisNoon Time Neighbours broadcast that day. Her hopes that she would hear from Denny, however, were not realized and Patsy returned to the drug store and singing locally.

In 1952, she met Bill Peer, a disc jockey and musician, who had run bands for some years, and who was at the time touring the Tri-State Moose Lodge circuit with his band, the Melody Boys And Girls. He hired Patsy as lead vocalist and on 27 September 1952, she made her first appearance with him at the Brunswick Moose Club in Maryland. Peer did not think the name Virginia was suitable and, wrongly assuming that her second name was Patricia, he billed her as Patsy Hensley. On 27 February 1953, Patsy married Gerald Cline, whom she had met at a show only a few weeks earlier. On the night of her marriage, Patsy appeared on stage for the first time as Patsy Cline. Although Cline’s name was known over a considerable area, Peer was aware that she needed national exposure, and concentrated his efforts on seeking a recording contract for her. A demo tape attracted attention and on 30 September 1954, she signed a two-year contract with Four-Star, a Pasadena-based independent company, once owned by Gene Autry, whose president was now William A. McCall, a man not highly regarded by many in the music business. The contract stated that all Patsy Cline’s recordings would remain Four-Star property - in effect, she could only record songs that McCall published and, being a non-writer herself, she was obliged to record any material he chose.

Cline made her first four recordings on 1 June 1955 under the production of pianist, guitarist and arranger Owen Bradley, in his ‘Quonset’ hut studios in Nashville. ‘A Church, A Courtroom And Then Goodbye’, penned by Eddie Miller and W.S. Stevenson, was the chosen song, but it failed to reach the country charts (W.S. Stevenson was a pseudonym used by McCall, seemingly for his own songs, but it is known that, on occasions, he applied the name to songs that were written by other writers, such as Donn Hecht, who were under contract to his label). Cline made further recordings on 5 January and 22 April 1956, including the toe-tapping ‘I Love You Honey’ and the rockabilly ‘Stop, Look And Listen’. The anticipated country chart entries did not occur and she became despondent. Her private life took a new turn in April 1956, when she met Charlie Dick, who became her second husband when her marriage to Gerald Cline ended in 1957. In an effort to secure a country hit, McCall commissioned songwriter Hecht, who suggested ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’, a blues-styled number that he had initially written for Kay Starr, who had turned it down. Cline did not like the song either, claiming it was ‘nothing but a little old pop song’. Under pressure from Decca Records (who leased her records from Four-Star), she recorded it, on 8 November 1956, in a session that also included ‘A Poor Man’s Roses (Or A Rich Man’s Gold)’ and ‘The Heart You Break May Be Your Own’. On 28 January 1957, although preferring ‘A Poor Man’s Roses’, she sang ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ on the Arthur GodfreyTalent Scouts show. On 11 February, Decca released the two songs in a picture sleeve on 78 rpm and it immediately entered both country and pop charts. Cline first sang ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ on theOpry on 16 February. The song finally peaked as a number 2 country and number 12 pop hit, while ‘A Poor Man’s Roses’ also reached number 14 on the country chart. It was later estimated that the record sold around three-quarters of a million copies.

In July 1959, she recorded two fine gospel numbers, ‘Life’s Railroad To Heaven’ and ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’, but although Decca Records released various records the follow-up chart hit did not materialize. In truth, Decca Records had only 11 songs, recorded between February 1958 and November 1960, from which to choose. It was possible Cline chose to record the minimum number necessary under the terms of her Four-Star contract in the hope McCall would drop her, thus enabling her to pick up a promised Decca Records contract. The first song she recorded under her new association with Decca Records, on 16 November 1960, was ‘I Fall To Pieces’ by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. It quickly became a country number 1 and also peaked at number 12 on the pop charts. In August 1961 she completed a four-day recording session that included ‘True Love’, ‘The Wayward Wind’, ‘San Antonio Rose’ and her now legendary version of ‘Crazy’. Willie Nelson, who had written the song, had demoed it almost as a narration. With Owen Bradley’s persuasion, she produced her own stunning interpretation in one take. The recording was a number 2 country and a number 9 pop hit. In 1962, ‘She’s Got You’ was an even bigger country hit, spending five weeks at number 1, while peaking at number 14 in the pop charts. It also became her first entry in the Top 50 UK pop charts.

Meanwhile, her marriage to Charlie Dick was becoming more stormy. She had long ago discarded her cowgirl outfits for more conventional dress and she seemed indifferent to her weight problem. Her wild and promiscuous lifestyle included an enduring affair with Faron Young. Her last recording session took place on 7 February 1963, when she recorded ‘He Called Me Baby’, ‘You Took Him Off My Hands’ and ‘I’ll Sail My Ship Alone’. The latter, ironically, was a song written by Moon Mullican, the pianist who had played for her Opry audition in 1948. Cline appeared in Birmingham, Alabama, with Tex Ritter and Jerry Lee Lewis on 2 March 1963, following which she agreed with other artists to appear in a charity show in Kansas City the next day, a show staged for the widow of Jack Call, a noted disc jockey on KCMK, known as Cactus Jack, who had died in a car crash. The weather was bad on 4 March but early on the afternoon of 5 March, in spite of further adverse weather forecasts, Cline, together with country singers Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, set off on the five-hundred-mile flight to Nashville in a small aircraft piloted by Randy Hughes, the son-in-law of Copas and Cline’s lover and manager. Hughes first landed at Little Rock to avoid rain and sleet and then at Dyersburg to refuel, where he was warned of bad weather in the area. They encountered further bad weather and, although the exact reason for the crash is unknown, the life of Patsy Cline came to an end some 50 minutes later, when the aircraft came down in woodland about a mile off Highway 70, near Camden, Tennessee.

At the time of her death, Cline’s recording of ‘Leaving On Your Mind’ was in both country and pop charts and before the year was over, both ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Faded Love’ became Top 10 country and minor pop hits. It has been suggested that Patsy Cline was not an outstanding performer of up-tempo material, but it is an undisputed fact that she could extract every possible piece of emotion from a country weepie. Her versions of ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’, ‘I Fall To Pieces’, ‘Crazy’, ‘She’s Got You’ and ‘Sweet Dreams’ represent five of the greatest recordings ever made in country music. Those in any doubt of Patsy Cline’s standing should consult the Billboard back-catalogue country chart - at one point her Greatest Hits album stood at number 1 for over four years, in addition to over 10 million sales and 13 years actually on the chart!

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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