Skeeter Davis Biography

Mary Frances Penick, 30 December 1931, Dry Ridge, Kentucky, USA, d. 19 September 2004, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. Penick was raised on a farm and as a child knew that she wanted to be a country singer. She acquired the nickname of ‘Skeeter’ (a local term for a mosquito) from her grandfather because she was always active and buzzing around like the insect. In her mid-teens, she formed a bluegrass duo with schoolfriend Betty Jack Davis (b. 3 March 1932, Corbin Kentucky, USA, d. 2 August 1953, USA) and together they began to sing in the Lexington area. In 1949, they appeared on local radio WLAX and later were featured on radio and television in Detroit, Cincinnati, and eventually on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia. They first recorded for Fortune Records in 1952 but the following year they successfully auditioned for RCA Records and their recording of ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’ quickly became a number 1 US country and number 18 US pop hit. On 2 August 1953, the duo’s car was involved in a collision with another vehicle, resulting in the death of Betty Jack and leaving Davis critically injured.

It was over a year before Davis recovered physically and mentally from the crash, and it was only with great difficulty that she was persuaded to resume her career. Eventually she briefly teamed up with Betty Jack’s sister, Georgia Davis, and returned to singing. In 1955, she went solo and for a time worked with RCA’s touring Caravan Of Stars as well as with Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley. Her recording career, under the guidance of Chet Atkins, progressed and she gained her first solo US country chart hit in 1958 with ‘Lost To A Geisha Girl’, the female answer to the Hank Locklin hit ‘Geisha Girl’. The following year, her co-written song ‘Set Him Free’ became her first country Top 10 hit. She fulfilled one of her greatest ambitions in 1959, when she moved to Nashville and became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry.

During the 60s, Davis became one of RCA’s most successful country artists, registering 26 US country hits, eight of them achieving crossover US pop chart success. The most popular included another ‘answer’ song in ‘(I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too’ (the reply to Hank Locklin’s ‘Please Help Me, I’m Falling’), ‘Where I Ought To Be’, ‘I’m Saving My Love’, ‘I Can’t Stay Mad At You’, ‘He Says The Same Things To Me’, ‘Gonna Get Along Without You Know’, and ‘My Last Date (With You)’. She co-wrote the latter with Boudleaux Bryant and pianist Floyd Cramer, whose instrumental version had been a million-seller in 1960. In 1963, she achieved a million-selling record herself with ‘The End Of The World’, which peaked at number 2 in both the US country and pop charts. It also gave Davis her only UK pop chart entry, reaching number 18 in a 13-week chart life in 1963 (the song also became a UK pop hit for Sonia in 1990). Davis also had successful recordings with Bobby Bare (‘A Dear John Letter’) and Don Bowman (a novelty number, ‘For Loving You’).

Davis toured extensively in the 60s and 70s, not only throughout the USA and Canada but also to Europe and the Far East, where she was very popular. She played all the major US television network shows, including regular appearances with Duke Ellington and also appeared on a Rolling Stones tour. Her recording career slowed down in the 70s but her hits included ‘I’m A Lover (Not A Fighter)’, ‘Bus Fare To Kentucky’ and ‘One Tin Soldier’. She also made the charts with Bobby Bare on ‘Your Husband, My Wife’ and with George Hamilton IV on ‘Let’s Get Together’ (a US pop hit for the Youngbloods in 1969). In 1973, she had a minor hit with the Bee Gees’ ‘Don’t Forget To Remember’ and a Top 20 country and minor pop hit with ‘I Can’t Believe That It’s All Over’. It was to prove a slightly prophetic title, since only two more chart hits followed, the last being ‘I Love Us’ on Mercury Records in 1976 (Davis having left RCA two years earlier). She recorded several tribute albums, including one to Buddy Holly, which featured Waylon Jennings on guitar and also one to her friend Dolly Parton. She also re-recorded ‘May You Never Be Alone’, a Davis Sisters success, with NRBQ in 1985.

From 1960-64, Davis was married to well-known WSM radio and television personality Ralph Emery, but she subsequently received heavy criticism in Emery’s autobiography. She later married Joey Spampinato of NRBQ. Davis became something of a rebel after the break-up of her second marriage. She settled in a colonial-style mansion set in several hundred acres in Brentwood, Tennessee, and surrounded herself with dogs, Siamese cats, a dove in a gilded cage and even an ocelot named Fred. Her extreme religious beliefs saw her refusing to appear in places that sold intoxicating drinks. She even stopped growing tobacco on her farm, giving the reason for both actions: ‘As a Christian, I think it’s harmful to my body’. In 1973, her strong criticisms of the Nashville Police Department during her act at the Grand Ole Opry caused her to be dropped from the roster. She was later reinstated and sang religious or gospel songs when she appeared. Davis died of breast cancer in September 2004.

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

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