The Patsy Cline Story
Patsy Cline’s is a story of triumph and tragedy, and of a little woman who couldn’t be kept down – the very stuff of country music songs and legends. Patsy Cline, who held jobs plucking chickens, worked in a meat packing plant and waitressed in a bus terminal, rose to be named the most promising country and western female artist of 1957 by Billboard Magazine.
She was born in Gore, Virginia, on September 8, 1932 as Virginia Patterson Hensley, and her first childhood heroine was Shirley Temple, whom she idolized and who inspired her to win a tap dancing contest at the age of four. By eight she’d learned to play piano by ear, and such was her evident talent that a teacher said formal training would not be wise because it might stifle her.
At thirteen the girl was hospitalized with a throat infection which turned out to be the result of rheumatic fever. In 1957 Patsy said, “I developed a terrible throat infection and my heart even stopped beating. You might say it was my return to the living after several days that launched me as a singer. The fever affected my throat and when I recovered I had this booming voice like Kate Smith.”
As Ginny Hensley she began performing in a variety of local and regional clubs and inns, and gained an audition for radio station WINC, then known as a “hillbilly” station, where she became a regular performer in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1948 she tried out in Nashville on WSM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, at which she dreamed of playing. She was regarded as “too unpolished” then, but Roy Acuff heard her audition and asked her to sing on his own Noontime Neighbors radio show.
By 1952 Ginny was featured vocalist with Bill Peer and his Melody Boys, and Peer urged her to change her name to Patsy, derived from her middle name, Patterson. When, on March 7, 1953, she married a construction industry mogul named Gerald Cline, she became Patsy Cline – the name by which she is remembered.
She won a $100 prize and a weekday job singing commercials at Washington, D.C.’s WMAL in 1954. That also led directly to a spot on sister station WARL in Arlington, Virginia, as a regular on Jimmy Dean’s Town and Country Time show. It was then that Patsy made her first record, a cover of Kitty Wells’ hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
In the middle of 1954 the president of California-based Four Star Records, Bill McCall, who was already recording Jimmy Dean, came to Washington and heard Patsy. He immediately signed her, and began making arrangements with Paul Cohen at Decca to lease her recordings to that label.
On June 1, 1955 Patsy made her first recording for Four Star in Nashville. Her first records were "A Church, A Courtroom then Goodbye," "Turn the Card Slowly," "Honky-tonk Merry-go-Round" and "Hiding Out." Patsy’s honky-tonk growl and yodeling style were evident in these early recordings but her first single, "A Church," was not a chart success.
In 1956 Paul Cohen decided to bring in a rookie A&R man, Owen Bradley, to handle Patsy’s sessions. Bill McCall called Bradley and was quoted telling him, “I’m going to send you a girl to record – she’s mean as hell and hard to get along with.” Though Patsy was known to have a spirited, spunky attitude with a matching vocabulary, Bradley actually found her to be “very pleasant. She was just like me; she was trying to get along. It was an early assignment for me as an A&R man. I was trying to get started in the line and she was trying to become a singer. We were sort of in the same boat.”
On November 8, 1956, Patsy and Owen had a hit when they made a record of the Don Hecht-Alan Block composition, "Walkin’ After Midnight." The song was originally written for Kay Starr, who turned it down. Cline wasn’t initially very impressed with the song, calling it “nothin’ but a little ol’ pop song.” When she sang it on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show on January 21, 1957, she not only won the competition, her single shot onto the country charts reaching #2.
Godfrey told her, “You are the most innocent, the most nervous, the most truthful and honest performer I’ve ever seen” and promptly booked her for several additional shows. Meanwhile the “little ol’ pop song” leaped over onto the national pop charts in February 23, 1957, reaching #12 and selling over 750,000 copies, making Patsy Cline one of the first country female singers to be accepted by the vast pop audience. A Decca publicity photo, autographed at one of her concerts, was recently put up for auction at $77.
Her self-titled first album was released on August 5, 1957 and though her career was on the rise, her marriage to Gerald Cline was collapsing. On September 15th, Virginia Patterson “Patsy” Hensley Cline married Charlie Dick, whom she had known, passingly, since she was 16.
Her career was not by any means a straight rise to the top. At times she was broke, and she struggled to find the right material, suffering through dry periods. But in 1960 she became a member at last of the Grand Ole Opry, and in April "I Fall to Pieces" climbed the charts to #1 country and #12 pop. Ray Walker of the Jordanaires said, “She came into the studio and said, ‘Ray, honey! They can’t take that refrigerator now. They’ll never get my car now. I paid cash for them and they’re mine and I’m keeping them.” Showbills from this period have been reprinted in more recent times and can be found at auction for as little as $10.
Cline’s autograph is rare and hard to come by; apparently she did not sign many. One autograph cut from a collectors scrapbook was recently auctioned on eBay for around $350. (The seller claims it is an almost impossible signature to obtain, because of her early death.)
Patsy’s elation did not last long. On June 14th, she was thrown through the windshield in a head-on car crash outside Madison High School in Nashville. Her near-fatal injuries didn’t stop her from going on stage at The Opry in a wheelchair to tell her fans she would soon be singing again. Indeed, on August 21st, she was back in the studio on crutches to record a song called "Crazy," written by Nashville newcomer Willie Nelson.
In February, 1963, Patsy attended her last recording session. Among those present were her friends, Dottie West and Jan Howard. Patsy had just recorded "Faded Love" and Dottie recalled, “The thing that I remember so well, and it really gives me cold chills to this day, she went into Harry Silverstein’s office and was in there for awhile. She came back with a record. It was her first record, ‘A Church, A Courtroom and then Goodbye.’ She said, ‘Well here it is, the first and the last.’ I said, ‘God! Don’t say that.’ Patsy said, ‘Oh, I just meant the first recording and this one, don’t get upset.’ It really got to me, especially later.”
Later was Tuesday, March 5th. Roy Acuff, George Jones, Dottie West, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and Patsy had all assembled in Kansas City that Sunday to perform at a benefit concert for the family of local disc jockey, “Cactus” Jack Call, who had died in a car accident in January. Patsy closed the Sunday night tribute to Call. The last song she sang was “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” A poster for this concert has been offered on eBay for $6 – with the caveat that it is a reprint and may not even be an authentic reprint, but “all of these posters are in excellent condition and people love them.”
Two days of bad weather kept Patsy, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Patsy’s manager and pilot Randy Hughes waiting in Kansas City. Finally, on Tuesday, they took off for Nashville – stopping in Dyersburg, Tennessee about 150 miles from their destination. The last leg of the trip was never finished. Heavy rain and turbulent air forced the plane down into the hills near Camden, Tennessee. Dottie West said after the crash, “She almost rode back to Nashville in the car with Bill and me, rather than flying, because Randy kept going to the phone and calling the weather bureau. There were no flights – it was a bad, foggy rain. The last thing I said to Patsy was, ‘I’m really going to be worried about you flying in this weather.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry about me hoss! When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.’”
On June 10, 1963 over 25,000 mourners attended her funeral. Life magazine’s March 22, 1963, issue ran a two-page spread on the plane crash and it was recently up for auction, going for just over $15.
But Patsy lives on through her recordings and through the wonders of today’s technology, Patsy’s eloquent vocals have been removed from her classic old recordings and neatly spliced into new arrangements along with fresh vocal partnerships such as Crystal Gayle dueting on "I Can’t Forget You," Beth Nielson Chapman and Patsy on "If I Could Only Stay Asleep," Glen Campbell harmonizing on "Too Many Secrets," Waylon Jennings joining with Patsy on "Just out of Reach" and the legendary "Walkin’ After Midnight" with newcomer Michelle Wright in combination with Patsy on Patsy Cline Duets, on Private/Mercury Records. This recently released CD is Volume One of an anticipated three volumes.
For those who want her original recordings, the 1991 box set, The Patsy Cline Collection, on MCA, has them all – plus early radio transcriptions, alternate takes and previously unreleased recordings – on four CDs. Amazon.com has this set for just under $50.00, but it’s been auctioned on eBay for as little as $20. Many of her original records are also available on auction. They include a picture disk for $19, original Decca LPs for as little as $3, and many of her 45 singles, also going for less than $5. Perhaps the oddest item offered on eBay is a metal street sign which says “Patsy Cline St. 43 E.” It was offered at $12.
There is also the 1985 movie, Sweet Dreams, the story of Patsy Cline, starring Jessica Lange in the title role, available on video from HBO Home Video, with a running time of 115 minutes. A copy was recently offered on eBay for $17, with the claim that it is no longer easy to find.
In 1992 Patsy was inducted in the Grammy Awards Recording Hall of Fame, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Patsy Cline stamp. In 1995 her Greatest Hits album sold its six millionth copy, and had been on the Billboard charts for over eight years. The boxed set was certified gold, after selling over a half million.
Willie Nelson summed her up: “Patsy Cline had such a unique, good voice that naturally everyone who heard it did a double take. It’s been said a million times. There’s only one Patsy Cline. There was something that set her apart and you can’t describe it. I can’t.”