DATE OF BIRTH: September 8, 1932
DATE OF DEATH: March 5, 1963
PLACE OF BIRTH: Winchester, Virginia
DATE of INDUCTION into the Country Music Hall of Fame: 1973
The most popular female country singer in recording history, Patsy Cline has achieved icon status since her tragic early death at age thirty in 1963. Cline is invariably invoked as a standard for female vocalists, and she has inspired scores of singers including k. d. lang, Loretta Lynn, Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood, and Wynonna Judd. Her brief career produced the #1 jukebox hit of all time, “Crazy” (written by Willie Nelson) and her unique, crying style and vocal impeccability have established her reputation as the quintessential torch singer.
Cline’s short life reads like the heart-torn lyrics of many of the ballads she recorded. Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Virginia, in the midst of the Depression, she demonstrated musical proclivity at an early age—a talent inherited from her father, an accomplished amateur singer, whom Cline later confessed sexually abused her as a child. The family moved nineteen times around the state of Virginia before “Ginny,” as she was known in her youth, reached age fifteen. A perpetual outsider, Cline dropped out of school at age fifteen to support her family after her father deserted them. They settled in Winchester, the Shenandoah Valley town with which she would grow to have a love-hate relationship.
Haunted by her early experiences, the teenaged Cline directed herself toward a career as a singer with unbending single-mindedness. She sang in juke joints in the Winchester area and did a nightclub cabaret act a` la Helen Morgan, the tear-stained pop chanteuse of the 1920s said to be one of Cline’s primary influences (along with Kay Starr, Kate Smith and Charline Arthur). She also appeared in amateur musicals, talent shows, and on local radio station WINC.
By age twenty Cline connected with local country bandleader Bill Peer, an association that nurtured her desire to become a country music star. She adopted the name “Patsy” after her middle name, Patterson, possibly in a nod to singer Patsy Montana, whose feisty cowgirl persona anticipated both Cline’s spunk and early stage costuming. She married her first husband, staid Gerald Cline, on March 7, 1953, but she found the relationship unfulfilling and they divorced four years later.
During this period Cline made inroads into the thriving Washington, D. C., country music scene masterminded by country music’s “media magician,” Connie B. Gay. Beginning in the fall of 1954, Gay spotlighted Cline as a featured soloist on his Town & Country regional TV broadcasts, which included Jimmy Dean as host, along with Roy Clark, George Hamilton IV, Billy Grammer, Dale Turner, and Mary Klick. Through her web of Washington contacts Cline landed her first recording contract in September 1954, with Bill McCall’s Pasadena, California-based Four Star Records, an association that lasted six years and was to become the single greatest hindrance to her career. Cline alleged that McCall swindled her out of record earnings and gave her substandard material to record.
Cline’s debut single, the country weeper “A Church, a Courtroom and Then Goodbye,” sold poorly when released in July 1955 on the Decca label’s Coral subsidiary (by lease arrangement between McCall and Decca A&R man Paul Cohen). Cohen turned production over to his protégé and eventual successor, Owen Bradley, who became Cline’s guiding light for the duration of her recording career.
Cline’s first four singles flopped, but the “hillbilly with oomph” act she developed on TV and in personal appearances earned her regional fame. Her recording stalemate ended when she made her national TV debut on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show on January 21, 1957, singing “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which hit #2 country and #12 pop. Cline rode high on the hit for the next year, doing personal appearances and performing regularly on Godfrey’s weekly CBS broadcast Arthur Godfrey and Friends and on ABC’s Country Music Jubilee, but there were no follow-up hits. Her September 1957 marriage to second husband Charlie Dick resulted in a tumultuous relationship glamorized in Sweet Dreams, the 1985 film of Cline’s life, starring Jessica Lange. By the end of 1957 Cline had retreated into semi-retirement.