WHEN THE STARS FALL FROM THE SKY
The Life and Death of Legendary Patsy Cline
On this date, March 5, 1963, the world lost a woman with perhaps the greatest voice in the history of recorded music when Patsy Cline died at the height of her career in a private plane crash. As part of the early 1960s Nashville sound, Patsy successfully “crossed over” to pop music, making her one of the most influential, successful and acclaimed female vocalists of the twentieth century. Patsy was known for her rich tone and emotionally expressive voice that “could make grown men weep.” Along with Kitty Wells, she helped pave the way for women as headline performers in the country music world and without a doubt, inspired legions of performers who followed in her wake. Her death was a terrible loss to the entire music industry, but millions of records have sold since her death and she continues to be a best-selling artist, fifty years after she died.
Patsy Cline, one of the greatest musical voices of all time.
Patsy Cline was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, Virginia in 1932. Her mother was a 16-year-old seamstress and her father was a 43-year-old blacksmith. The family moved often and Patsy always admitted that she grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Her father deserted the family in 1947, but the children (she had a brother and a sister, Samuel and Sylvia) had a happy life.
Patsy got her start singing in church and had a love for musicians like Kay Starr, Jo Stafford, Hank Williams, Judy Garland and Shirley Temple. She had perfect pitch but was self-taught and couldn’t read music. When she was 13, Patsy was hospitalized with a throat infection and rheumatic fever. Her throat was affected for the better and from that point on, she had a booming voice “like Kate Smith,” she said.
After her father abandoned his family, Patsy dropped out of high school to work. She performed various jobs, from soda jerk to waitress, but spent much of her free time watching performers through the window at the local radio station, WINC-AM. She eventually got up the nerve to ask if she could perform. She first number was such a success that she was asked back and this led to performances at local nightclubs, wearing fringed Western outfits that her mother made from Patsy’s designs. She appeared in variety and talent shows around the region and with more radio shows, she developed a large following. In 1954 Jimmy Dean, a young country star in his own right, learned of her and she became a regular with Dean on Connie B. Gay's Town and Country Jamboree radio show, which aired on weekday afternoons live on WARL-AM in Arlington, Virginia
In September 1953, she married a contractor named Gerald Cline, but they divorced four years later. It was a stormy marriage. Cline wanted her to be a housewife and Patsy wanted to sing. It was destined to fail and it did, producing no children.
Bill Peer, her second manager, gave her the name Patsy, from her middle name and her mother's maiden name, Patterson. In 1955, he got her a contract at Four Star Records, the label with which he was then affiliated. Four Star was under contract to the Coral subsidiary of Decca Records. Patsy signed with Decca at her first opportunity three years later.
Her first contract allowed her to record compositions only by Four Star writers, which Patsy found limiting. Later, she expressed regret over signing with the label, but thinking that nobody else would have her, she took the deal. Her first record for Four Star was "A Church, A Courtroom & Then Good-Bye", which attracted little attention, although it led to appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, where she could sing whatever she wanted.
Between 1955 and 1957, Patsy recorded honky-tonk material, with songs like "Fingerprints", "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down", "Don't Ever Leave Me Again", and "A Stranger In My Arms". She co-wrote the latter two. She also experimented with rockabilly, but nothing she did gained any notable success. According to Decca Records producer Owen Bradley, the Four Star compositions only hinted at Patsy's potential. Bradley thought that her voice was best-suited for pop music, but Patsy only wanted to perform country music. Every time Bradley tried to get her to sing the torch songs that would become her signature, she would panic, missing her familiar banjo and steel guitar. She recorded 51 songs with Four Star.
On July 1, 1955 Cline made her network television debut on the short-lived television version of the Grand Ole Opry on ABC-TV. This was followed by an appearance on the network's Ozark Jubilee later that month. Later that year, while looking for material for her first album, a song called "Walkin' After Midnight" appeared, written by Donn Hecht and Alan Block. Patsy initially did not like the song because it was, according to her, "just a little old pop song." However, the song's writers and record label insisted that she record it.
In the late fall of 1956, she auditioned for Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts in New York City, and was accepted to sing on the CBS-TV show on January 21, 1957. Patsy was initially supposed to sing "A Poor Man's Roses (Or a Rich Man's Gold)", but the show's producers insisted she sing "Walkin' After Midnight" instead. Though heralded as a country song, recorded in Nashville, Godfrey's staff insisted that Cline appear in a cocktail dress rather than in one of her mother's hand-crafted cowgirl outfits. The audience’s enthusiastic reaction (talent was measured on an “applause meter”) won her the competition. After the Godfrey show, listeners began calling their local radio stations to request the song, so she released it as a single. Although Patsy had been performing for almost a decade and had appeared on national TV three times, it took the Godfrey show to make her a star. For a couple of months thereafter, Patsy appeared regularly on Godfrey's radio program. Disagreements over creative control caused her to move on.
"Walkin' After Midnight" reached No. 2 on the country chart and No. 12 on the pop chart, making Patsy one of the first country singers to have a crossover pop hit. The single drove her success for the next year or so. She stayed visible by making personal appearances and performing regularly on Godfrey’s show, as well as performing for several years on Ozark Jubilee (later Jubilee USA). She had no other hits with Four Star.
A month after her recording session, she met Charlie Dick, a good-looking ladies’ man who frequented the local club circuit Patsy played on weekends. His charisma and admiration of Patsy's talents captured her attention, and their relationship resulted in a marriage that lasted until her death. Though their love affair was publicized as controversial, Patsy regarded Dick as "the love of her life". After the birth of their daughter, Julie, in 1958, they moved to Nashville, Tennessee. They also had a second child, a son named Randy.
In 1959, Patsy met Randy Hughes, a session guitarist and promotion man. Hughes became her manager and helped her change labels. When her Four Star contract expired in 1960, she signed with Decca Records-Nashville, directly under the direction of legendary female-singer country music producer Owen Bradley. He was responsible for much of Patsy's success and positively influenced the careers of both Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn. Even though she was still scared of the lush Nashville Sound arrangements, Bradley considered Patsy's voice best-suited for country pop-crossover songs. Bradley's direction and arrangements helped smooth her voice into the silky, torch song style for which she won fame.
Patsy's first release for Decca was the country pop ballad "I Fall to Pieces" (1961), written by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. The song was promoted and won success on both country and pop music stations. On the country charts, the song slowly climbed to the top, garnering her first Number One ranking. In a major feat for country singers at the time, the song hit No. 12 on the pop and No. 6 on the adult contemporary charts, making her a household name and demonstrating that women could achieve as much crossover success as men.
In 1960, Patsy realized a lifelong dream when the Grand Ole Opry accepted her request to join the cast, making her the only person to achieve membership in such a fashion. She became one of the Opry's biggest stars. Even before that time, Patsy, confident of her abilities and appeal, embraced, encouraged and befriended many women starting out in the country music field, including Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, Jan Howard, sixteen-year-old Brenda Lee and a thirteen-year-old steel-guitar player named Barbara Mandrell with whom Patsy once toured, all of whom later cited her as a major influence. According to both Lynn and West, Patsy always gave herself to friends, buying them groceries and furniture and even hiring them as wardrobe assistants. On occasion, she paid their rent, enabling them to stay in Nashville and continue pursuing their dreams. Honky-tonk pianist and Opry star Del Wood said, "Even when she didn't have it, she'd spend it—and not always on herself. She'd give anyone the skirt off her backside if they needed it."
But Patsy wasn’t only accepted by the women. She cultivated a brash and gruff exterior that allowed her to be considered "one of the boys". This allowed her to befriend male artists like Roger Miller, Hank Cochran, Faron Young, Ferlin Husky, Harlan Howard and Carl Perkins all of whom she socialized with at famed Nashville establishment Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, next door to the Opry.
Patsy used the term of endearment "Hoss" to refer to her friends, both male as well as female, and referred to herself as "The Cline". Patsy met Elvis Presley in 1962 at a fundraiser for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and they exchanged phone numbers. Having seen him perform during a rare Grand Ole Opry appearance, she admired his music, called him The Big Hoss, and often recorded with his backup group, The Jordanaires.
By this time, Patsy controlled her own career. In a time when concert promoters often cheated stars by promising to pay them after the show but skipping out with the money before the concert ended, Cline demanded her money before she took the stage by proclaiming: "No dough, no show", a practice that became the rule.
On June 14, 1961 Patsy and her brother Sam were involved in a head-on collision on Old Hickory Boulevard in Nashville, the second and more serious of two crashes during her lifetime. The impact threw Patsy into the windshield, nearly killing her. Upon arriving at the scene, Dottie West picked glass from Patsy's hair, and went with her in the ambulance. When help arrived, Patsy insisted that the other car's driver be treated first, an event which had a long-term detrimental effect on Dottie. When in 1991, West was fatally injured in a car accident, she too insisted that her driver be treated first, possibly causing her own death. Patsy later stated that she saw the female driver of the other car die before her eyes.
Patsy spent a month in the hospital, suffering from a jagged cut across her forehead that required stitches, a broken wrist and a dislocated hip. When she left the hospital, her forehead was visibly scarred. For the remainder of her career, she wore wigs and makeup to hide the scars, along with headbands to relieve the forehead pressure that caused headaches if left unattended. Six weeks later, she returned to the road on crutches.
After the car accident in 1961, Patsy wore wigs with bangs to hide the scars on her forehead.
Unable to capitalize upon the success of "I Fall to Pieces" due to her hospital stay, Patsy sought another recording to re-establish herself. When introduced to "Crazy", a song written by Willie Nelson, Patsy hated it at first and the first recording session was unsuccessful. Patsy claimed that the song was too difficult for her; not only because of the odd style in which Nelson wrote it, but also because her ribs, injured in the crash, made it difficult for her to reach the high notes. It was eventually decided that Patsy would overdub her vocals over the best instrumental recording of the track. This came a week later when the singer's ribs had further healed. Upon returning to the studio, Cline could reach the high notes and recorded her part in a single take. Now considered a classic, "Crazy" ultimately became Patsy's signature song. By late 1961, "Crazy" was a crossover success, straddling the country and pop genres, and reached the Top 10 on the charts. It became Patsy's biggest pop hit.
Patsy’s influence on the music world continued. She was so respected by men in the industry that rather than being introduced to audiences as "Pretty Miss Patsy Cline" as her female contemporaries often were, she was given a more stately introduction such as that given by Johnny Cash on their 1962 tour: "Ladies and Gentlemen, The One and Only – Patsy Cline." As an artist, she held her fan base in extremely high regard, many of whom became friends, staying for hours after concerts to chat and sign autographs.
Patsy was the first woman in country music to perform at New York's Carnegie Hall, sharing the bill with fellow Opry members. She headlined the famous Hollywood Bowl with Cash. Later in 1962, she became the first woman in country music to headline her own show in Las Vegas at the Mint Casino.
This success enabled Patsy to buy her dream home in the Goodlettsville suburb of Nashville, decorating it in her own style. It featured gold dust sprinkled in the bathroom tiles and a music room with the finest sound equipment. Patsy called it "the house that Vegas built" since the money from the Mint covered its cost. After her death in 1963, Cline's home was sold to singer Wilma Burgess who later reported that “strange occurrences” took place while she was living there. She believed that she shared the house with Patsy’s ghost.
With this new demand for Patsy came higher earnings. Reportedly she was paid at least $1,000 for appearances towards the end of her life—a then an unheard-of sum for country music women, whose average fee was less than $200. During her five-and-a-half year career, Patsy received a dozen awards for her achievements, and three more following her death from the Music Reporter, Billboard Awards and Cashbox.
In the fall of 1961, Patsy was back in the studio again to record songs for an upcoming album released in early 1962. One of the first songs was "She's Got You", written by Hank Cochran. Cochran pitched the song over the phone to Patsy and she fell in love with it at first listen. It became one of the few songs that she enjoyed recording. The song was released as a single in January 1962, and soon crossed over, becoming a hit on all of the charts. In late 1962, Patsy appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand and released her third album, Sentimentally Yours in August of that year.
A month before her death, Patsy was back in the studio to record her fourth album, originally entitled Faded Love. Recording a mix of country standards and such vintage pop classics as Irving Berlin's "Always" and "Does Your Heart Beat for Me", these sessions proved to be the most contemporary-sounding of her career. Patsy got so involved with the stories in the songs' lyrics, she reportedly cried through most of her final sessions.
At the playback party, according to singer Jan Howard, Patsy held up a copy of her first record and a copy of her newest tracks and stated, "Well, here it is...the first and the last."
Friends Dottie West, June Carter Cash, and Loretta Lynn recalled Cline telling them during 1962–1963 that she felt a sense of impending doom and did not expect to live much longer. Patsy, already known for her generosity, had begun giving away personal items to friends, writing her will on Delta Air Lines stationery and asking close friends to care for her children should anything happen to her. She told Jordanaires back-up singer Ray Walker as she exited the Grand Ole Opry the week before her death: "Honey, I've had two bad ones (accidents). The third one will either be a charm or it'll kill me."
On March 3, 1963 Patsy performed at a benefit at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Kansas City, Kansas for the family of disc jockey "Cactus" Jack Call. He had died in an automobile crash a little over a month earlier. Also performing on the show were George Jones, George Riddle and The Jones Boys, Billy Walker, Dottie West, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, George McCormick, the Clinch Mountain Boys as well as Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.
Reports vary as to whether Patsy, ill with the flu, gave two or three performances. Regardless, she was miserable. She had spent the night at the Town House Motor Hotel and was unable to fly out the day after the concert because Fairfax Airport was fogged in. West asked Patsy to ride in the car with her and husband, Bill, back to Nashville (approximately a 16 hour drive), but Patsy refused, feeling too sick to be cooped up in the car for so long.
On March 5, she called her mother from the motel and checked out at 12:30 p.m. to go the short distance to the airport to board the Piper Comanche. The plane stopped once in Missouri to refuel and subsequently landed at Dyersburg Municipal Airport in Dyersburg, Tennessee at 5:00 p.m.
Pilot Randy Hughes was an experienced flyer, but was not trained in instrument flying. Hawkshaw Hawkins had accepted Billy Walker's seat after Walker left on a commercial flight to take care of a stricken family member. Patsy was joined on the flight by a second fellow performer, Cowboy Copas. The Dyersburg, Tennessee airfield manager suggested that they stay the night after advising of high winds and inclement weather, and even offered them free rooms and meals, but Hughes responded that he was confident about the short flight ahead of them. The plane took off at 6:07 p.m.
Approximately 13 minutes later, the plane crashed in inclement weather. Patsy’s recovered wristwatch had stopped at 6:20 p.m. The plane wreckage was located approximately 90 miles from its Nashville destination in a forest outside Camden, Tennessee. Forensic examinations concluded that everyone aboard had been killed instantaneously from their injuries and did not suffer.
The location of the plane was unknown throughout the night. Until the wreckage was discovered the following dawn and reported on the radio, friends and family had not given up hope. The lights at the destination Cornelia Fort Airpark were kept on throughout the night as reports of the missing plane were broadcast on radio and TV.
Early the following morning, Roger Miller and his friend went searching for survivors: "As fast as I could, I ran through the woods screaming their names—through the brush and the trees, and I came up over this little rise, oh, my God, there they were. It was ghastly. The plane had crashed nose down.” Shortly after the bodies were removed, looters scavenged the area. Some of the items which were recovered were eventually donated to The Country Music Hall of Fame. Included in those donations were Patsy's wrist watch, Confederate flag cigarette lighter, studded belt and three pairs of gold slippers.
As per her wishes, Patsy was brought home for her memorial service, which thousands attended. She was buried at Shenandoah Memorial Park in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia. Her grave is marked with a bronze plaque, which reads: "Virginia H (Patsy) Cline 'Death Cannot Kill What Never Dies: Love'". With the help of Lynn and West, a bell tower was erected at the cemetery in her memory, which plays hymns daily at 6:00 p.m., the hour of her death. Another memorial marks the exact place off Fire Tower Road in Fatty Bottom, Tennessee, where the plane crashed in the still-remote forest outside of Camden.
If you ever get the chance to visit either site, shed a tear while you’re there for a life loss too soon and a talent that fell from the heavens. RIP Patsy Cline.