One of the more significant and well known dates in music history is February 3, 1959. For long-time music fans, this date is remembered as “The Day the Music Died”, the day the world lost the immeasurable talents of Buddy Holly, “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson, and hot newcomer Ritchie Valens in a plane crash just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa. Equally significant, at least to this writer, was the passing of another group of musicians to yet another plane crash, this accident taking place on March 5, 1963. On that day, one of the most influential women in music lost her life, the one and only Patsy Cline.
With a voice that has influenced superstar female singers as diverse as Miranda Lambert, Norah Jones, Martina McBride and Sheryl Crow, Patsy Cline began her singing career like so many artists in so many genres in the 1940’s, singing in the church choir. It was a bout of rheumatic fever and a throat infection at the age of 13, believe it or not, that gave Patsy her distinctive, booming voice. Her early professional music career from 1955 to 1957 saw her signed to Four Star Records where experimented with rockabilly and other sounds of the day. While signed to Four Star, she came to the attention of one of the most important figures in the history of country music: record producer Owen Bradley.
Recognizing Cline’s potential, Bradley signed Cline to Decca Records and began producing her material. This is where the magic happened. Songs like “Walking After Midnight”, “Back In Baby’s Arms”, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “I Fall To Pieces” and the Willie Nelson penned “Crazy” all became standards in music, not exclusive to country. These performances by Patsy Cline, as well as many others, became the foundation for country music to take a big step forward in the consciousness of pop culture in North America at the time.
The influence was immediate, as other talented female artists flocked to Nashville where many of them were befriended by Patsy Cline. Having been through the politics that existed in Nashville music executive circles, Cline was an invaluable friend and mentor to such artists as Dottie West, Jan Howard, 16 year old Brenda Lee, a 13 year old Barbara Mandrell, and Loretta Lynn. It is no coincidence, that all of these talented women, Cline included, have been inducted in to the Country Music Hall of Fame. It should be noted that in addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Brenda Lee is one of only a small handful of artists to be inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of fame as well.
I should note that also killed in the same plane crash were two big male country stars of the day, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. Hawkins’ widow, Jean Shepard, is a legendary performer in her own right and continues performing as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and herself is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Hawkins and Copas have also been enshrined in the hallowed Hall. It’s important to acknowledge their contribution to the genre and their loss as well, but neither had achieved the fame that Patsy Cline did at the sudden and tragic end of their lives and careers. Consequently, their loss is often overlooked when telling the story of March 5, 1963.
Rather than continue telling the story of the life and passing of one of the greatest artists in North American music, I think watching and listening to two of Patsy’s finest performances is appropriate. For a great adaptation on the life of Patsy Cline, check out “Sweet Dreams”, a film released in 1985 starring Jessica Lange as Patsy.
Johnny Cash would introduce Patsy this way, and I think it appropriate: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the one and only … Patsy Cline.”