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During the pre-Beatles era of rock and roll (from roughly 1955 to early 1964), there have been a number of ballads that have withstood the test of time. Songs that sound as fresh today as the day they were played on AM radio…songs like the soulful Georgia On My Mind by Ray Charles, At Last by Etta James, the haunting Misty by Johnny Mathis, the jazz-tinged I Wanna Be Around by the ageless Tony Bennett and the string-laden The Theme From “A Summer Place” by Percy Faith…all define the timeless ballads from the era. Another song included among these classics is Crazy, a country song with jazz overtones, written by Willie Nelson and performed by Patsy Cline.
Prior to his outlaw days, Willie Nelson was known as Hugh Nelson, a struggling songwriter who frequented Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville’s Music Row with other unknowns at the time, Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller.
Like other song pitchmen, Nelson was visiting country artists hoping to sell his wares. Willie approached country singer Larry Butler about buying some of his songs for $10 each. Butler told him no adding that “his songs were too good and he should keep them for himself.” (1)
Still, Willie had bills to pay. So, he tried another means to interest prospective song buyers. Willie tells the story of how Crazy reached Patsy Cline. “Her husband, Charlie Dick, and I were good buddies and we ran into each other at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, having a couple of beers. I had just come from Texas and I had recorded Night Life and Crazy and had it on a 45 on the jukebox trying to get some attention drawn to it in Nashville and Tootsie let me put it on her jukebox. Then Charlie heard Crazy and said, ‘That’s a fantastic song. Patsy would love to do that, I’ll bet.’ And I said, ‘I’d love for her to do it.’ He said, ‘Let’s go play it for her.’ This was like 12:30 at night.
So we went over to her house and had a couple of beers. I didn’t get out of the car. Charlie went in and Patsy came out and made me get out of the car. I went in and I sang it for her and she recorded it the next week. She was having a little problem recording it, but she was actually trying to phrase it a little bit like me and I told her, you need to do it more like Patsy and put your own brand on it, and she did. It took her a few days of steady recording but she finally nailed it.” (2)
Patsy Cline was born in Winchester, Virginia as Virginia Patterson Hensley on September 8, 1932. She became interested in music when singing in church with her mother. Her father deserted the family in 1947 so Patsy quit school and worked as a waitress to help support the family of her mother and a younger brother and sister.
After an audition with a local radio show, her performance was well received and she was asked to return. This lead to appearances at local nightclubs and, in 1954, she became a regular on the Town And Country Jamboree Show with Jimmy Dean.
She married Gerald Edward Cline in 1953 and divorced in 1957, as he wanted her to be a housewife while she desired to sing professionally. Later that year, she married Charles Allen Dick, a man with whom she had an affair while being married to Cline. Later, she regarded Charlie as “the love of her life.”
Patsy signed with Four Star Records in 1955 where she recorded only honky-tonk material provided by Four Star writers. The deal lasted just three years. She then signed with Decca Records and was introduced to Owen Bradley a producer who thought her voice was best suited for pop music.
While looking for material for her first album, she came across a song titled Walkin’ After Midnight. Cline didn’t like it as she regarded it as nothing more than “just a little pop song”. But the label did like it and insisted she record it.
Photo courtesy of Universal Music Enterprises.
Cline auditioned and won a spot the Arthur Godfrey’ Talent Scouts program. Singing Walkin’ After Midnight, she won the competition and listeners called their local radio stations in such big numbers that the label released Walkin’ as a single. Cline appeared on the radio show for a few weeks until creative differences with Godfrey caused her to be fired.
Her next singles had modest showings. It was a composition by Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, I Fall To Pieces, which was produced by Bradley that took her record to #1 on the country chart, #12 on the pop chart and #6 on the Adult Contemporary chart. (3) She became a crossover success and it appeared she was headed for stardom.
On June 14, 1961, Patsy and her brother Sam were involved in a car crash in Nashville where she was thrown through the windshield suffering a huge cut on the forehead, bruised ribs, a broken wrist and a dislocated hip. The driver of the other vehicle was killed. Cline spent a month in the hospital and left still on crutches and with a scar that would remain for the rest of her life (she wore wigs and makeup to cover it).
With no touring or other work while she was hospitalized and recovering, Cline’s career was in danger of slipping out of sight. In stepped Bradley, who wanted Cline to record Crazy, as he believed the song had the potential to surpass I Fall To Pieces in crossover appeal.
Cline didn’t like the song. Maybe it was too pop. Perhaps she was affected by the physical pain from the wreck and was unable to sing the tune as recorded on Nelson’s demo. The high notes, in particular, troubled her bruised ribs. Exasperated, Cline refused to go any further with a tune that she didn’t really like in the first place. Cline and Bradley had a heated argument about the song and she left the studio without finishing the track.
The following week, Bradley convinced her to take another crack at the song with a version a bit more broad and straightforward. In a single take, Cline nailed what would be her most enduring hit. (4)
The track rose to #2 on the country and adult contemporary charts and #9 on the pop charts. Patsy Cline hit the country chart a total of twenty times, nine of her songs hit the top ten with I Fall To Pieces and She’s Got You as her only #1 songs. (5) Sadly, she was only able to enjoy the fruits of her success for a short time.
After performing three shows in a benefit in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 3, 1963, Cline and a number of other country stars were making their way back to Nashville. The airport was fogged in that night and the next day. Cline was offered a ride in a car back home on the fifth of March but declined. She boarded the plane for Nashville at 5:00 PM for a flight that stopped twice — once in Missouri and again in Dyersburg, Tennessee where the weather forecast was high winds and driving rain. The plane crashed with no survivors in a forest outside of Camden, Tennessee, just 90 miles from Nashville.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Here’s a live performance of Patsy singing Crazy. I couldn’t find any info on the date or location of this performance.
Willie Nelson tells his story on how he pitched his song, Crazy to Patsy Cline.
1) Hillbillymusic.com. Link
3) Joel Whitburn, Top Country Singles, 1944-2001, Page 71
4) stillmoving.com. Link
5) Joel Whitburn, Page 71
Photo courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry.
© 2017 Jerry Reuss