Spectropop remembers

SKEETER DAVIS (1931 - 2004)

Countrypolitan Queen

Grand Ole Opry star Skeeter Davis has died in Nashville after a long struggle with cancer. She was 72. Though her remarkable voice - a pliant, nearly twangless instrument that was as well suited to pop ballads as to country songs - brought her to attention, it was often Skeeter's bubbly personality that was most impressive to fans and friends. She was married and divorced three times: to early sweetheart Kenneth Depew, to disc jockey and TV personality Ralph Emery and to NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato.

Skeeter Davis was born Mary Frances Penick on December 30th, 1931 in the small Appalachian town of Dry Ridge, Kentucky. As a child, her grandfather nicknamed her Skeeter because she was always active and buzzing around like a mosquito. As a child, she learned to harmonize with singers she heard on the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts beaming into rural Kentucky on WSM radio. As a high school student, she began singing with her best chum, Betty Jack Davis. The two teenagers became the Davis Sisters: Skeeter Davis was born.

The Davis Sisters sang in the Lexington, Kentucky area and appeared on radio WLAX in 1949. From there, they earned radio and television appearances in Detroit, Cincinnati and Wheeling, West Virginia, where they were part of the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree. In 1952, Skeeter and Betty Jack recorded for Fortune. The following year, their unique harmonies attracted RCA Records A&R man, Chet Atkins, who signed them to a recording contract. They achieved their first chart success with 'I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know', which went to #1 on the US country chart and #18 on the pop chart.

On August 23rd, 1953, Skeeter and Betty Jack were involved in a serious car accident in which Betty Jack died and Skeeter was critically injured. It took her more than a year to recover both physically and mentally. With great difficulty and a lot of persuasion, she returned to singing with Betty Jack's sister, Georgia Davis, to briefly resume the Davis Sisters' act. But, within a year, the duo broke up, and Skeeter pursued a solo career.

She continued to record on the RCA label where she worked with Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley, and toured on the Caravan of the Stars in 1955. Teaming with producer Chet Atkins, Davis scored her first solo country chart hit in 1958 with 'Lost To A Geisha Girl'. This was during a time when female acts were surging forward with "response" songs to some of the biggest hits by male artists. As Kitty Wells had answered Hank Thompson's 'Honky Tonk Angels' with 'It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels' in 1952, Skeeter Davis put out this answer to Hank Locklin's 'Geisha Girl'. A few years later, Davis gained a huge hit with 'I Can't Help You, I'm Falling Too', in response to Locklin's 'Please Help Me, I'm Falling'. Davis achieved one of her greatest ambitions when, in 1959, she moved to Nashville and became a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1960, Skeeter married WSM personality, Ralph Emery, but the tumultuous marriage ended in 1964. During the 1960s, she was one of RCA's most successful country artists. She harvested dozens of US country hits, many of which crossed over to the pop charts. Among these was what was to become her trademark song, 1963's million-selling 'The End Of The World', which peaked at #2 on both the country and pop charts, and at #1 on the adult contemporary listing. With its strings, piano and smooth vocals, 'The End Of The World' epitomised the "Nashville Sound", and brought Skeeter Davis to the attention of many listeners who previously had ignored country music. Next came another "Countrypolitan" classic, in the shape of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's 'I Can't Stay Mad At You', one of numerous of that couple's songs in Skeeter's canon. Her other big hits included 'Set Him Free', 'My Last Date (With You)', 'Optimistic', 'Where I Ought To Be', 'I'm Saving My Love', 'Gonna Get Along Without You Now' and 'What Does It Take (To Keep a Man Like You Satisfied)'.

Davis toured extensively in the US, Canada, Europe and the Far East during the '60s and '70s. In 1967, she recorded an album of the songs of Buddy Holly, which featured Waylon Jennings on guitar. She also did a tribute album to her friend Dolly Parton in 1972. Duets with Bobby Bare, George Hamilton IV, and the Bee Gees gave her a few more hits. By the mid-'70s Davis was reaching the end of her illustrious career, but chart success continued with 'Bus Fare To Kentucky'. 'I'm A Lover, Not A Fighter' and 'One Tin Soldier'. In 1973, she was dropped from the Grand Ole Opry's roster due to her strong criticisms of the Nashville Police Department during one of her performances. Her membership was later reinstated. She ended her twenty-two year relationship with RCA in 1974 and charted her last hit in 1976 with 'I Love Us' for Mercury Records.

In 1985, Davis and rock band NRBQ collaborated on a critically acclaimed album called 'She Sings, They Play'. She married the band's bass-player, Joey Spampanito, but this union, like her others, ultimately ended in divorce. Skeeter's autobiography, Bus Fare To Kentucky, was published in 1993. She pulled no punches in this brutally honest account of her life, revealing how she had endured a family history of alcoholism, incest and murder. She also told her side of the story regarding her four-year marriage to Ralph Emery, following the heavy criticism she had received in his autobiography. In 1997, she co-wrote a children's Christmas book, entitled The Christmas Note, based on her own childhood.

In later years, during which she faced debilitating health problems, Skeeter remained one of the Opry's most accessible, talkative and effervescent stars. Although she rarely performed in recent times, she continued to maintain close contact with her fans. On June 10th of this year, she made a brief appearance at the Golden Voice Awards Show in Franklin, Tennessee during the CMA Music Festival. Too weak to sing, Skeeter nonetheless took to the stage to update her fans on her condition and thank them for their support.

Survivors include her sisters Shirley Katherine Elfers and Carolyn Sue Penick, and brothers James Williams Penick and Harold Lee Penick.

(Adapted for S'pop by Mick Patrick from various online obituaries and other sources, principally a biography found at Countrypolitan.com.)

Mary Frances Penick (Skeeter Davis), singer and songwriter:
born December 30th, 1931 - died September 19th, 2004