Country music has lost its Queen.
Kitty Wells died today (7/16) at her Madison, Tennessee home from complications of a stroke.
Her death comes less than one year after the death of Johnnie Wright, her husband of nearly 74 years. Wright died last September.
Born Ellen Muriel Deason in Nashville on August 30, 1919, Wells hooked up with another local musician, Johnnie Wright, who was performing with his brother-in-law, Jack Anglin. The musical partnership soon became a lifetime partnership, as Johnnie and Kitty became husband and wife on October 30, 1937. Johnnie gave his bride her world-famous stage name, Kitty Wells, taken from a song titled "Sweet Kitty Wells."
Kitty toured with Johnnie & Jack and had a few songs with some degree of popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Thanks to Johnnie & Jack's popularity on RCA Wells got a contract on the label. Her best-known song from her short stay on RCA was the tear-jerking "How Far is Heaven."
Kitty moved to Decca (where Johnnie [later spelled "Johnny"] & Jack would land in the early 1960s) and in the process turned country music on its ear. In 1952, on her first Decca session, Kitty recorded a J.D. Miller composition written in answer to the massively popular Hank Thompson hit "The Wild Side of Life." Miller's song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," addressed the problem of cheating from a woman's point of view. The song became extremely popular when released despite the fact that the men behind the scenes didn't care for the "in-your-face" answer song (despite the fact that it was written by a man!). Several country stations refused to play the song, and Wells was told point-blank by Opry manager Jim Denny that she was NOT to sing the song on the Opry if she wanted to remain an Opry member. She did anyway.
The gutsy move paid off. "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" went to #1 on the Billboard country charts, marking the first time a woman held the top spot on the chart. Furthermore, it stayed there, for a total of six weeks. While that was hardly a record in terms of overall chart success (Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold, and Webb Pierce had songs that stayed #1 for 3-4 months), it was a first time a woman had joined the club.
She was quickly reconciled to those who objected to the song and given the title "Queen of Country Music." The hits continued to flow and her career quickly eclipsed her husband's. She toured continually as part of the Kitty Wells-Johnny Wright Family Show until 2000. In 1976 she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, becoming only the fourth woman (after Sara and Maybelle Carter and Patsy Cline) to be so honored.
It would be an understatement to say that Kitty Wells' success opened the door for the likes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and countless female singers who would follow. Kitty didn't open the door, she kicked it down.
A sad but grateful farewell to the Queen of Country Music, who was 92.