Jazz and country music have two things in common: the blues and a dependence on songs with heartfelt stories. In the case of jazz, those story songs came largely from urban musicals by way of Tin Pan Alley. In the case of country, tunes with tender tales most often came from hungry writers who found their way to publishers in Nashville and Memphis. If the female jazz-pop-blues idiom starts with the voice of Dinah Washington in the 1950s, then the country equivalent would have to be Patsy Cline. Her taut and rural blue-plate-special sound continues to find admirers among aspiring country singers to this day.
Cline's voice didn't have the bluesy sting or urgency of Washington's. Instead, she added a velvety twang to a maternal pop style already forged by Patti Page and Jo Stafford. As evidenced by a rewarding new two-CD set, Patsy Cline: Sweet Dreams—The Complete Decca Studio Masters (1960-1963), the singer managed her vocal power like a leashed panther. Cline had an innate sense of when to pull notes up short and when to let them run with passion.
All of Cline's recordings during this brief Decca period were songs of sincerity that she sang with suspense and spirit. Cline's appeal was the ability to curl notes around notes—and curl them all around another note with a spring-loaded cowboy yodel. She also could open up and let your heart have it. With Cline, you're always keenly aware of her simmering power. You're also impressed that she could constrain that energy until just the right moment, when it pounced on you.
Cline was born in 1932 in Virginia's hill country near the West Virginia border. A natural singer and entertainer, Cline performed on local radio at age 16. In 1953, she married a man who worked in his family's construction business and wanted a housewife. Before long, Cline wanted out.
A year after her wedding, Cline leaped blindly into a contract with 4-Star Records. The California-based country label locked an overly eager Cline into a low-royalty deal, and to make matters worse, she was contractually bound to record only songs written by Bill McCall, the label's owner. The deal become even sweeter for McCall when he cut a side deal with Decca to have the label record Cline and release her records. Most of McCall's material for Cline consisted of provincial country fare and gimmicky rock 'n' roll tunes. The sole hit record McCall penned for Cline during her 4-Star years was Walkin' After Midnight, which admittedly made her a national star.
Cline remarried in the late 1950s and then moved to Nashville in 1960. When her 4-Star contract expired later that year, she signed directly with Decca. Supporting a new family and managing additional expenses, Cline returned to the road. In June 1961, the car she was in with her brother crashed head-on into another vehicle. The impact sent her head nearly through the windshield.
After three months of recuperation, Cline was back in the studio in August 1961, and she turned out discs steadily over the next two years. By 1963, flush with Cline's success, her manager bought a four-seat Piper Comanche. The plane was meant to help Cline hopscotch the South to meet concert obligations and wing home to Nashville soonest. On March 5, 1963, while returning from a performance in Kansas City, the plane crashed in Camden, Tenn., trying to navigate a rainstorm. Cline, her manager/pilot and two other country singers were killed.
Sweet Dreams brings together all of Cline's Decca studio recordings, and the work is quite remarkable. There are country classics here like Crazy, I Fall to Pieces, Leavin' on Your Mind, I Can't Help It and a remake of her earlier hit Walkin' After Midnight. But there also are pop standards that Cline executes with enormous finesse and flair. These tunes include Love Letters in the Sand, That's My Desire, Always, Bill Bailey, and one of the most hair-raising and heroic versions of You Made me Love You you'll ever hear. It's also interesting to compare Cline's You Belong to Me with the 1952 hit versions by Jo Stafford and Patti Page—complete with The Jordanaires, country's version of the Pied Pipers.
I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect Dinah Washington liked Patsy Cline. And I'm sure the feeling was mutual.
JazzWax tracks: Patsy Cline: Sweet Dreams—The Complete Decca Studio Masters (1960-1963) has just been released by Hip-O Select, a West Coast label that continues to turn out intelligent re-issue packages. This limited edition set includes a detailed booklet with superb liner notes by Colin Escott, author of several authoritative books on country music, including Hank Williams: The Biography and The Grand Ole Opry: The Making of an American Icon. You'll find this set available now at the Hip-O Select site here. Wider distribution comes in April.
JazzWax clip: Here's Patsy Cline singing her first Decca hit, I Fall to Pieces. Dig the light yodel in her voice...