Trailblazing singer who became the first woman to top the US country charts with 'Honky Tonk Angels'
KITTY Wells, who has died aged 92, was revered in Nashville as a queen of country music for her controversial 1952 record It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels, which made her the first female artist to top the American country charts.
Written as a riposte to Hank Thompson's smash hit The Wild Side Of Life (with its derogatory portrayal of wild, wayward women), Honky Tonk Angels was the first major country song written from a female perspective: "It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels as you said in the words to your song/Too many times married men think they're still single that has caused many a good girl to go wrong . . ."
The sentiment offended the religious sensibilities of country music so prevalent at the time and the song was initially banned by country music's headquarters, the Grand Ole Opry, and refused airplay on many radio stations. Such notoriety may even have helped Kitty Wells's cause, as the record became not only a surprise No 1 hit, but also turned her into a role model for female performers.
It was Kitty Wells who exploded the popular notion that no woman could ever headline a major show, a development that inspired a generation of stars such as Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton to try to emulate her.
Kitty was born Ellen Muriel Deason in Nashville on August 30, 1919, the daughter of a brakeman for the Tennessee Central Railroad who liked to sing and play at local dances. A shy, demure child, she grew up singing in the church choir.
Having dropped out of school at 14 to work in a local shirt factory, Ellen teamed up with her sisters Mabel and Willie Mae and their cousin Bessie Choate to form the singing Deason Sisters. They were awarded a regular early morning programme on the Nashville radio station WSIX, where she met the singer Johnnie Wright, whom she married in 1937.
Appearances with Wright raised her profile, and she assumed the name Kitty Wells from an old folk song, Sweet Kitty Wells, which was popular at the time. Having three children in quick succession put her musical career on hold, and it wasn't until 1949 that she re-emerged to make her first recordings, including the gospel standard Gathering Flowers For The Master's Bouquet, for the RCA Victor label. Disappointed by her lack of success, she decided to stop singing altogether, only for her husband to persuade her to go into the studio with the producer Owen Bradley to record a demo of Honky Tonk Angels, a song written by a Louisiana Cajun musician and producer, Jay Miller.
Kitty Wells then forgot about the session, and was unaware that the record had been released until it was well on its way to becoming a million-seller. Its six-week stay at No 1 in the country charts was not derailed even by the publishers of The Wild Side Of Life attempting to sue on the grounds of infringing copyright. The fact that The Wild Side Of Life had itself borrowed the tune of an old country song scuppered their case.
The song's ban was lifted following the intervention of one of the Opry's leading figures, Roy Acuff, and Wells was launched on an unprecedented run of success, registering 35 successive Top 20 country hits, including Paying For That Back Street Affair; Hey Joe; and I'll Always Be Your Fraulein.
Such was Kitty Wells's commercial appeal that in 1959 Decca signed her to a lifetime contract, and by 1980 she had notched up 81 hits. She toured extensively all over the world, won numerous awards, and recorded and played family shows with her husband and children, and hosted a long-running television show. She also diversified from the country mainstream at one point, recording Bob Dylan's Forever Young with members of the Allman Brothers.
Yet Kitty Wells, who died on July 16, remained modest and unassuming, relying solely on the homely warmth of her singing to convey the emotion of her often sentimental music. Devoutly religious, she loved cooking, preferring domesticity to the limelight, and remained married to Johnnie Wright for 74 years until his death in 2011. They had three children, Ruby (who died in 2009), Carol Sue and Bobby. She retired from public performance in 2000, still expressing amazement at her trailblazing success.