100 Greatest Women, #64: Billie Jo Spears

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

#64

Billie Jo Spears

2008 Edition: #64 (+/- 0)

Her star may not have shone as bright as some of her contemporaries in the seventies, but Billie Jo Spears earned a dedicated following both in the United States and Europe with her bluesy vocals and sharp material.

She started young, a mere teenager when she released her first single on independent label Abbott Records, “Too Old For Toys, Too Young For Boys.” A high school diploma and a few demos later, she was in the big leagues, signing with United Artists in 1964.

While she floundered for most of the sixties on that label, watching her singles go nowhere, a move to Capitol records led to her first big hit. Sung from the perspective of a country girl who gets more than she bargained for as a secretary in New York, “Mr. Walker, It’s All Over” was something of a working girl’s anthem, a slightly seedier spin on Norma Jean’s “Heaven Help the Working Girl.”

While that song was a breakthrough hit, it didn’t start a trend, and her subsequent singles for Capitol didn’t match the promise of “Mr. Walker.” Her career was further slowed down by the need for vocal cord surgery, which could have ended her run for good. Fortunately, a full recovery gave her a second chance, and she returned to United Artists in 1974.

Her first single after returning to the label would become her biggest hit. “Blanket On the Ground,” a sexy song about a married couple having some fun under the moonlight, became her first and only #1 country single in 1975. Better yet, it crossed over to the pop charts in England, establishing a following for her there stronger than in her home country. When she had another top ten country hit in 1976, “What I’ve Got in Mind,” it went top five on the pop chart in England.

Spears remained a presence on the country charts for the rest of the decade. Her cover of the Gloria Gaynor disco smash “I Will Survive” just missed the top twenty, but it earned Spears her only Grammy nomination to date. In 1980, she had her final hit with “Standing Tall”, an appropriate swan song that Lorrie Morgan would later revive in the nineties.

While big stardom eluded her in America, Spears remained one of the most popular country artists in England, where she was once dubbed “The Queen Mother of Country Music.” Whereas most country artists have their work released only stateside, Spears is in the unique position of having music that was released in England but not in America. Her international success paved the way for future country artists in Europe, and her popularity has endured beyond her death in December 2011.

Essential Singles

  • Mr. Walker, It’s All Over, 1969
  • Blanket on the Ground, 1975
  • What I’ve Got in Mind, 1976
  • Misty Blue, 1976
  • I Will Survive, 1979

Essential Albums

  • Mr. Walker, It’s All Over (1969)
  • Blanket On the Ground (1975)
  • What I’ve Got in Mind (1976)

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #63. Felice Bryant

Previous: #65. Jan Howard

1 Comment

  1. I’ve seen her perform live several times, although none more recently than 1977. She had a forceful delivery that just seemed to deliver the goods on songs others would not be able to put across. I think her voice probably sounded “too country” for most country radio programmers of the 1980s so she fell off the playlists

    Unfortunately Billie Jo’s breakthrough occurred fairly late in life – she was already 32 when Mr. Walker It’s All Over” hit and 38 when blanket on the ground reached #1, so in the youth oriented culture of that (or any other) time she seemed to age badly as she was ten years older that most of the female artists that broke through at the same time.

    That said, she was one heck of a singer and great international ambassador for country music. Those UK only releases are among the best country music released at the time by any female country singer

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