2008 Edition: #44 (-2)
She was never supposed to be a solo act. Her high, thin voice made her perfectly suited to play harmony to another vocalist’s lead. But after a tragic car accident, Skeeter Davis would accidentally become one of the more popular female country artists of the fifties and sixties.
Her real name was Mary Frances Penick, but her nickname was Skeeter. She became involved in music once she met Betty Jack Davis in high school. Sharing a love of country music, they dubbed themselves The Davis Sisters and began performing on local radio shows in the early fifties. Betty sang lead, while Skeeter performed high harmony. A quick stint on a small label caught the attention of RCA Records, who signed them to a contract in 1953.
The Davis Sisters had an enormous hit right out of the box. “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” would spend eight weeks at #1 in 1953, becoming the first “girl group” song to top the charts. Sadly, tragedy struck as the single was working its way to the top. The Davis Sisters were involved in a horrific car accident that left Skeeter with broken arms and legs. Betty Jack Davis died in the crash.
Skeeter attempted to keep the act a duet by singing with Betty Jack’s sister Georgia, but by 1956 she was officially a solo act. However, her thin and high voice was not ideally suited to lead singer duties, so clever production tricks were used, with Davis singing her own harmony parts and her vocals being layered to create a fuller sound. Her first LP, I’ll Sing You a Song and Harmonize Too, made playful reference to this technique.
When it was released in 1960, she had already been scoring solo hits with another cute gimmick: answer songs. They’ve long since gone out of fashion, but it used to be common for country artists to respond to the songs of other artists. One of the most important country singles of all time, Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” was an answer song to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life.” Skeeter made a nice run of hits with answer songs like “Lost to a Geisha Girl,” ” (I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too,” and “My Last Date With You.”
She was also the first female country artist to receive a Grammy nomination, being cited for her hit “Set Him Free.” The popularity of that record in 1959 led to an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry, where she would remain a cast member for more than thirty years.
In 1963, she had her biggest solo hit with “The End of the World,” which crossed over to the pop charts and topped the Adult Contemporary chart. She was a radio favorite throughout the sixties, and earned three more Grammy nominations along the way. Duet albums with Bobby Bare and Porter Wagoner were well received. As the hippie movement began, she ditched her gingham dresses for blue jeans and she let her hair down. She became known as country music’s flower child.
Her radio career had cooled by the early seventies, but she continued to make an impact. She addressed women’s issues in 1970 with “It’s Hard to Be a Woman.” Her 1972 protest song “One Tin Soldier” earned her a fifth and final Grammy nomination. A noted songwriter herself, she turned the spotlight on one of the genre’s strongest female writers in 1972, long before she’d become widely known for her writing skills, when she released Skeeter Sings Dolly. Davis had recorded Parton’s “Fuel to the Flame” back in 1966, scoring a decent hit with it.
Throughout the seventies and early eighties, she kept her Opry commitments (aside from a fifteen-month suspension when she criticized Nashville police) while also touring Europe and Asia. In 1985, the country-rock band NRBQ coaxed her back into the studio, and she released the critically acclaimed She Sings, They Play collaboration album with the band.
Her timeless hit “The End of the World” became hip again when it was used in a pivotal scene in the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted. By then, Davis had become a familiar face on the televised Opry show, where she was a major presence until a bout with breast cancer left her unable to perform. She passed away in 2004 after a long battle with the disease.
- I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know (The Davis Sisters), 1953
- Set Him Free, 1959
- I Can’t Help You (I’m Falling Too), 1960
- My Last Date (With You), 1960
- The End of the World, 1963
- A Dear John Letter (with Bobby Bare), 1965
- What Does it Take (To Keep a Man Like You Satisfied), 1967
- The End of the World, 1963
- Tunes For Two (with Bobby Bare), 1965
- Skeeter Sings Dolly, 1972
- She Sings, They Play (with NRBQ), 1985
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