On March 5, 1963, American country singer Patsy Cline died. She is best known for hit songs like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Crazy.” Cline’s career was short, but she helped pave the trail for women in the then male-dominated country music scene.
Cline was born on September 8, 1932, in Winchester, Virginia as Virginia Patterson Hensley. It wasn’t until she began performing professionally that she adopted the stage name “Patsy.” Her mother Hilda was only 16 when she married Cline’s father, Samuel, who was 25 years her senior. Her parents split when she was in high school, and Cline was forced to drop out of school to take on odd jobs to help support her family. Meanwhile, she had been nursing a passion for music since she was 8 years old. She had perfect pitch, and couldn’t read music, but taught herself how to play piano at this early age. On the side of her odd jobs, she began performing on several local radio programs as well as in variety and talent showcases. These small performances began to slowly attract a large following of fans who were drawn to her contralto voice and emotionally expressive singing style.
When she began performing with bandleader Bill Peer, who was also her second manager, he convinced her to go by the name “Patsy,” which was the shortened version of her middle name and her mother’s maiden name. The second half of her famous stage name came in 1953 when she married Gerald Cline. Facing lifestyle differences (Gerald wanted Patsy to become a housewife), they divorced in 1957. Peer helped Cline get her first recording contract with Four Star Records in 1955. She recorded a few honky tonk singles within the first two years of her contract, but they failed to mobilize her career.
Finally in 1957, Cline earned a spot performing on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts. She performed “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which she thought at the time to be ”just a little old pop song.” She was the unanimous winner of the competition, and after listeners began avidly requesting to hear the song on the radio, Cline released it as a single. She became one of the first country artists to have a crossover hit when the song reached No. 2 on the country chart and No. 16 on the pop chart. A short time after her success began to take hold, Cline married her second husband Charles Dick, with whom she had two children.
In 1960, Cline signed a new recording contract with Decca Records and began recording a series of hit singles, the first of which was “I Fall to Pieces,” which was her first No. 1 song on the country charts. Her successful crossover presence became concrete with this song, which also charted on the pop and adult contemporary charts. She began to positively influence other female singers in the male-dominated country music industry including Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, Jan Howard, sixteen-year-old Brenda Lee and a thirteen-year-old Barbara Mandrell. Cline was known for “…giv[ing] anyone the skirt off her backside if they needed it,” according to Opry star Del Wood. Even when she didn’t have much money herself, she often paid expenses for these young female country singers to keep them in Nashville and help their careers thrive. Also in 1960, Cline’s request to join the Grand Ole Opry was accepted – she was the only performer in history to become part of the Opry in this way.
After giving birth to her son in 1961, Cline was involved in a head-on car collision with her brother which nearly took her life. This was the second near-fatal accident she had been in during her lifetime. She spent a month recovering in the hospital, with a broken wrist, dislocated hip, and a jagged cut across her forehead which required stitches and left a scar she later covered using make-up and wigs. Because the time she spent recovering, she wasn’t able to help publicize “I Fall to Pieces” as much as she would have liked and began searching for her next hit. A song written by Willie Nelson called “Crazy” was offered up to Cline, but at first she had a small amount of disdain for it due to its composition and Cline’s inability to hit the high notes in the song due to rib injuries she sustained from her accident. Initial tries at recording the song were unsuccessful. The next week, after Cline’s injuries had more time to heal, she was convinced to record the song again, using her own style and not trying to mimic Nelson’s original demo. Cline recorded the song in one take, hitting all the high notes she had previously been unable to. The song went on to become her greatest pop hit.
Cline’s fame only grew further from this point, and she became the first female artist to be billed above the male artists she performed with while touring. She befriended other country and pop music legends of the time including Johnny Cash, June Carter-Cash and Elvis, who she lovingly referred to as “Big Hoss.” Within the following year she became the first woman in country music to perform at Carnegie Hall, recorded and released more hits like “She’s Got You,” and began recording her fourth studio album.
In 1962 and 1963, many of Cline’s friends recalled her saying she felt a sense of impending doom and that she thought she might die soon. She began writing her will on Delta Airlines stationary, giving away personal belongings to friends, and asking those near her to take care of her children after she was gone. One night, as she was leaving the Grand Ole Opry, a fellow musician recalled her saying, “Honey, I’ve had two bad ones (accidents). The third one will either be a charm or it’ll kill me.”
On March 3, 1963, a benefit concert for disc jockey ”Cactus” Jack Call, who had died in a car accident a year earlier, was held in Kansas City, Kansas. Cline was among the slew of other musicians who performed at the benefit, and she received a standing ovation after singing her last song, “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone.” Anxious to get back to her family in Nashville, she refused a 16-hour car ride with friend and fellow country singer Dottie West, and instead boarded a private jet the next day. Cline’s then manager, Randy Hughes, piloted the plane and they took off toward Nashville despite warnings of high winds and inclement weather.
When the plane did not arrive at the Nashville that night, friends and family began to worry. The next morning the plane was found 90 miles outside of Nashville. It had crashed nose down and all riders died instantly. Aside from Cline and her manager, two other country artists who had performed in the benefit, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, lost their lives. Soon after the bodies were recovered, looters scavenged the plane, and the remnants of Cline’s belongings, her wrist watch stopped at 6:20, her Confederate flag cigarette lighter, her studded belt and three pairs of her gold lamé slippers were donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame. She was buried in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia.
For her contributions to country music, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame 10 years after her death, making her the first female solo artist to be inducted. She received several other posthumous awards and her life has been recalled in several biographies and biopic movies. After her death, three of her singles, “Sweet Dreams,” “Leavin’ On Your Mind,” and “Faded Love” all reached top 10 success on the country music charts. She was buried in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia and her headstone reads, “Virginia H (Patsy) Cline ‘Death Cannot Kill What Never Dies: Love’”.