Kitty Wells, the singer whose achievements as a solo artist broke down barriers to country- music stardom for women, has died. She was 92.
Wells died yesterday at her home in Madison, Tennessee, of complications from a stroke, the New York Times reported, citing her grandson John Sturdivant Jr.
Wells was the first female artist to have a No. 1 country single. She reached the milestone in 1952 with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” a song that blamed unfaithful men for causing “many a good girl to go wrong.” Afterward, she became known as the queen of country music.
Twenty-three singles she recorded made Billboard magazine’s country top 10 between 1952 and 1965.
Before her rise to prominence, women were typically confined to country duos or groups. She blazed a trail for singers such as Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette to become household names on their own.
“Kitty Wells is the prototype,” said Kyle Young, director of Nashville, Tennessee-based Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which inducted her in 1976. “Her success in selling records and concert tickets led record companies to open their doors to women artists.”
For more than 70 years, she was married to Johnnie Wright, who toured with her and also worked with his brother-in-law in Johnnie and Jack, a country duo. Wright came up with her stage name, found in the title of a folk song, “Sweet Kitty Wells.”
Wells was born Ellen Muriel Deason on Aug. 30, 1919. Her parents, Charles and Myrtle Deason, were both musicians.
After living on the outskirts of Nashville, the family moved to the city before she entered high school. She learned to play guitar, sang in the church choir and went to country shows at the Grand Ole Opry with her mother.
Wells dropped out of high school in 1934, during the Great Depression, to work at a shirt factory. The following year, she joined two of her sisters, Mae and Jewel, and a cousin, Bessie Choate, to start the Deason Sisters. The group had a show on a local radio station.
Wright and Wells were married in 1937, and the couple performed with his sister, Louise, as Johnnie Wright and the Harmony Girls. In 1939, they added Jack Anglin, a singer who wed Louise that year. The group’s name changed to the Tennessee Hillbillies and later to the Tennessee Mountain Boys.
Wells sang only occasionally with the band after having her first child, a daughter named Ruby, in October 1939. She later gave birth to a son, Bobby, and another daughter, Carole Sue. Anglin was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, and she and Wright then performed as a duo.
Once Anglin’s military service ended, he and Wright began performing as Johnnie and Jack. They played at the Opry regularly for two years before moving to a new show, the Louisiana Hayride, in 1948.
Wells appeared with the duo at the Hayride. When RCA Records signed the men to a contract in 1949, she recorded songs with them and their backup band. Her performances didn’t produce any hits and RCA dropped her.
Johnny and Jack were more successful. The duo rejoined the Opry in 1952 and returned to Nashville from the Hayride’s home, Shreveport, Louisiana. Decca Records then offered her “Honky Tonk Angels,” a song written by J.D. Miller that answered a country hit, Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.”
Wells’s single climbed to the top of Billboard’s country chart even though the NBC radio network banned the song as too suggestive. Decca ended up selling more than 1 million copies of the recording, and she was asked to join the Opry.
The “queen of country music” designation soon followed, courtesy of Fred Rose, who co-owned a music-publishing company with singer Roy Acuff. The designation stuck even after it was applied to another singer, Reba McEntire, years later.
Decca signed Wells to a lifetime contract in 1959. Wright became her touring partner after Anglin was killed in an auto accident while traveling to Cline’s funeral in 1963. At about this time, he began spelling his name Johnny, according to his New York Times obituary.
Wells starred in a syndicated television show in 1968 and Wright joined her the following year. The program ran into the 1970s and featured their three children, who each went on to a musical career.
After MCA Records took over Decca in 1973, she stopped working for the label. Later in the decade, she made albums for Capricorn Records and her own label, Ruboca Records, named for the children. She and Wright kept touring until 2000, when they retired. Wright died in 2011 at 97.
Wells was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Grammy Awards’ sponsor, in 1991. She became the first female artist in country music to receive the honor.
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