Kitty Wells, the first female recording star of country music, and one of the most successful women in the whole recording industry in the 1950s, has died. Her 1952 hit, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels"--you could hear her plaintive voice on radios all over the country that summer, exactly 60 years ago--commenced a career that resulted in 81 charted singles and 35 Billboard Top 10 records. It's all the more remarkable when we remember that at the time of her first big hit, she was in her mid-30s, a married mother of three.
She had been in the professional music business for 15 years before that.
In the many obituary tributes that appear today, you may not gather that she spent a significant part of her early career in Knoxville. Born in Nashville, she was singing for audiences as a teenager. She married musician Johnny Wright at 18, and in the early 1940s, they moved to Knoxville to perform on WNOX, famous as a launching pad for country-music careers. Knoxville knew her as Muriel Wright, formally at least. She picked up the name Kitty Wells from an old song, when she was singing with her husband's duo, Johnny and Jack.
In the country-music history Tennessee Strings, there's a gorgeous photo of her and her husband standing on either side of the 20-year-old Chet Atkins at a WNOX microphone in 1944. It's probably taken at WNOX's main studios, located at what is today the one empty space in the 100 block of Gay Street. Chet Atkins is holding a fiddle--in the photo, it's Kitty Wells who's playing guitar. She was supposedly known as the Clock Stopper. That photograph might offer a hint about why.
They lived for three years in the long-gone Riverside Apartments, at the downtown end of Riverside Drive, a section improved into oblivion during urban renewal.
Sometime after the war, they returned to Nashville, but were occasional welcome guest stars on WNOX shows. She was happy to help with her husband's modestly successful career until later on, when "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels," a bitter parody of Hank Thompson's previous hit, "The Wild Side of Life," which had seemed to blame loose women for tempting men away from good marriages. Wells's song insisted that men deserve much of the blame. She didn't write the song that made her famous, but it took some guts to sing it, and especially to sing it so well. Due to its controversial content, it was banned by NBC and, for a while, by the Opry. But it sold 800,000 copies, just like that.
Her husband Johnny died just last year. They'd been married for 74 years.
Left to right: Johnnie Wright. Chester Atkins, Kitty Wells, Smilin' Eddie Hill.
Below: Johnson Brothers, Charlie and Willie. Courtesy of TAMIS.