Kitty Wells, the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee best known for the classic “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” died peacefully at her Nashville home today, July 16, 2012. She passed away from complications of a stroke.
The last year had been hard on Wells. Her husband, country singer Johnnie Wright died Sept. 27, 2011 at age 97 following a lengthy illness. He was part of the duo Johnnie & Jack and a lifelong booster of his wife’s career.
Between 1952 and 1966, Wells ruled the country popularity charts with a string of hits that defined female country music of that era. She introduced such standards as “Release Me,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Makin’ Believe” and, unforgettably, the iconic “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
She was Nashville’s first female country superstar. Kitty Wells influenced a generation of stylists, including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Jan Howard, Norma Jean, Pam Tillis, Connie Smith and Patty Loveless.
Born Muriel Ellen Deason on August 30, 1919, Kitty Wells was a Nashville native. Her father was a guitarist, her uncle was a fiddler and her mother a gospel singer. She grew up hearing folk songs in her Nashville living room, learned guitar chords from a neighbor, sang hymns in church and listened to broadcasts of country music on The Grand Ole Opry.
She left school at age 15 and went to work at the Washington Manufacturing Company, ironing new shirts for nine dollars a week. She formed a duo with her cousin Bessie Choate. As The Deason Sisters, they had their own, 15-minute, morning radio show on WSIX in 1936.
Cabinet maker Johnnie Wright (1914-2011) had a sister who lived next door to the Deasons. She told him about her musical neighbor, and soon Kitty and Johnnie were swapping songs. They married in 1937. He formed the Johnnie & Jack duo with Jack Anglin, and she dutifully followed the team as they moved from radio station to radio station throughout the south.
They landed at KWKH and The Louisiana Hayride after World War II, and this is when she began singing again, using her new stage name, Kitty Wells. She also worked as a KWKH disc jockey billed as “Rag Doll,” because she sold quilting supplies on her show. She recorded some gospel tunes for RCA in 1949-50, but these were not successful.
In 1952, Johnnie & Jack’s hit “Poison Love” brought them to the Opry cast. She’d pretty much decided to retire from music in Nashville when she was persuaded to record an “answer” song to the Hank Thompson hit “The Wild Side of Life.” By the fall of 1952, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was a sensation. It was considered controversial at the time because it spoke up for wronged women.
Kitty Wells followed the blockbuster with a string of hits sung from a female point of view: “Paying For That Back Street Affair” (1953), “Cheatin’s a Sin” (1954), “There’s Poison in Your Heart” (1955), “Searching” (1956), “Repenting” (1957), “Jealousy” (1958), “Your Wild Life’s Gonna Get You Down” (1959), “Heartbreak U.S.A.” (1961), “Will Your Lawyer Talk to God” (1962) and more. She sang memorable duets with fellow superstars Red Foley, Roy Acuff and Webb Pierce, as well as her husband.
Johnnie Wright was by her side throughout it all. He helped choose the songs that defined her image. They formed a family touring show with children Ruby, Carol Sue and Bobby. Beginning in 1968, they starred in their own nationally syndicated television show. One of Nashville’s best country chefs, she published a series of down-home cookbooks. The family opened a career museum in Madison in 1983.
During her career, Kitty Wells placed 81 titles on the country popularity charts and had 35 top-10 hits. These accomplishments made her one of the biggest female country stars in history.
Kitty Wells was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and won a Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music in 1986. In 1989, she was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Honky Tonk Angels Medley,” recorded with Loretta Lynn, k.d. lang and Brenda Lee. She was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1991. Even into the 1990s, Johnnie and Kitty performed more than 150 shows a year. They retired from the road after a performance on New Year’s Eve, 2000.
The lonely wail of the voice of Kitty Wells endures as the embodiment of post-war female country music. She wept for the honky-tonk angels and downtrodden housewives. As a vocalist, her tight-lipped intensity, keening emotionalism and pent-up fervor created a spine-tingling body of work that more than earned her the title The Queen of Country Music.
Memorial services will be at the Hendersonville Church of Christ. Visitation will be Thu., July 19, 2 – 8 p.m., and the funeral will be Fri., July 20 at 1 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tenn. by way of the Kitty Wells/Johnnie Wright Scholarship Fund.
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About the AuthorRobert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.
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