SKEETER DAVIS (By Steve Walker)
Born Mary Frances Penick, 30 December, 1931, Dry Ridge, Kentucky
Skeeter Davis was born on a farm in the small Appalachian town of Dry Ridge, Kentucky, the first of seven children in the family of Sarah and William Penick. As a small child, she was given the name "Skeeter" by her grandfather because she was always buzzing from place to place like a mosquito.
She met Betty Jack Davis (born 3 March, 1932, Corbin, Kentucky) in a high school singing session and the girls formed a duo as The Davis Sisters in 1949. They performed in small clubs in Lexington, Kentucky and soon had their own series on WLAX Lexington.
In 1952, after months of travel and public appearances, including appearances on radio and television in Detroit, Cincinnati and on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia, they were auditioned and signed to a recording contract by Steve Scholes at RCA Victor, having earlier recorded for Fortune. Their first RCA record was "I Forgot More (Than You'll Ever Know)" in 1953.. It was an overnight hit, staying at No. 1 for eight weeks on the country charts, and was rated the top country song of 1953 - it also reached No. 18 in the pop charts. The great flip-side "Rock-A-Bye Boogie" was early prototype rockabilly.
Success for the Davis Sisters seemed just around the corner, but fate intervened. Their road to fame was tragically ended by the death of Betty Jack in a highway accident on 23 August, 1953. On the way home from a performance on WWVA Wheeling, their car was struck head-on by another vehicle. Betty was killed and Skeeter seriously injured. Her recovery was slow and complicated and her friends encouraged her to perform again. Skeeter and Betty Jack's sister Georgia teamed up briefly, but the association did not last.
Deciding to try a solo career, Skeeter moved to Nashville, where she was taken under the wing of Chet Atkins. In 1955, to get solo experience, she toured with RCA's Caravan of Stars, which included Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley. She also began solo recording and in 1958 had a Top 20 hit with "Lost To A Geisha Girl", the female answer to Hank Locklin's hit "Geisha Girl". The following year, her co-written song "Set Him Free" became her first country Top 10 solo hit.
She fulfilled one of her greatest ambitions in 1959, when she moved to Nashville and became a regular member of the Grand Old Opry as well as being a member of Ernest Tubb's touring show. She was also voted "Most Promising Female Country Vocalist," in a Cash Box survey in 1959 and 1960. During the 1960s, Skeeter was one of RCA's most successful country artists. She charted 26 US country hits, 12 of which crossed over to the pop charts. Among these was what was to become her best-known song, the million-selling record "The End Of The World" which peaked at number two in both the U.S. country and pop charts in 1963, placing in the Top 10 for the year in both fields. The record reached No. 18 in the U.K. charts. Later that year she reached the pop top ten for the second and last time with a Carole King/Gerry Goffin tune entitled "I Can't Stay Mad At You". The record sounded like a typical Brill Building girl-group number and Goffin and King repeated the dose with "Let Me Get Close to You," although such out-and out pop efforts were the exception rather than the rule.
Other hits during this period included another 'answer' song in "I Can't Help You, I'm Falling Too", (the reply to Hank Locklin's "Please Help Me I'm Falling"), "A Dear John Letter" with Bobby Bare, "For Loving You" with Don Bowman and "My Last Date". She co-wrote the latter with Boudleaux Bryant and pianist Floyd Cramer, whose instrumental version had been a million-seller in 1960.
The chart hits continued to flow and during this time Skeeter appeared on many TV shows and did two TV Specials for Oral Roberts. During the 1960's and 1970's, she toured extensively in the U.S.A., Canada, Europe and the Far East. She played all the major U.S. television network shows, including regular appearances with Duke Ellington and also appeared on a The Rolling Stones tour.
Her recording career slowed down in the '70s but her hits included "I'm A Lover (Not A Fighter)", "Bus Fare To Kentucky" and "One Tin Soldier". She also made the charts with Bobby Bare (again) on "Your Husband, My Wife" and with George Hamilton IV on "Let's Get Together" (a U.S. pop hit for the Youngbloods in 1969). In 1973, she had a minor hit with the Bee Gees' "Don't Forget To Remember" and a Top 20 country and minor pop hit with "I Can't Believe That It's All Over". It was to prove a prophetic title, since only two more chart hits followed, the last being "I Love Us" on Mercury in 1976 - Skeeter having left RCA two years earlier. She recorded several tribute albums, including one to Buddy Holly in 1967, which featured Waylon Jennings on guitar and also, in 1972, one to her friend Dolly Parton. She also re-recorded "May You Never Be Alone", a Davis' Sisters success, with NRBQ in 1985.
>From 1960-64, she was married to well-known WSM radio and television personality Ralph Emery, but she subsequently received heavy criticism in Emery's autobiography. Skeeter later married Joey Spampinato of NRBQ. She became something of a rebel after the break-up of her second marriage. She settled in a colonial-style mansion set in several hundred acres in Brentwood, Tennessee, and surrounded herself with dogs, Siamese cats, a dove in a gilded cage and even an ocelot named Fred. Her extreme religious beliefs saw her refusing to appear in places that sold intoxicating drinks. She even stopped growing tobacco on her farm, giving the reason for both actions: 'As a Christian, I think it's harmful to my body'. A shameful moment in the history of the Grand Ole Opry occurred in 1973 when Skeeter was suspended from performing after she made a statement during her Opry act containing strong criticisms of the Nashville Police Department over the arrest of some hippies. After a couple of years, due in part to the intercession of her friend Jean Shepard, Skeeter was reinstated and still usually sings religious or gospel songs on her regular Opry appearances.
Davis has also taken to writing about her real life experiences. Her autobiography, "Bus Fare To Kentucky," was published in 1993. Davis pulls no punches in this brutally honest account of her life. She tells how she endured a family history of alcoholism, incest and murder. She also tells her side of the story regarding her four year marriage to Ralph Emery, following the heavy criticism which she received in Emery's autobiography. In 1997, she co-wrote a children's Christmas book, entitled "The Christmas Note," based on her own childhood.
Today, Davis lives on her estate south of Nashville and is an ambassador for Christian music.
|These pages were originally published as "This Is My Story" in the
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