There were sixty-seven folks in the Dixie Heights HS Class of 49. One of them was my father, who was valedictorian. He had classmates named Virginia Wolf and Jim Morrison—in the 80s Mr. Morrison appeared in local TV ads as president of a leading Cincinnati-area HVAC company. The Dixie 49er you’d probably say was most successful, though, was Mary Frances Penick, known to the world as country music star Skeeter Davis.
Dad mentioned his famous classmate occasionally over the years, but it’s not clear to me just how well he knew her. Ms. Davis arrived at Dixie Heights at the beginning of their junior year, so they didn’t have too long to interact. I remember my family attending Dad’s 25th HS reunion in 74 at a nearby state park, and I’m pretty sure if she’d been there I’d have known about it. I also recall her name being mentioned by Billy, one of my neighborhood friends, around that same time—was his family friends or relations of Skeeter’s? Were they just fans of her music? I need to ask him.
When I was going over things at my parents’ house three years ago, I found The Essential Skeeter Davis in the box of CDs That Everyone Should Own. Then, last year, I ran across this composite of his high school class while rummaging through a box of photos and keepsakes. (I thought I also had his senior HS yearbook, but I’m not finding it at the moment.)
He and Ms. Davis both appear about halfway down, though practically on opposite ends of the picture (also notice that her middle name is misspelled).
All this made me want to learn more about her, so recently I bought a copy of Bus Fare to Kentucky: The Autobiography of Skeeter Davis, published in 93.
It’s a solid read. I knew a rough outline of her life story from an internet search: grows up poor as the oldest of seven children, finds success with Betty Jack Davis, is injured in the accident that kills BJ, and eventually emerges as a solo star in Nashville. But the book has a lot of fascinating detail about Depression-era northern Kentucky, growing up in a home with alcoholic parents, her friendship with BJ, her uncanny ability to sing high harmony, obsessive fans, unhappy marriage, and Nashville personalities. I don’t plan to do an in-depth review, but there are a few things I want to highlight.
–I enjoyed the first half more than the second. I’m sure a decent part of that is related to her growing up not far from where I and my parents did. I learned that I drive past where she was born every time I go between Georgetown and Warsaw, where my parents are buried. Even though she’s a first-time author and there’s no ghost-writing credit, she’s a fine storyteller, particularly about her family in her early years. (She wrote a number of songs, though, so perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.) Her voice definitely strikes me as authentic. She plays armchair psychologist on herself more than once, confessing that she struggled for years with feeling unloved by her parents and that perhaps she sought the spotlight in reaction to that.
–I felt like I got to know Betty Jack Davis reasonably well. She was a few months younger than Skeeter and a year behind her at Dixie, but it appears they met and began singing together almost immediately upon Skeeter’s arrival. As they begin to get known in the area, Skeeter takes on her friend’s surname for performance purposes. I hadn’t quite realized that the accident that killed Betty Jack happened so close to home (they had driven all night, returning from an appearance in West Virginia), or that it came just as their record “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” was breaking nationally. The grief and remorse over BJ’s death are palpable.
–Skeeter has great stories about meeting Bob Dylan in a club in New York and touring with Elvis just as he was becoming a national sensation. She makes it sound as if the King might have had a thing for her. At another point in the book, June Carter shows up as a confidant.
–Surprisingly little attention is given to her biggest solo hit, “The End of the World” (though that phrase is incorporated into a chapter title). My copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles claims it’s the biggest cross-over hit in chart history, hitting #1 AC, #2 pop and country, and #4 R&B. Fifty-five years ago this week it was #21 on the Hot 100, peaking one month later. It was blocked from #1 on the on 3/23/63 chart by Ruby and the Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come;” both of those songs were swamped the following week by the Chiffons singing “He’s So Fine.”
–She was a devout Christian but also seemed to be a bit of a mystic, with several tales involving (largely correct) premonitions of bad things about to happen. The chapter about her mother’s death is certainly out of the ordinary.
–The last few chapters definitely feel different from the rest. You learn that completion of the book was delayed for a few years after Skeeter was diagnosed with breast cancer and dealt with subsequent reconstruction surgery; my suspicion is that she was just in a different place in life when she was able to resume, perhaps because she was also grieving the loss of her parents and a sibling.
Ultimately her breast cancer returned and she died in September 2004. I don’t have a recollection of Dad mentioning her passing to me; it happened during my year in New York, so perhaps he and I just didn’t talk on the phone at the right time for it to come up.
It seems appropriate to play a few of her hits. We start with her big song with BJ.
This is one of her first big solo country hits. She was a recording pioneer in multi-tracking/singing harmony with herself.
This was her first pop Top 40 appearance, reaching #39 in September 60.
Her biggest song certainly deserved its success. I love to hear her talk. Her twang makes me think of plenty of people from the area I grew up (her native Grant County is just 30 or so miles from Cincinnati, but even today it’s not all that suburban).
This was another Top 10 pop smash, reaching #7 later in 63, written by King/Goffin. I think it’s a great pop record (though, listening to it in the 21st century, it’s hard not to hear rumblings of emotional abuse–one could certainly view “you got me where you want me” at the end in such a light).
Skeeter received four Grammy nominations for Best Country Female Vocal Performance, though she never won. This, the one that garnered her final nomination, is here for my friend Warren. She’s appearing on The Midnight Special, in April 73.
Even if Ira Richard and Mary Frances weren’t friends of any sort, I still think it’s kind of cool that Dad had a classmate that became so well-known. Definitely wish I’d talked with him more about it.
4 thoughts on “From The Archives: Skeeter Davis”
Holy Moly! This is some good stuff!
“The End Of The World” was either introduced to me by Dad from one of his compilation albums or as a seldom-played single on the Cow Talk Steak House jukebox that soundtracked my Summers in Texas growing up with my grandmother, who everybody called Skeeter. Which was better than her given name, Elmina, I suppose. Only her mama, my great-grandmother Bertha called her Elmina. Her CB handle was The Red Snapper.
In addition to its inclusion on Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Hillbilly Music: Country & Western Hit Parade – 1963, Skeeter Davis’s “The End Of The World” shows up on no less than seven Time-Life discs in my collection.
That episode of The Midnight Special originally aired on April 6, 1973, with the Bee Gees making their series debut as hosts that night; they would go on to host the show three more times in the next six months. In addition to her cover of “One Tin Soldier” which peaked at number 54 on the Country chart in 1972, Skeeter Davis performed her ten-year-old hit “The End Of The World.” Other performers from the episode were Gladys Knight & the Pips, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jim Weatherly, and Johnny Nash.
I fell in love with Skeeter Davis after I read her autobiography, Bus Fare To Kentucky. I was a sophomore at Manzano High School in Albuquerque when The End Of The World was climbing the charts, but I never really appreciated her talent until I read the book. Her relationship with Betty Jack, their storybook rise to stardom, and BJ’s horrifying death haunts me still. It’s the most romantic and tragic story in all of country music. Skeeter Davis was a much bigger deal than the music industry will ever acknowledge. Her high bending harmony alone qualifies her for the Hall of Fame, not to mention her early cross over success; but it was her outspoken honesty and fearless love of Christ that sealed her fate as overlooked and nearly forgotten. BJ died because of the hypocrisy and self righteousness of the Southern Baptist Church, and Skeeter knew it. I appreciate your work putting this together, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share on a topic near to my heart. God bless Skeeter Davis! 😎