Kitty Wells, Country Music's First Female Superstar, Dies at 92
The singer's career spanned eight decades, with hits including "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," a retort to Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life.”
Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music, who kicked in the door of the male-dominated genre with her 1952 smash “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and became a legend, has died. She was 92.
The pioneering singer died Monday of stroke complications at her Nashville-area home.
Wells was country’s first female superstar, racking up nearly three dozen Top 10 hits from 1952-65, including three No. 1s. She shattered long-held notions that women couldn’t sell country records or headline concerts, and her success blazed the trail for every superstar to come -- from Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to Shania Twain and Taylor Swift.
Born Muriel Ellen Deason on Aug. 30, 1919, in Nashville, Wells was part of a musical family. Her mother was a gospel singer, while her father and uncle plied the country genre. During the Depression, Wells performed on radio with her two sisters and a cousin as The Deason Sisters.
She was 18 when she married singer Johnnie Wright. He teamed with Jack Anglin and toured the South as Johnnie & Jack, with Wells often performing with them. The act split up when Anglin served in the Army during World War II but later reunited, with Wells -- whom Wright dubbed “Kitty Wells” after an old folk song revived by the Pickard Family in the early ’30s -- traveling with them.
Wells recorded some sides for RCA, but it wasn’t until Johnnie & Jack caught fire in 1951 -- with a slew of hit singles and gigs at the Grand Ole Opry -- that she got her big break. In May 1952, she recorded an answer song to the Hank Thompson hit “The Wild Side of Life.” Now billed as Kitty Wells, her Decca single “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was an out-of-the-box smash, topping Billboard’s Top Country Songs chart for six weeks and selling more than 800,000 copies. The song also made the pop Top 30.
In the postwar/pre-rock ’n’ roll early ’50s, the 33-year-old wife and mother became an overnight sensation.
The chorus to Thompson’s record was: “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels/I might have known you’d never make a wife/But you gave up the only one that ever loved you/And went back to the wild side of life.”
The response, written by J.D. Miller, went: “It wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels/As you said in the words of your song/Too many times married men think they’re still single/That has caused many a good girl to go wrong/It’s a shame that all blame is on us women.”
The song was controversial enough that the Grand Ole Opry asked Wells not to perform it, and some radio stations were reluctant to spin it.
“They get away with a lot more today,” Wells told The Associated Press in 1986. “They’re more [sexually] suggestive today.”
Wells followed up with another answer record, “Praying for That Back Street Affair,” a reply to Webb Pierce’s “Back Street Affair.” It became the second of a half-dozen consecutive Top 10 country singles, culminating with her second chart-topper, “One by One,” in 1954.
Her restrained but emotional, gospel-tinged vocals struck a chord with country fans nationwide, and the honky-town hit ballads kept coming, often backed by a mournful steel guitar. “Makin’ Believe” spent an incredible 15 weeks at No. 2 in 1955; only Pierce’s classic “In the Jailhouse Now” kept her from the penthouse. When she couldn’t beat Pierce, she joined him -- for the hit duets “Oh So Many Tears” and “One Week Later.”
With her unpretentious stage persona and controversy-free family life, Wells remained firmly in the spotlight -- and the charts. Her singing career peaked again in 1961 with “Heartbreak U.S.A.,” which was No. 1 for four weeks. In all, she hit the Billboard country chart 81 times, the third-most of any female singer. All but three were for Decca.
A blues-flecked 1974 single, “Forever Young,” featured members of The Allman Brothers Band, and her final chart appearance was a 1979 remake of “The Wild Side of Life,” which brought her chart career full circle.
She also headlined a syndicated TV show in 1968.
In later years, she teamed with Wright and their children Ruby, Carol Sue and Bobby in The Kitty Wells-Johnnie Wright Family Show. The group continued to tour until New Year’s Eve 2000, when the couple retired after giving their final performance at Nashville’s Nightlife Theater. They remained married until Wright’s death last year at age 97 – a month short of their 75th wedding anniversary.
Wells was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976 and earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award 15 years later.
Survivors include daughter Carol Sue and son Bobby. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Watch Wells sing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” below.