Saturday, June 13, 2009

Skeeter Davis and Me

One of my Facebook friends posted a Skeeter Davis video the other day and it got me reminiscing. I think the first time I ever heard of Skeeter Davis was on one of those oldies record commercials around 1971. Along with a whole bunch of songs I knew from having my transistor radio with me 24-7 (Yes, I slept with it!), there was one song I had never heard before--THE END OF THE WORLD by someone called Skeeter Davis. The brief clip of her they showed on the commercial depicted a quiet young woman with one of the most beautiful voices I had ever heard singing a sad and lovely song. I was intrigued. The Carpenters did a version of THE END OF THE WORLD not long afterwards and perhaps because of that, I began finally noticing the original version on the radio. In those heady days of Grand Funk, Jethro Tull and Shocking Blue on AM, the quiet beauty of this downer song was always kind of a a treat. I could detect a bit of a Southern accent in Skeeter's doubletracked harmonies but I still knew nothing about her.

Around that same time and completely unbeknownst to 12 year old rock and pop fan me, Skeeter Davis was continuing her long success on the country music charts with an autobiographical song entitled BUS FARE TO KENTUCKY. By 1973, she was having her own issues with the Grand Ole Opry. When she made a political statement onstage in Nashville in 1973, she was kicked out of the Opry. Unapologetic, it would be fifteen months later before she got enough support from longtime Opry members to be re-instated. Although it was the mid-seventies by that point, Skeeter considered her a hippie and a free-spirited flower child.

Originally, I would find out much later, she had been raised not that far from me here in Northern Kentucky. In the mid-1940's, the young Mary Frances Penick teamed up with her friend Betty Jack Davis and they began a successful radio singing career as The Davis Sisters (with Mary Frances using her childhood nicknname and adopting Betty Jack's last name). Signed and recorded by RCA in 1953, their biggest hit was entitled I FORGOT MORE THAN YOU'LL EVER KNOW. It took the two young girls on a whirlwind tour and up the charts. Fate being what it is, however, the pair were involved in an early morning collision with a sleepy driver in Cincinnati and Betty Jack was killed. There followed a complicated and complex series of family issues that left Skeeter doubting her sanity.

With other acts such as The Everly Brothers (also from Kentucky) successfully emulating the Davis Sisters' harmonies, legendary producer (and guitar god) Chet Atkins adapted or perhaps invented the concept of double-track voice recording in order to allow Skeeter to return to the charts with the trademark Davis Sisters harmonies intact by having her harmonize with herself. Skeeter Davis then began a long string of solo country successes with a couple of years of pop chart crossovers beginning with THE END OF THE WORLD in 1963.

In the early 1990's, her ex-husband, Ralph Emery, had written an autobiography in which he was vicious to Skeeter. When he did a booksigning at a Cincinnati area store (that I would actually take over years later), his negative comments on local girl Skeeter made the news with lots of yucks and nudges. I joked at the time that I wished Skeeter would write her own autobiography so WE could do a signing with her and hear HER side! At that time, she was already working on exactly that.

BUS FARE TO KENTUCKY by Skeeter Davis came out in late 1993 and at that time I was assistant manager at the Waldenbooks in Florence, Kentucky. As I was trying to track down (in those still pre-Net days for me) a way to get hold of her with my idea, her publicist called me! Seems Skeeter wanted to do a signing at the closest mall to where her relatives lived so they could all come by to visit as well as pick up a copy of her book. I ran with it. Her publicist, Leigh, was probably the easiest publicist I have ever worked with in any capacity and we quickly had chosen a date for a signing. She sent me posters, publicity material (some of which is seen here) and told me anecdotes about Skeeter on the phone. This was wonderful because, as anyone knows who's ever managed retail, we had virtually NO budget for that type of thing.

Then one day, she called to say that Skeeter was wondering if it would be okay to bring her guitar along and maybe strum a few songs. As you can imagine, I was all in favor of it but I told her I had best check with the mall manager and make sure it would be okay. Now here's where it gets interesting. Seems the mall manager not only HAD a budget but was a big country music fan. I put him in touch with Skeeter's people and within a short time, it was determined that Skeeter Davis would not only bring her guitar but her whole backing band, hot off a tour of American military bases in Germany and South Korea. The mall had already expected a big crowd that weekend for a planned car show and on extremely short notice, it was arranged for a mini-concert in center court...which was right outside my store!

By that point, though, it was less than a week away and there was very little time to publicize her appearance for anything other than the autographing. That's when I realized that the local oldies rock radio station was having their annual live concert in downtown Cincinnati the day prior to our event. I called them up and after a little bit of trouble convincing them that I was on the level, it was arranged for Skeeter to come in the night before and do a walk-on at their concert to promote our event. In exchange, what they wanted was the opportunity to display their banners at the store and at the mall and have two of their dj's do live cut-ins throughout the afternoon. Ummm...yeah. That worked for me.

On the day of the event, we had hundreds of copies of BUS FARE TO KENTUCKY but my boss was understandably worried that the whole thing had gotten out of hand. We opened on Sundays at noon. Nearly our full staff was scheduled that day and my wife, Rene, had even agreed to work as auxilary and handle photographing the event (both in color and in black and white for the press). The radio folks from WGRR had shown up early and immmediately set up shop at our storefront. They hung their banner over the autographing table and got their equipment going. About once every fifteen minutes, they did a live cut-in telling all of their listeners to come to the mall to see Skeeter for free!

Leigh arrived at the already crowded store about 12:30 PM and said that Skeeter and the band were wherever malls put such people before a mall show. At about 1 PM, the mall suddenly rocked with music when Skeeter took the stage just outside our store and stormed into an unexpectedly raucous version of SILVER THREADS AND GOLDEN NEEDLES. I was on the clock but felt justified in going out to get a close look while my wife was running up and down stairs snapping two rolls of pictures. The smooth voiced young lady I had first heard of some 22 years earlier had developed into a seasoned performer who could really rock! The audience ate it up! In the store, people started buying the book and lining up at the table for after the concert. I was called back in but made it out a few more times, particularly to see her perform a beautiful version of THE END OF THE WORLD as if it were the very first time she'd ever sung it.

The concert crowds built and we could hear her announce the signing between songs. Over the next couple of hours(!) she ran through a surprisingly diverse selection of pop standards, country hits, and some light rock! My boss kept askin me when she was going to be through as by that point we had a long line outside our store blocking the other stores down the mall. The managers of the other stores were not happy and we kept assuring them that we'd do something about it. We didn't. We secretly loved the crowd and the notoriety we were getting with the other stores.

Then I heard Skeeter say the darndest thing. From the stage, she asked, "Hey, where's Steve? Steve!" I stepped outside and someone pointed me out to her. She asked, "How long are we supposed to sing? Have we sung enough?" I was flabbergasted. Apparently I was in charge and no one had informed me! The gathered crowd cheered for more but it was by then after 3 PM so I nodded that they had done enough and gestured for her to come on over to the store.

The crowds were pleased to see her and, as she had hoped, there were a lot of relatives there. The cash registers were ringing constantly and the dj's began recording an interview between signings. My wife showed up with only a few pictures left to take and then she and I hung out with Leigh. Leigh's the woman with glasses next to Skeeter in the black and white photo seen here. Leigh was also hanging on to Skeeter's purse and after a short while, a very sleepy white dog popped his yawning head up out of said purse! Jack was the dog's name and we were told he'd been listless and hadn't eaten in days. Animal lover that she is, Rene went to the food court and got some fried chicken that she managed to get the dog to eat in the back room after tearing off the skin. Leigh was impressed and ran to tell Skeeter. Suddenly, my wife was Skeeter's favorite person! Leigh told us that Skeeter had apparently had a succession of similar dogs, some of whom appeared with her on album covers and all of whom were named Jack.

The sales, the reminiscing, the emotional reunions and the complaints from other stores continued for three hours until it was time for the mall to close at 6! The day didn't end there, however. Late in the day, two more disc jockeys from WGRR's sister station in texas arrived and it was arranged for them to interview Skeeter in the store's back room after closing! Some of the employees went home but my manager, Brenda, sat with Rene and I and just listened as the extremely animated star went on for another hour about dating Elvis, having Paul McCartney tell her her harmonies influenced the early Beatles, being fired from the Opry, getting cancer, marrying the much younger Joey Spampinato (from the always hip band, NRBQ) and, as expected, dissing Ralph Emery. After that she was anxious to actually spend a little time asking about US. She flipped through a photo album from her purse for us: "There's my Uncle! Oh, look, that's me and mama!" She flipped another one. "Oh, that's just Joey and Paul," she said, quickly moving on to, "Awww! There's my dog, Jack!" For the record, the "Joey" she glossed over was her husband who had just auditioned for touring bass player for the Rolling Stones (this was just after Bill Wyman's departure) and "Paul" was Mr. McCartney himself! Just a snapshot she had taken herself of the pair.

It had to be nearly 9 PM by the time we finally left. At the end, she invited us all to come to Nashville and stay with her some upcoming weekend. We presumed she was simply being polite in her folksy way so we all demurred. Leigh informed us that, no, Skeeter had been serious. She had often invited folks to stay for awhile...some of whom had stolen whatever they could get away with!

I went out and bought all of the Skeeter Davis albums I could find and got a few more (including her double act with NRBQ) at the Public Library. The store had Skeeter back five years later when she published a children's book but by then I had been promoted to another location. Her breast cancer resurfaced in 2001 and she died in 2004. In their obit, THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER stated that she had not performed in this area for decades. I didn't have many of the pictures anymore (we had sent some to Waldenbooks' home office and some to Skeeter) but I was able to correct them in a letter published a few days later detailing the day in 1993 when Kentucky's own Skeeter Davis, on very short notice, took Florence Mall by storm!

5 comments:

RAB said...

That's awesome!

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I slept with my transistor radio too....with the one ear piece that was always covered in ear wax. You right like a reporter. Good stuff.

jim Engel said...

What a great story! I too LOVE "End of the World"...
(Ralph Emery always struck me as a jackass)...

Larry L. Stout said...

Great story! Skeeter was a beautiful person. I have a lot of good memories of her. Once you met her, she never forgot you. I received 2 cards with lengthy notes on them from her a few months after her death. Her former fan club president, secretary and friend Linda Palmer found them on her desk and mailed them to me. Another long-time friend and back-up singer in Skeeter's last years, Donna Frost, is going around the country doing a tribute show to her. She is hosting a tribute show to her on her birthday (Dec. 30) in Nashville. Visit Donna's MySpace website for more details. http://myspace.com-donnafrostmusic.
Donna also started a MySpace site for Skeeter with videos, etc.: http://myspace.com-skeeterdavismusic. Again, thanks for sharing your memories for the one of greatest persons in the world that has sadly been overlooked by the powers in Nashville. Larry L. Stout, Rushville IN

n69n said...

thank you for sharing your beautiful experience!

you can see my illustration of Skeeter here: http://i250.photobucket.com/albums/gg252/n69n/SKEETER-DAVIS-BEST-WEB-1.jpg