Thursday, December 15, 2011

Country Singer Billie Jo Spears has died

Yesterday morning (12/14/11), country singer Billie Jo Spears passed away at her home in Vidor, northeast of Houston at the age of 74. The cause of her death was cancer.

Billie Jo's career can pretty much summed up into three phases, a frist one where she was typecast as a Honky Tonk singer, a second one where she sang behind "Countrypolitan" arrangements, having her biggest and only number one hit "Blanket On The Ground" and reaching as far out as doing a cover of the Gloria Gaynor hit "I Will Survive" and a third one abroad and in Branson as a nostalgic pop-country act, mostly singing her hits and other famous cover songs.

The early years

According to Doug Davis' ( email, "she was the daughter of a truck driver father. Her mother was a welder in the shipyards, as well as a guitarist in the Light Crust Doughboys western-swing band."
Born as Billie Jean Spears in Beaumont on January 14, 1937, she began singing professionally when she was only 13 years old, being part of an all-star country concert at Houston's Keel Auditorium. With the help of famous songwriter and talent-scout Jack Rhodes ("Satisfied Mind"), she began performing at the Louisiana Hayride on KWKH in Shreveport and was able to secure a recording contract with Abbott Records (onetime home of Johnny Horton and Jim Reeves). A first single (penned by Rhodes) "Too Old For Toys Too Young For Boys" was released under the name Billie Jean Moore in 1953. According to Colin Larkin in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music, that recording earned her $4,200.
Rhodes and steel guitarist Pete Drake convinced her to move to Nashville, where she signed with United Artist Records in 1964, but none of her singles charted. After following her producer Kelso Herston to Capitol Records she started to have minor hits and finally cracked the top-10 (#4) of the country charts with 1969's, the Gene Crysler penned "Mr. Walker It's All Over."

She followed her first top-10 hit about an emancipated secretary with the Dallas Frazier composition "Stepchild" (#43), about an abuse victim. Other issue songs were "Pittsburg General" (again penned by Crysler), where she sings about working as a nurse, and the Walter Woodward composition "Marty Gray" about a teenage pregnancy.

Even though several where novelty songs, like the Doris Hamilton / Ann C. Kiker penned ditty "Get Behind Me Satan And Push," the arrangements were still mostly traditional. According to Country Music: The Rough Guide, Billie Jo's sassy vocals evoke Loretta's singing style. Spears wouldn't be the only one, who was pigeonholed like that, listen to Jeannie C. Riley's hit "Harper Valley P.T.A.," or any other female country singer in the late 60's.
In a 1976 interview with Jack Hurst for his syndicated column, Billie Jo Spears is quoted "All those novelty songs scared me. I didn't want to be typecast" It was still difficult for a female artist to establish herself. "People were only used to Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette singing and selling ballads. A lot of the rest of us recorded them, and sometimes they were great records, but people weren't used to anybody singing them except Loretta and Tammy."
Here's an example, of what could have been a hit, the Jack Rhodes composition "Home Loving Man" of her debut album.

In 1970 she was part of the Capitol Country Caravan and toured for the first time in Europe,  though still charting minor hits, she started to fade away and then had to undergo vocal-cord surgery twice to remove nodules and polyps.

The Hit Years

In 1975, Herston moved back to United Artist and resigned her after she fully recovered from her vocal problems. He was quickly replaced by producer/label head Larry Butler who started using more "countrypolitan" sounds and compositions with Spears. Butler also did this and often used the same studio musicians with the careers of Dottie West, Crystal Gayle, Jean Shepard and Kenny Rogers.

A first single, written by Bobby Goldsboro established her back in the charts.  A year later Billie Jo Spears could celebrate her only number-one hit in the country charts, with the Roger Bowling written "Blanket On The Ground," even though she first refused to record it and had to be talked into it by Butler. The success of the song also crossed over the ocean and scored Spears a first top-10 (#6) in the UK charts. (Here in a live version from London's Wembley Arena in 1979.)

In the next eight years she would reach the country top-40 19 times being one of the most consistent female country singers of the late 70's. With both "What I've Got In Mind" (Kenny O'Dell) and "Misty Blue", the Bob Montgomery composition - orignally written for Brenda Lee, who refused it, then made into a hit (#4/66) by Wilma Burgess - Billie Jo reached the number-5 spot, "If You Want Me" (#8/77) was her last top-ten hit. Even though her arrangements were more pop-oriented, she kept her sulky, Texas twang and in 1976 won the Acadamy of Country Music (ACM), Most Promising Female Vocalist award.

Some other songs she recorded for UA and charted with, were "Stay Away From The Apple Tree (#20/75)," "Silver Wings (#20/75)," "Sing Me An Old Fashioned Song" (which charted only in the UK),  "Too Much Is Not Enough (#18/77)," "Lonely Hearts Club (#18/77)," "'57 Chevrolet (#16/78)" and even a remake of Gloria Gaynor's hit "I Will Survive (#21/79)."
In 1976 she also recorded a duet album with Del Reeves "By Request" with "On The Rebound" (wr. by Larry Atwood/Charlie Craig) being the only single that charted (#29).

Partly due to the spark and sass in her vocals, her feisty demeanor Spears songs rarely included female "victim" material. She stood her ground as a strong "fightin'" woman with "Never Did Like Whiskey (#18/76)," "I'm Not Easy (#11/77)," "I've Got To Go (#17/78)," "Standing Tall (#15/79)" upto a remake of Glenn Sutton/Billy Sherrill's penned Tammy Wynette hit "Your Good Girl Is Gonna Be Bad."

Later Years

After "Your Good Girl's Gonna Be Bad" was Spears last Top-20 in 1981, United Artist and Spears went separated ways. She occasionally recorded for independent labels, usually based in the UK or Ireland and began to extensively tour overseas, appearing several times at the International Festivals of Country Music, promoted by "music-man" Mervyn Conn. He even expanded the festival and therefore Billie Jo's career into at - that point still communist - Poland, into the Scandinavian countries of Sweden and Finland, as well as into Germany and Switzerland. The fact that she was easily approachable and would meet with her fans, to take pictures or sign autographs, made her a public favorite all over Europe.
. Some of the albums were even mass-marketed through TV and labels like Prism Leisure, EMI Gold, K-Tel or Platinum were often a compilation of her own hits and cover songs, the latter as diverse as re-recordings of hits by Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Taylor, Peggy Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dolly Parton and Lynn Anderson, just to name a few.
As you may have seen, almost all of the live clips are from overseas, where Billie Jo was able to sustain an affectionate fan-base. In the 1990's British magazine Country Music People even tagged her as the "Queen Mother of Country Music."
The two following clips are two of her earlier hits from later TV shows in the UK and Ireland - "What I've Got In Mind" and "'57 Chevrolet." The latter one was recorded two years ago.  

Touring earlier this year in the UK, with Irish country singer Philomena Begley, Spears was up for another multi-city visit overseas, billed as the "Ladies of Country" together with Jeannie C. Riley ("Harper Valley P.T.A."), in May of next year. Irish country singer Sandy Kelly and English steel guitar prodigy Sarah Jory was planned for next May (2012). Here's a link to her US discography. Spears was married five times, funeral arrangements are pending.

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