Before Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Shania Twain or Taylor Swift, there was Kitty Wells, the original “Queen of Country Music.” Wells, who died at her Nashville-area home Monday morning at the age of 92, enjoyed a career that ran the gamut — from 78 RPM to digital downloads, and in doing so, she effectively kicked down the doors for every female superstar in the genre that has come since.
Born Ellen Muriel Deason on August 30, 1919, she was one of just a handful of artists that actually born in Nashville. She grew up performing locally on WSIX radio as a young lady. It was there that she would meet Johnny Wright, whom she would marry in 1937. Wright would persuade Deason to change her stage name to “Kitty Wells,” taken from a famous folk song.
For years, Wells performed as part of the Johnnie and Jack show, and recorded with the duo on such RCA Victor recordings as “Trials And Tribulations.” But, in 1952, she took center stage on the Decca Records classic “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The song climbed the charts throughout the summer months, and for six weeks the song topped the Billboard country singles chart — the first time a solo female artist had ever done so.
There had been other female vocalists to record in the country music world before Wells, but she was the first to consistently record and chart on a regular basis. Between 1952 and 1979, she appeared on the Billboard lists 81 times — still the third most of any female vocalist in the genre’s history. Some of her biggest records on the chart included “Makin’ Believe,” “Password,” and “Heartbreak U.S.A.,” which topped the charts in 1961. She remained a part of the Decca roster through the early 1970s, last hitting for the label with 1972’s “Sincerely.” In 1974, she released “Forever Young” — a departure of sorts for the “Queen of Country Music,” as it included a more blues style approach, featuring guest appearances from the Allman Brothers Band.
Wells won award after award in the “Female Vocalist” category from 1952 until Patsy Cline emerged as a force in the format a decade later, and also continued to perform with husband Wright. After the passing of Johnnie and Jack member Jack Anglin in 1963, Wells and Wright recorded several duet records. She also collaborated with acts such as Roy Acuff, Red Foley, and Webb Pierce.
Though her chart numbers diminished by 1980, she and Wright stayed on the road for another two decades – closing out their touring life with a show on December 31, 2000 at Nashville Nightlife Theater. Wright passed away at the age of 97 last September.
Wells was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976, and netted a Lifetime Achievement honor from the Grammy Awards in 1991. She is survived by a son, Bobby, and a daughter, Carol. Funeral arrangements are pending.