Kitty Wells, who died on Monday at 92, was the original "Queen of Country Music." She first lay claim to the title in 1952, long before Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton, before Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, even before Patsy Cline.
In August 1952, Wells became the first female solo artist to, all by herself, land a #1 hit on Billboard's country chart. She achieved that feat with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonky Angels."
Wells went on to be the top female country hit-maker of the 1950s and 1960s, according to Joel Whitburn's Hot Country Songs 1944-2008.
Her 1956 album Kitty Wells' Country Hit Parade is said to be the first full-length album by a female country artist.
Wells amassed 35 top 10 country hits between 1952 and 1965. That stood as the record for a female solo artist until Loretta Lynn finally topped it in January 1976. All these years later, only five female solo artists in country music history have amassed more top 10 hits than Wells (Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, Lynn, Tanya Tucker and Tammy Wynette.)
The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Wells in 1976. She was the third female solo artist to make it, following Patsy Cline (who was inducted posthumously in 1973) and down-home comedian Minnie Pearl (1975).
Wells received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. She was the first female country star to earn that honor.
As you can see from these stats, the boast in the title of a 1962 Wells album, Queen Of Country Music, was entirely justified.
"It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" was an answer record to Hank Thompson's 1952 country smash "The Wild Side Of Life" (which included the line, "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels"). Wells' recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
"It Wasn't God…" topped the country chart for six weeks. No female singer, all by herself, equaled that feat until Connie Smith stayed on top for eight weeks from November 1964 to January 1965 with "Once A Day."
Many artists have covered "It Wasn't God…" over the years. Patsy Cline recorded it before her death in 1963. Wells was featured on a version by Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, which appeared on their Honky Tonk Angels album in 1993.
In 1988, Wells teamed with k.d. lang, Loretta Lynn and Brenda Lee to record "Honky Tonk Angels Medley" for lang's album Shadowland. The medley received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Collaboration.
Wells had two other #1 country hits: "One By One," a collabo with Red Foley, in 1954, and "Heartbreak U.S.A." in 1961.
Wells' tally of 35 top 10 hits includes four collabos with Red Foley and two with Webb Pierce. She scored her last top 10 country hit in November 1965 with "Meanwhile, Down At Joe's."
Wells amassed 81 chart hits on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart from 1952 to 1979. The tally includes 10 collabos with Foley, three with Pierce, and one each with Johnny Wright (her husband), Carol Sue (one of their daughters), Roy Drusky and Rayburn Anthony.
Wells put 14 albums on Billboard's country album chart between 1964 (when the chart originated) and 1969. Five of them, including 1967's Queen Of Honky Tonk Street, made the top 10.
Wells is one of the few top country stars who was actually born in Nashville. She was born in the country music capital in 1919. She was married to Johnny Wright from for nearly 74 years (!), from October 30, 1937 to Wright's death on Sept. 27, 2011.
The Fine Print: I noted that Wells was the first female solo artist to, all by herself, land a #1 country hit. I qualified it because Margaret Whiting had a #1 country hit in 1949 with "Slipping Around," a collabo with Jimmy Wakely. Whiting was primarily known as a pop singer. She and Wakely teamed for nine top 10 country hits, but Whiting had no others on her own or with other partners.
There were female country singers before Wells, such as Patsy Montana, who with her group the Prairie Ramblers, recorded the 1935 classic "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart." But Wells was the first to achieve consistent success.
In case you're wondering, Dolly Parton was the top female country hit-maker of the 1970s and 1980s, according to Whitburn's Hot Country Songs 1944-2008 book. Reba McEntire was the top female star of the 1990s. Martina McBride was on top for the period 2000 to 2008.
Parton issued a warm statement in the wake of Wells' death: "Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us. She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business.''