Mary Frances Penick (December 30, 1931 ??? September 19, 2004), better known as Skeeter Davis, was an American country music singer best known for crossover pop music songs of the early 1960s. She started out as part of The Davis Sisters in the early 1950s. In the late '50s and early '60s, she became a solo star. Her best known hit was the song "The End of the World" in 1963.
One of the first women to achieve major stardom in the country music field as a solo vocalist, she was an acknowledged influence on Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton and has been hailed as an "extraordinary country/pop singer" by The New York Times music critic Robert Palmer.
Davis was the first of seven children born to William and Punzie Penick, born in Dry Ridge, Kentucky. Because her grandfather thought that she had a lot of energy for a young child, he nicknamed Mary Frances "Skeeter" (slang for mosquito). In 1947, the Penick family moved to Erlanger, Kentucky, where Skeeter met Betty Jack Davis at Dixie Heights High School, becoming instant friends. They sang together through much of high school. They formed a group known as The Davis Sisters (although they were unrelated), and started singing on Detroit radio station WJR's program Barnyard Frolics.
Rise to fame
RCA Records producer Steve Sholes liked The Davis Sisters' harmonies and offered the duo a recording contract in 1953. Their most successful release was "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know," which spent eight weeks at number 1 on the country charts in 1953, as well as making the top 20 on the pop charts. The record ranks number 65 on the Top 100 Country Singles of All Time, according to Billboard historian Joel Whitburn.
While "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know" was climbing the charts, The Davis Sisters were involved in a major car accident on August 1, 1953. The crash killed Betty Jack Davis and left Skeeter with severe injuries. After the accident, Davis and Betty Jack's sister Georgia continued as the Davis Sisters until 1956.
Davis decided to go back into country music as a solo star. She hooked up again with RCA Records in 1958, this time working with guitarist and record producer Chet Atkins. That year, Davis recorded "Lost to a Geisha Girl," which reached the Country Top 15 and became her first solo hit. Atkins worked with Davis as a guitarist on all of these sessions. Atkins also multi-tracked Davis' voice to resemble the sound of The Davis Sisters. This echo can be found on several of her early solo hits, such as "Lost to a Geisha Girl" and "Am I That Easy to Forget". "Lost to a Geisha Girl" was an "answer song" to Hank Locklin's hit "Geisha Girl".
Davis had a Top 5 country hit "Set Him Free" in 1959. That same year, she had another Top 20 hit called "Homebreaker." She also joined the Grand Ole Opry that year, and was nominated for a Grammy Award for "Set Him Free," becoming the first female Country singer to ever be nominated for a Grammy.
From 1960 to 1962, Davis had hits with the songs "My Last Date (With You)," "Where I Ought to Be" and "Optimistic," all hits for Davis during this time. Her 1960 hit "(I Can't Help You) I'm Falling Too" was Davis' first entrance onto the pop charts. The song went all the way to the Top 40 there, which was unheard of for a country singer at the time. In 1961, she scored a second pop hit with a lyric version (written by Skeeter) of Floyd Cramer's instrumental country pop smash "Last Date" called "My Last Date (With You)" which did even better making the Top 30 on the pop charts. Both of these songs did very well on the country charts peaking at number 2 and number 5, respectively.
In 1963, Davis achieved her biggest success with country pop crossover hit "The End of the World." The song just missed topping the country and pop charts that year, however, it did top the adult contemporary charts. The song soon became Davis' signature song. Davis achieved one other country pop hit with the Carole King-penned song "I Can't Stay Mad At You," which became a Top 10 pop hit for her, peaking at #7 in 1963. She made several appearances on the pop music show American Bandstand in the early 1960s and a decade later was one of the first country artists to appear on The Midnight Special.
Davis received five Grammy Award nominations including four for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1964 ("He Says the Same Things to Me"), 1965 ("Sunglasses"), 1967 ("What Does It Take"), and 1972 ("One Tin Soldier"). Davis was also an accomplished songwriter, penning almost 70 songs and earning two BMI awards for "Set Him Free" and "My Last Date With You," the latter of which was also recorded by Ann-Margret, Pat Boone, Kay Starr, Joni James, and several others in addition to Davis' original hit version. Conway Twitty wrote new lyrics for the instrumental in 1972 as "Lost Her/His Love (On Our Last Date), which reached number one on the country chart as did Emmylou Harris's remake of Twitty's version in 1983. In the 1990s, Deborah Harry recorded a remake of Davis' version featuring Michael Stipe, a long-time Davis fan.
Davis' success continued after 1963. Her next follow-up came in late 1963 with "I'm Saving My Love" and another song in 1964 called Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now (which was an updated cover of the song, made a hit in 1956 by Patience and Prudence). Both were Top 10 hits on the Country charts and cracked the Billboard top 50 pop, the success of "Gonna Get" likely hampered by another remake of the song by vocalist Tracey Dey simultaneously climbing the charts to peak slightly lower than Davis' version.
In 1965, she recorded a duet Bobby Bare called "A Dear John Letter" which just missed country top 10 and received light pop action. The best-known version of the song, however, was recorded originally by Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky back in 1953. Davis also recorded quite a few albums during this time. One of them was a tribute album to Buddy Holly entitled Skeeter Davis Sings Buddy Holly. In 1967, Davis had her first Top 10 hit in a while with "What Does It Take? (To Keep a Man Like You Satisfied)." An album was also released by the same name, which featured the hit single. Davis only achieved two other major country hits the rest of the decade, called "Fuel to the Flame" (written by Dolly Parton, whom Davis paid tribute to with an album called Skeeter Sings Dolly in 1972) and "There's a Fool Born Every Minute." Other singles were minor hits, but she released many albums.
Decline and controversy
In 1970, Davis had another Top Ten hit with "I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter)" and another duet with Bobby Bare with "Your Husband, My Wife", and in 1971, she also had a hit with the autobiographical "Bus Fare To Kentucky". Her chart success began to slowly fade away in the beginning of the decade. Other singles, such as "It's Hard to Be a Woman" and "Love Takes a Lot of My Time" failed to crack the country top 40 for Davis. "One Tin Soldier" did not get much attention from country radio but was nominated for Grammy as Best Female Country Vocal. In the 1970s, she began regularly touring foreign countries such as Barbados, Singapore, and Sweden where she was among the most popular entertainers of any field. In 1973, she had a brief comeback with her Top 20 hit "I Can't Believe That It's All Over".
In 1973 also during a performance at the Grand Ole Opry, Skeeter dedicated a gospel song to arrested evangelists which some felt was using the Opry stage for "political" commentary. This led to a 15-month suspension from the Grand Ole Opry. Despite losing other bookings, Davis remained highly active due to her singing with a number of religious ministries. A brief stint on Mercury Records produced two single releases, including her last song to make the national charts, 1976's "I Love Us".
Davis was married three times, the first being to Kenneth Depew. She later married Ralph Emery in 1960 and divorced him in 1964. In 1985, Skeeter made a solid comeback with the album She Sings, They Play, with the band NRBQ. In 1987, she married NRBQ's bassist Joey Spampinato. Davis and Spampinato were divorced in 1996.
Later years and death
Davis lived in Brentwood, Tennessee, from the early 1960s until the time of her death in 2004. Her autobiography, Bus Fare to Kentucky (named after a 1971 Davis hit), was published in 1993. In 1998 she wrote a children's book The Christmas Note (with Cathie Pelletier) based on her childhood that received praise from a number of authors including Lee Smith, Rebecca Wells, and Terry Kay.
Davis continued to perform frequently throughout much of the 1990s and into 2000. In 2001 she became incapacitated by the breast cancer that would claim her life. While Davis remained a member of the Grand Ole Opry until her death, she last appeared on the program in 2002. She died of breast cancer in a Nashville, Tennessee hospice, at the age of 72, on September 19, 2004.