Classic Tracks: Patsy Cline's "Crazy"

No one could touch her. Her voice was one of the most ravishing instruments ever recorded. 8/01/2003 8:00 AM Eastern

No one could touch her. Her voice was one of the most ravishing instruments ever recorded. Her life and her career? Well, they were a bit checkered, but Patsy Cline sang like a goddess, and “Crazy” was her masterpiece. Hers and Owen Bradley's.

The connection between Cline and the now-legendary producer came to pass toward the end of a series of bumps and breaks in Cline's short life. Cline, who was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932 (her stage name came from her middle name and the last name of her first husband, Gerald Cline), was driven to become a country singing star from pre-teen age. Her biographer, Ellis Nassour, quotes her mother, Hilda Hensley: “Virginia was dedicated. She had to be. I told her she was picking the most competitive business in the world. In those days, it was difficult for a woman no matter what she wanted to do, but country music was dominated by men. It would be especially tough for a woman, but there was no talking her down.”

Cline talked her way onto a regular radio spot on station WINC in her hometown of Winchester, Va. at the age of 14. At 16, she convinced radio performer Wally Fowler to arrange an audition for the Grand Ole Opry (though she didn't actually land a spot until years later). And throughout her teenage years, she performed with Bill Peer and his band in clubs, lodges and bars, becoming well known for her striking, womanly stage appearance, as well as for her voice.

In her early 20s, Cline won first prize at the National Country Music Championships in Warrenton, Va., which were sponsored by Connie B. Gay, a promoter from Washington, D.C. That triumph resulted in a regular spot on Gay's radio program, Town and Country Time. It was a huge break for Cline and led to her first recording contract with Bill McCall and Four Star Records.

The contract with Four Star was a terrible deal, which Cline signed gladly without reading it carefully. The fine print stipulated that Cline record only material owned by McCall's publishing company, and she incurred all of the recording expenses. But Four Star also had a recording/distribution deal with Decca, where Decca VP Paul Cohen would control the sessions and choose Cline's producer: Owen Bradley.

Cline's career might have taken off at that point if it weren't for the inferior material she was obliged to record. Her radio performances on Town and Country Time and, by then, as a guest on the Opry-broadcast Ernest Tubb show had gained her an enthusiastic fan base, but her records were not selling and her expenses were mounting. When she went to Connie B. Gay for a raise, he turned her down flat. “She referred to her contract with Mr. Gay as a ‘Hitler contract,’” Hilda Hensley told Nassour. “Patsy went to him and asked for a raise. He informed her she was being paid more than enough for a woman in the business.” When Cline approached McCall for an advance on her royalties, Nassour writes, he replied, “You don't have any. Your records haven't earned one red cent!” He then convinced her to sign a contract renewal in exchange for a $200 loan.

Cline was recording in Nashville with Owen Bradley's “A” list of musicians, but the songs she was permitted to sing did not match her immense talent, and what little profit she might have gained went to pay for the expenses she incurred under her contract.

“Bill McCall made her do his songs, the ones he had in his publishing company,” confirms Harold Bradley, the most-recorded guitarist of all time and brother to Owen. He played guitar on all of Cline's sessions. “In all that time, I think the only hit we had was ‘Walkin’ After Midnight' in 1956. That's the one that got her on the Arthur Godfrey Show.”

“Walkin' After Midnight” became a Number 2 country hit and went to Number 12 on the pop music charts, but Cline's sales continued to flounder after that, until her contract with Four Star finally ended and she signed with Decca Records in 1960. Then, she and Owen Bradley really started to make magic in the Quonset Hut.

Owen and Harold Bradley's much-celebrated studio opened in the mid-1950s, largely because the brothers planned to get into recording for film. The music studio built into an existing house and a Quonset Hut was added onto the back to be used for film work. However, when the music area proved too small to record live — the way projects were done then — the operation began to take over the back building. By the time Cline signed with Decca in 1960, the Quonset Hut was established as Owen Bradley's main recording room, and he had developed the formula that amounted to what is now simply referred to as the “Nashville Sound.” The first single Cline recorded on her new contract was the Number One charting “I Fall to Pieces.”

“My brother always stayed with the same players, those same guys,” says Harold Bradley. “I saw an interview one time when the interviewer asked, ‘Why didn't you change musicians, change studios? You all weren't getting any business, and you didn't know Patsy would sign with you because you only had one hit.’ And he said, ‘It's like the girl in the sweater: It just depends on what you put into it. We just changed songs. We started doing better songs.’”

The Bradleys' studio was then equipped with a 3-track console purchased from Decca and selected by Owen Bradley and renowned engineer Glenn Snoddy, the technician who had built the studio's first stereo board. “We went to see a 3-track console that they had installed up there [in New York],” Snoddy told Mix in a 1988 article on the history of Nashville recording. “They had built two or three of those units and Owen wanted to get one of them in Nashville. On the plane coming back from New York, Owen and I drew out the control room design on a piece of paper. By the time we got back from New York, we had that pretty well fixed and started to tear into the Quonset Hut, building a place to put this console. Shortly thereafter, it was shipped down.

“Three-track changed things dramatically, because now we could really do some production work in stereo, although we did not do a lot with the stereo. We were still making mono records, essentially, because that's what was selling. You were recording, mixing and listening to mono records because that's what radio was playing and that's what everybody depended on to get the hit.”

The 3-track actually became extremely important to the sessions for Cline's next single, the Willie Nelson-penned “Crazy.” Work began on the song in mid-August 1961, with Owen Bradley producing and engineer Selby Coffeen behind the board. There are varying reports as to how the producer convinced Cline to record the song, which, by all accounts, she initially considered irritating. However, she had agreed to put the song on her second album. But Cline was still recovering from a near-fatal auto accident for which she had been hospitalized for a month. She arrived at the Bradleys' studio on crutches. Cline sang well on a few of the other songs that she and the musicians were scheduled to record, but when it came time to sing “Crazy,” she just couldn't get through it.

“Her ribs had been broken, and she couldn't hold the notes out,” recalls Harold Bradley. “When we were doing this, there were no overdubs. She had to do it all live, and we all had to do it all live. By that time, we had progressed to 3-track, but they wouldn't put anything in the middle. They put the band and the voice and spread everything left and right. But on this particular session, Patsy couldn't sing with the band. The 3-track allowed them to record her [later] and not lose any quality on the tape. [Coffeen] was able to put her voice in the middle. We would have lost a generation if he had played it back and transferred to another tape [to add her vocal].”

So, the first sessions for “Crazy” turned out to be music-only — how strange for 1961 — with Owen Bradley, the seasoned producer and keyboard player, directing the sessions from behind a small Hammond organ. Harold Bradley recalls the configuration of the musicians, who were set up much the same way on all of Cline's sessions: “If you think of it as a rectangle, and you're looking at the back of the rectangle,” he says, “that was the entrance to the studio from the alley. Right beside that door was the control room, and then it was a big, open studio back there. Patsy would have been one-third of the way away from that door, and I would have been at the very back; the amp that I was playing through would have been set up at the very back. [Piano player] Floyd Cramer was about two feet in front of me, playing piano with his back to me, and [bass player] Bob Moore would have been four or five feet over to my left, and [drummer] Buddy Harman would have been four or five feet over from his left. And right across from Patsy, as she was standing facing us, to her left would have been [backing vocalists] The Jordanaires.

“My brother came up with what we called the ‘shed houses,’” Harold Bradley continues. “The drummer was in a little house, and then he had a big baffle between Bob Moore and myself and the piano. It was roughly four feet high and a long board of some kind with rollers on it. The amps, which were on the other side of the room, had a baffle behind them to keep from going into her mic.”

“That was the beginning of isolating sections,” Snoddy said in 1988. “These items were in the studio, and it was kind of a setup where we could pretty much leave it for the next session.”

The acoustics of the ultralive Quonset Hut had been improved by some impromptu decorating that was done for a film project. “We'd had a problem, because we had a ping off the tile floor, and also to trap the bass, they put big curtains in the corners, and then the most fortuitous thing happened to us,” Harold Bradley recalls. “A guy came to us and wanted us to film some Grand Ole Opry 35mm color films in the Quonset Hut, and so they wanted to build part of the interior of a barn. Along each side where it was concrete block, they built wood all the way down the sides so it would look like the sides of a barn. And at the very end, he built a barn door, and that wood evened out the sound. We never took it out. It absorbed all of the right sounds, but it was still live enough that you could hear everybody. I could hear Patsy very well from where I was. Acoustically, it was a wonderful room to play in.”

The musical arrangement for “Crazy” was one of Owen Bradley's first attempts at straddling the fence between country and pop music, the sound that eventually came to be known as “countrypolitan.” “We were following up ‘I Fall to Pieces,’” he told Mix in '88, “and the record company felt it was a little too country, so they asked if we could make the next one a little more acceptable to cosmopolitan stations. We left off the fiddle and the steel. I think most everything you hear is Floyd Cramer on the piano. If you listen real, real close, because I didn't let them turn me up, you can hear me. I'm just playing chords on the organ.”

After recuperating for two more weeks, Cline returned to the studio to record her vocal and nailed it in one take.

“That was the magic session,” says Harold Bradley. “It was the toughness of it — and the magic of it, too — that made it an incredible session. Neither one of them wanted to do anything else with it. They said, ‘That's it.’”

Patsy Cline scored more hits with Decca in the brief time between the success of “Crazy” and her death in a plane crash in 1963. She also had a number of posthumous hits, as Decca continued to release whatever Cline material they had after her passing. Her 12 Greatest Hits, which came out in 1967, is still the top-selling hits collection by a female country artist and has spent the most weeks on the Billboard charts of any album. Patsy Cline was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973; she was the first female solo artist to be chosen.

Cline's work is part of the amazing legacy that Owen Bradley left to country music. His recordings of Webb Pierce, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb and so many others, as well as his own piano work, and the innovations he brought to studio work, in general, earned him a place in the Hall of Fame the year after Cline's induction.

“I'm a block away from the park named after my brother,” says Harold Bradley, who still plays and serves as president of the Nashville chapter of the A.F. of M. “He's sitting there at a piano that weighs 1,200 pounds, and he weighs 800 pounds. He did think that dying revived Patsy's career, but the quality was there; and now, every girl country singer that comes to town, that's the standard right there. Patsy Cline singing ‘Crazy.’”

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