of the week

Anyone walking the West end of London in the 60s and 70s surely wouldn’t have missed the sandwich board men and women who roamed Oxford Street with their signs of protest or misery. One I remember seeing was the one that said, ‘The end of the world is nigh’. As a teenager I don’t think I really understood what that meant, nor did I, in any stretch of the imagination, take it seriously. Thank God, 45-odd years on, I’m still here. It was certainly meant as a sign of doom and gloom and anyone applying that to the end of a relationship I understand why it can feel like that. Is that how the singer of this week’s suggestion felt? Let’s find out.

In the UK, Skeeter Davis was confined to the one-hit wonder bucket as End of the World peaked at number 18 in the Spring of 1963 and never really heard of again, but, in the States, a completely different story. The country girl from Kentucky, who was born Mary Frances Penick, in her solo career put 27 singles on the US Country chart between 1958 and 1973 and recorded over 20 studio albums with Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, Iggy Pop and Lana Del Rey all citing her as an influence.

Although Davis had a fairly lengthy career, sadly it wasn’t a great start. She was born in 1931 and in 1949, at the age of 18, she and her friend Betty Jack Davis, (no relation), as Davis was then using her real name, entered and won a yodelling competition and the prize was to sing on a daytime television show. So, they formed the Davis Sisters and their debut performance paid off and won a slot singing on a Detroit radio station. They then moved to Detroit and signed a contract with a small label called Fortune records and began recording demos. Some of those demos were heard by Steve Sholes who later became Elvis Presley’s producer and he then signed them to RCA records. She recalled in her autobiography, “Our singing style was never something we practised or sat down and figured out, all our vocal arrangements were always completely spontaneous.”

Their first song for the new label was a cover of Sonny James’ I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know which they recorded in May 1953 and began touring locally on the back of it. On 1st August the pair had finished performing at the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia and just after midnight began heading home to Kentucky. On passing through the town of Cincinnati a driver coming in the other direction fell asleep at the wheel and had a head on collision and Betty was killed instantly. Two weeks later their song, I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know, landed on the country chart and spend eight weeks at number one. Betty was only 21 and never got to see the success of their song.

Despite the local press reporting that both girls had died, Skeeter was injured but moved in with Betty’s mother, Ollie whilst she recuperated. As soon as Skeeter was well enough, Ollie insisted that the ‘Davis sisters’ continued this time with Betty’s sister Georgia. Skeeter was not keen but relented and agree but it didn’t last. Skeeter, in her autobiography, Bus Fare to Kentucky, wrote, “I felt that I had been brainwashed by Ollie and coerced into resuming the musical duo.”

In 1956, she began using the name Skeeter Davis, Skeeter was her grandfather’s nickname for her because, when she was very young, she was always darting around like a skeeter (mosquito) and launched a solo career and toured with both Eddy Arnold and Elvis Presley and joined Nashville’s prestigious Grand Ole Opry in 1959. She had two number two hits on the US country chart the first was (I Can’t Help You) I’m Falling Too which was an answer version to Hank Locklin’s Please Help Me I’m Falling and the second was The End of the World in 1962/63.

The End of the World was written by Sylvia Dee and Arthur Kent, Dee was born Josephine Moore in Arkansas in 1914 and died in 1967 aged 52 whilst Kent was born in New York in 1920 and died in South Caroline in 2009 aged 88. Dee’s first success was in 1951 when she wrote the lyrics to Too Young originally for Nat King Cole and later covered by Bill Forbes and Donny Osmond and Kent’s best known work So They Tell Me for Frank Sinatra in 1946 and Take Good Care of Her which was a minor hit for Adam Wade in 1961. Dee and Kent’s other best known songs that they worked on together was Bring Me Sunshine which was first recorded by The Mills Brothers in 1966 but made more famous when Morecambe and Wise adopted it as their signature tune in 1969.

The inspiration for The End of the World came to Dee when her own father died as it dealt with the heartbreak and pain of losing someone close and clearly this was felt by Skeeter after losing Betty. She sang it with the natural emotion as she had lived that pain.

The song’s success was brought to a wider audience by a radio DJ in New York as Skeeter recalled in her autobiography, “It was Scott Muni, a DJ on WABC in New York who first played it and who I believe should get the credit for the record’s dramatic breakout. RCA was hosting a big party for me in New York and every time I turned the radio on, I’d hear my record. I would change stations and it would be playing on there too. I was ecstatic.” What wasn’t mentioned on her autobiography is that Scott Muni had originally been playing the B-side called Somebody Loves You, but a lot of radio DJs in the States explored the flip sides and Scott did just that and began playing End of the World which is really why he deserves the credit.

Not only did the song make number two on the Country chart, it was also number two on the Hot 100 Singles chart, number four on the R&B chart and number one on the Adult Contemporary chart thus making it the most successful crossover hit of all time in the States, a record it still holds to this day for a female artist.

Many have covered the song including Brenda Lee, Herman’s Hermits, John Cougar, Johnny Mathis and Julie London. The only other version to make the UK chart was by the Liverpool songstress Sonia who, in 1990, took it to the same position that Skeeter did, not quite with the same emotion.

In 1999, it was used to great, but sad, effect in the film Girl, Interrupted that starred Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie and Brittany Murphy with appearances by Vanessa Redgrave and Whoopi Goldberg. There is a scene where Daisy Randone (Brittany Murphy) commits suicide when she realises that she is unable to cope with being a victim of sexual abuse, that song is playing on her record player on repeat.

Davis’ version was produced by the country musician Chet Atkins and when he died in June 2001, an instrumental version was played at his funeral. Davis had a tough start to her career and a tough end too. In 1988, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy on her right breast and was in remission for eight years until it returned in 1996. Five years later it spread to other parts of her body and in 2002 managed to make one last appearance at the Grand Ole Opry where she performed her most well-known song to a stunned audience. She died in a hospice in Nashville in September 2004. Her funeral was held at the Ryman Auditorium which was the original location of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974.