Patti Page: The Oklahoma Thrush With ‘The Tennessee Waltz’

The most popular female vocalist of the 1950s is dead at 85

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This 1958 file photo shows singer Patti Page. Page, who made "Tennessee Waltz" the third best-selling recording ever. Page died Jan. 1, 2013 in Encinitas, Calif. She was 85.

“Patti Page.” That perkily generic name virtually screams Early ’50s, when sweet girls were attired in organdy dresses and spotless reputations, and when demure female vocalists sang of doggies in the window and rural heartbreak in waltz time, back in that anodyne pop-music Eden before the snake of rock ‘n roll — Elvis — changed everything.

The image of that pop-cultural era is a genteel fraud, and so was “Patti Page.” Clara Ann Fowler, 10th child of a Claremore, Okla., railroad man, was 16 when she got a job singing on a Tulsa radio show sponsored by the Page Milk Company. She was handed the name and it stuck; she could as easily have been Betty Borden. But if the moniker was bogus, Clara’s vocal gifts were real: a strong, supple alto, a suave facility in many musical genres, and the knowing intimacy she lent to songs of love and longing. Perry Como, Eddie Fisher and Andy Williams might compete for the smoothest male balladeer of the ’50s, but Page was unquestionably the decade’s preeminent female singer. Music historian Will Friedwald calls her “the most popular female vocalist of all time.”

(READ: Corliss’s elegies to Andy Williams and Eddie Fisher)

Her career extended from her recording debut in 1947 until she announced her retirement in Sep. of last year. In between were such hits as “I Went to Your Wedding” and “Old Cape Cod,” a solid two decades as a country artist and, capping it all, a 50th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert, whose recording won Patti her first Grammy. (The music industry awards were first presented in 1959, a bit after her top-of-the-pops prime.) “The Singin’ Rage, Miss Patti Page” racked up 110 Billboard chart hits, 15 gold records, four gold albums and 100 million singles sold, including 10 million of her 1950 smash “The Tennessee Waltz.” Next month, she was to receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Someone else will have to pick up that overdue prize. Patti Page died New Year’s Day, at a nursing home in Encinitas, Cal. She was 85.

(SEE: The all-TIME 100 Songs list)

You’d think that her passing would stir kind words for a singer who pleased so many listeners for more than a half-century. But in death as well as life, Page took the rap for exemplifying pop music in its blandest, ickiest, most maudlin phase — the hole of white noise that rock ‘n roll filled with electric assonance and rebellious insolence. “Critics assailed her style as plastic, placid, bland and antiseptic,” Anita Gates wrote in Page’s New York Times obituary, piling on by calling the singer’s voice “mechanical or sterile.” In his synoptic book The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, historian Donald Clarke took special umbrage at Page’s “(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window,” a 1952 novelty tune that sold 6 million copies, spent eight weeks at the top of the U.S. charts — and, for many music appreciators, left an ineradicable stain on Page’s entire career, as if the record were a DUI arrest or a racist rant. “Nobody knows how many music fans stopped listening to radio,” Clarke wrote, “after hearing ‘Doggie in the Window’ too many times.”

“Doggie” is surely an ordeal to sit through. This waltz-time chat by a customer at a pet store, sure of the right gift for her beau (“I don’t want a bunny or a kitty”), ups the excruciation factor with dog-bark sound effects. In this pre-singer-songwriter era, Page can’t take blame for composing the number; it was cowritten by Bob Merrill, who would atone by moving to Broadway for Funny Girl and Carnival. But she did record “Doggie,” and she did give it that old Patti salesmanship, and she was punished for its popularity by having to sing it “too many times” — at every public appearance for the next half-century.

(READ: Our 1953 coverage of “Doggie in the Window” parodies by subscribing to TIME)

So we’re agreed: “Doggie” bad. But Patti Page, really good. This prom-queen blond, with dimples seemingly welded into her cheeks, should also be remembered as a music pioneer who had great chops. As Friedwald writes in his illuminating A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers and structured settlement, “She has a beautiful, deep voice, wonderful intonation, solid time, an often surprising capacity for the blues, and a gift for putting over a song… . Page has elements of Doris Day’s middle-American sound, Dinah Shore’s Southern cooking, and Jo Stafford’s California coolness, but Page’s sound is ultimately no one’s but hers.”

She was the first pop singer to overdub her voice — not to add power or hide vocal blemishes, as later performers would do, but to display her range while dispensing with a backup group. Page could also be called the first crossover artist: having thoroughly assimilated the throaty grandeur of big-band thrushes, she retained an Oklahoma freshness. That blend of craft and feeling helped “The Tennessee Waltz” ace a trifecta rare in music history: it went to No. 1 simultaneously on the pop, country and R&B charts. Reversing the usual practice in the musically segregated early ’50s, black artists did covers of her songs. And some of her vocal embellishments — the slurred vowels, the hiccupping syllables — were copied by rock singers, including Page’s friend, Elvis Presley.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Elvis Presley)

One of seven sisters who grew up poor in several Oklahoma towns, and earned money by helping their mother pick cotton, Clara Ann scrimped to buy presents for school friends as a way of being accepted by girls from the right side of the tracks. But she must have realized early that her voice was her ticket to social mobility: she was singing at KTUL while attending Daniel Webster High. Jack Rael, a saxophonist and band manager, heard her on the air and brought her to Chicago, where she briefly sat in with Benny Goodman before signing a Mercury Records contract in 1947.

The ’40s was a decade of severe disputes between record companies and the American Federation of Musicians — an AFM strike halted most new recordings for more than two years — and in late 1947 another work stoppage denied background singers for Page’s first single, “Confess.” Working with Rael and producer Mitch Miller, one of whom cleverly exploited the newly available audiotape technology, Page sang both the melody (a tender “Why don’t you confess?”) and the descant (a more concupiscent “Say yes, say yes”), as if she were twins pressing separate romantic agendas on a hapless swain. Thus commenced the overdubbing revolution. The same year, guitar legend Les Paul dubbed several instrumental tracks for his two-sided hit “Lover” and “Brazil,” but Paul didn’t add vocalist Mary Ford to the mix until 1950; their first hit was a cover of “The Tennessee Waltz.”

(READ: Corliss on Les Paul and Mary Ford)

By the 1950 “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming,” four Pattis were singing in tight harmony — pop-style in one part, more country-raw in another. (The record was attributed to “The Patti Page Quartet” with “Vocal by Patti Page, Patti Page, Patti Page and Patti Page.”) In her first No. 1 hit, “All My Love (Bolero),” with Mitchell Parish lyrics to Paul Durand’s tune, she wanders expertly through the octaves, from sultry alto to señorita soprano; she extends the phrase “Ohhhh, ooh-ooh never let me go” into a 12-sec., one-breath plea, and inserts a hiccupping country cry in the phrase, “I can’t see…” Even if listeners couldn’t see Page, they got the plangent message.

Technology and technique found their signal fusion in “The Tennessee Waltz.” Originally the B side to a seasonal novelty called “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” (with Page channeling Ella Mae Morse as she shouts, “Rock, rock, rock, Mr. Santa!”), the Pee Wee King ballad details the fateful moment when the singer makes one mistake — introducing her lover to an old friend — “And while they were dancin,’ / My friend stole my sweetheart from me.” Rael’s orchestra draws the waltz time down to dirge tempo, and the piano picks out the rolling “slip notes” later associated with Floyd Cramer, as Patti sings her love requiem in two-part harmony. A verse and a chorus, repeated: the song’s simplicity was as much as part of its appeal as the singer’s artistry.

(READ: TIME’s obit for “Tennessee Waltz” composer Pee Wee King)

The record, which perched at No. 1 for 13 weeks, propelled Page into the pop stratosphere: appearances on the infant TV medium — where a rendition of “The Tennessee Waltz,” slower and without overdubbing, demonstrates that she didn’t need recording tricks to get to the core of vocal emotion — and in concert halls and movie theaters. “Only the deaf and the dead have escaped the big, plain, healthy voice of ‘Patti Page,'” wrote TIME in an Apr. 2, 1951 profile that captured the pop star’s impact:

Last week Patti was proving her drawing power in the nation’s capital. When the master of ceremonies introduced her (“the singing rage, Miss Patti Page”), Washington’s big Capitol Theater rocked with wolf cries, whistles and cheers. In the wings, pretty, 23-year-old Patti, radiant in an orchid-colored strapless gown, sidetracked her gum back in her jaw, took a deep breath, switched on a neon smile and glided onstage. She acknowledged the whoops and whistles with modestly fluttering eyelashes. Then she stepped up to the mike, opened her mouth and cut loose: “Weeee-th my eyes wide open, I’m dreaming...” As usual, that was all it took to get Patti’s audience in her lap. Part of the act: “I always try to smile at a woman in the audience, if I can see one.”

(READ: The full story by subscribing to TIME)

She may have been smiling at the women, but she was singing for the men; that’s what stirred those wolf cries and whistles. Just 23 at the time, Page could transform vocal innuendo into the most teasing sensuality. The slow samba “Oo! What You Do to Me” from 1953 is a series of coos and ooos that evoke the loveliest post-coital glow. In Mack David’s “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine” — her first top-10 hit, released just before “The Tennessee Waltz” — Alfonso D’Artega’s orchestra establishes a brassy, roadhouse setting for the sassy smile in Patti’s voice; the song is a 2 min. 51 sec. petting party. And, in the second bridge, when she gets to “That’s when we kiss ‘n kiss ‘n kiss ‘n ooh we kiss some more,” she elides some of the consonants (“ki–, uh uh”)  as if her mouth is multitasking. For 1950, this is a stunningly succulent reading; it’s no wonder that, four years later, the 19-year-old Presley chose to record Patti’s song at one of his first Sun sessions. But her version is steamier.

Between the occasional novelty song like “Mister and Mississippi” (with a solo ballad verse exploding into two-part harmony that cracks the song’s clichés with supersonic force) and a twiddlee-dee-dee tribute to Americana in the 1951 million-selling waltz “Mockin’ Bird Hill” (with flutes trilling to imitate birdcalls — redundant, but better than dog barks), Page mostly inhabited the fretful end of the emotional spectrum. Often the songs were informal sequels to her biggest hit. “Changing Partners,” which went to No. 2 in 1953, dramatized another dance crisis: “We were waltzing together” when you-know-what happens. “I Went to Your Wedding,” a Jessie Mae Robinson composition that in Patti’s version spent 10 weeks at No. 1, puts the singer in a chapel seat for her ex-lover’s wedding that’s more like a funeral, “Because I was losing you.” Page’s alto was never so mournful (in the verse), never so desperate (in the chorus).

That’s her secret: bringing passion and virtuosity to simple tunes. The listener plays one of her songs with apprehension, then gets drawn in by her commitment to each line. In “Detour” (a No. 5 hit in 1951), hear her blast like a high-harmonic supersonic siren that “There’s a muddy road ahead” — warning herself, since the big muddy is love’s devastation. “Come What May” (No. 9 in 1952) sends Patti to a gypsy for romantic advice; but what you notice is her turning one syllable (“ball,” “look”) into two with a brief glottal catch in between; the bayou bard Aaron Neville would make that echo bump the hallmark of his vocal art. Her work on “Cross Over the Bridge” (No. 2 in 1954), a self-duet that bends the notes of the chorus into luscious, swooning flats, was so precisely rockin’ that it inspired cover versions by two R&B groups, the Chords and The Flamingos.

(READ: Michael Walsh on Aaron Neville and the music of the bayou)

As the fever of rock ‘n roll broke like a pandemic in 1955 (with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame”), Page’s singles became statelier. Instead of pushing her old songs’ subtle sexual undertones, which the new rockers amped up into overt overtones, she would provide a musical antidote to the bad boys. With musical director Vic Schoen, who replaced Rael, she still had hit records: the No. 2 “Allegheny Moon,” a sort of pre-“Moon River,” and another “location song,” “Old Cape Cod.” Peaking at No. 3, the tune helped establish the Cape as a popular vacation spot; and it remains, with “Tennessee Waltz” and “Doggie in the Window,” one of the three numbers most closely associated with Page.

Subduing the delicate sexual threat of some of her early hit singles — she let Elvis run with that — Page imparted her vocal maturity and cogent line-readings to a series of albums, all released in 1956, with a jazzier, more sophisticated tone that would appeal to adult ears. On Patti Page in the Land of Hi-Fi and You Go to My Head, with some numbers arranged and conducted by Pete Rugolo, she offered sultry or swingin’ interpretations of classics by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart. She also recorded an excerpted, monaural version of Gordon Jenkins’ innovative “musical narrative” Manhattan Tower. None of the albums went platinum but, musically, they were sterling. In them Page found (some would say finally found) material worthy of her voice; no one could condemn the singer for her choice of these songs.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Rodgers and Hart)

Her reign on the pop charts ended with the 1964 movie theme “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” But singers don’t stop performing just because their singles no longer sell millions. In the late 1960s Page reached the top 20 on the Adult Contemporary chart with covers of “Gentle on My Mind” and “Almost Persuaded.” In Nashville, recording for producer Shelby Singleton, she graced the country charts with the ’70s hits “Give Him Love” and, in a duet with Tom T. Hall, “Hello, We’re Lonely.” Her last charting country single was “My Man Friday” in 1982, when Page was 55. But she remained a star presence on the concert stage, including her triumphant 50th-anniversary Carnegie Hall gig in 1997 — the same year that Polygram Records issued the superb four-disc retrospective, Golden Celebration. Late last year she even made a “virtual” off-Broadway appearance, when the bio-musical tribute Flipside: The Patti Page Story had a brief run on West 46th Street.

Page was married three times: for a year (1948) to Wisconsin student Jack Skiba; from 1956 to 1972 to dancer Charles O’Curran, an ex-spouse of belter Betty Hutton and choreographer on three early Elvis films (how she met The King); and in 1990 to Jerry Filiciotto, with whom she ran a New Hampshire maple syrup business until his death in 2009. Coming to Hollywood with O’Curran, she made a few movies: radiant as Jean Simmons’ acolyte in the 1960 Elmer Gantry, medium-warm as David Janssen’s wife in the 1961 Dondi (back when comic-strip movies were warm and fuzzy); and ignorable in the 1962 Boys’ Night Out, whose leering humor didn’t suit the primmer Patti.

(READ: Corliss on the career of singer-actress Betty Hutton)

For nearly 70 years in the public ear and eye — for all those decades when, as Friedwald notes, she was “somehow both amazingly popular and chronically underrated” — Page held on to her fans. At her later concerts they would hum the old tunes, removing their spectacles for a retrospective vision of the younger, slimmer, chart-topping Patti. But did the musical acuity of her admirers match their sentiment? Did they appreciate how a country girl mastered the tepid pop idiom of the early 1950s and set it gently aflame?

Page adjusted to the musical structures and strictures of the time, bending the rules with her vocal sex appeal and artistry. The Singin’ Rage didn’t rage against the machine; she glowed gloriously within it. That’s how Clara Ann Fowler managed to be both the chart-topping “Patti Page” and the real-deal, knock-out champion of country-soul-jazz-pop, Miss Patti Page.