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Remembering some of the famous country vocalists who died long before their time

The March 6, 1963 Nashville Banner headline relates to the death of four country singers, including Patsy Cline.
The March 6, 1963 Nashville Banner headline relates to the death of four country singers, including Patsy Cline.

No country music fan is immune from the sad and tragic circumstances that sometimes take away the most-beloved performers, especially when death comes unexpectedly and at a relatively young age.

Whether a legendary singer dies as a result of natural causes, substance abuse, cancer or an auto or plane crash, some of those stars continue to burn as brightly as they did in life, and their songs continue to evoke a keen sense of sadness and regret.

A number of famous C&W singers were taken from us far before their time, and some of them -- such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Johnny Horton and Jim Reeves were gone by the age of 40, and other stars were gone before reaching their 60th birthday.

This article takes a look at some of the great country singers who failed to reach the age of 60, and most of them had sad and tragic demises.

One such tragedy involved the March 5, 1963 death of Patsy Cline, who had traveled to Kansas City two days earlier to perform three shows as part of a benefit for the family of disc jockey Cactus Jack Call, who had recently died in a car accident. Sharing the stage with her were such notables as Dottie West, George Jones, Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins.

West, aware of Cline's fear of flying, tried to talk Patsy into traveling back to Nashville with her by car, but Cline, anxious to return to her family, declined the offer and perished, along with Copas and Hawkins, on the return flight.

Obviously, this is not a complete listing, nor is it intended to be, but here are some capsule summaries of the lives and deaths of those whose voices were forever silenced before their time. And to hear any of the sample music selections, click on the song title.

  • HANK WILLIAMS (died Jan. 1, 1953, heart failure, age 29): The legendary singer-songwriter -- born Hiram King Williams in Butler County, Ala. -- recorded 35 singles that would reach the Billboard Magazine's C&W charts, including 11 that went to No. 1. Without question, he had a lasting impact on 20th Century music, and his songs have been successfully covered by numerous artists. Unfortunately, by his late 20s, he suffered from prescription drug abuse, alcoholism and back pain, and he died in the back seat of a car of heart failure en route to a scheduled concert in Canton, Ohio. Williams had hired college student Charles Carr to drive him to the concert, and during a fuel stop in Oak Hill, W. Va., Carr discovered Williams' unresponsive body, and he notified the station attendant, who reported the death to proper authorities. Williams' first big hit was "Move It On Over" (1947), his first chart-topper was "Lovesick Blues" (1949), and his final charter was "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" (No. 1, posthumously in 1952). MUSIC SAMPLE: "Lovesick Blues" (No. 1 C&W, 1949).
  • PATSY CLINE (died March 5, 1963, plane crash, age 30): Virginia Patterson Hensley was born on Sept. 8, 1932 in Winchester, Va., and even though she had a limited discography, she was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Her nine Billboard C&W charters included two No. 1s: "I Fall To Pieces" (1961) and "She's Got You" (1962), and she charted 13 times on the Billboard Hot 100. The fatal plane crash also took the lives of fellow country singers Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. MUSIC SAMPLE: "Crazy" (No. 2 C&W, No. 9 pop, 1961).
  • JOHNNY HORTON (died Nov. 5, 1960, auto accident, age 35): Born John Gale Horton in Los Angeles, he is most-famous for songs that tell a story -- "saga songs", such as "Battle Of New Orleans" (No. 1 C&W and pop, 1959), "Sink The Bismarck" (No. 3 pop and No. 6 C&W, 1960) and "North To Alaska (No. 1 C&W and No. 4 pop, 1960). His first big hit was the self-penned "Honky Tonk Man" (No. 9 C&W, 1956), and his first C&W chart-topper was "Springtime In Alaska" (1959). His death came at the hands of a drunk truck driver in a head-on collision on a bridge near Milano, Texas, and the singer died en route to a nearby hospital. "MUSIC SAMPLE: "Battle Of New Orleans" (No. 1, 1959).
  • JIM REEVES (died July 31, 1964, plane crash, age 40): The legendary singer-songwriter dubbed "Gentleman Jim" was born in Galloway, Texas, and he had nine No. 1 singles among his 43 Billboard C&W charters, which included many posthumous hits. He was one of the true pioneers of the so-called "Nashville Sound", which blended traditional country-style music with elements of pop music. The member of the Country Music and Texas Country Music Hall of Fame died Reeves died in the crash of the private airplane he was piloting. MUSIC SAMPLE: "He'll Have To Go" (No. 1 C&W for 14 weeks and No. 2 pop, 1960).
  • JOHN DENVER (died Oct. 12, 1997, plane crash, age 53): Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., better known as John Denver, was born in Roswell, N.M., on Dec. 31, 1943, before relocating to Los Angeles in 1964. His career began with a band while attending college in 1962, and he joined the Chad Mitchell Trio three years later. He launched his solo career in 1969, and his first major hit was "Take Me Home Country Roads" (No. 2 pop, No. 50 C&W, 1971). Among his songwriting credits was "Baby, I Hate To Go", which became a No. 1 hit for Peter, Paul & Mary after being retitled "Leaving On A Jet Plane." He met his death in a crash while flying his own plane near Pacific Grove, Calif., and as per his wishes, his cremated ashes were scattered over the Rocky Mountains. MUSIC SAMPLE: "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" (No. 1 C&W and pop, 1975).
  • TAMMY WYNETTE (died April 6, 1998, cardiac arrhythmia, age 55): Later dubbed "The First Lady of Country Music," Virginia Wynette Pugh was born on May 5, 1942, in Tremont, Miss. Her best-known song ("Stand By Your Man") became one of the top hit singles by a woman in the annals of country music. During the late '60s and early '70s, she charted 23 No. 1 C&W singles, and she helped define the role of women in the country genre. From 1969 to 1975, she was married to C&W legend George Jones. MUSIC SAMPLE: "Stand by Your Man" (No. 1 C&W, No. 19 pop, 1968).
  • EDDIE RABBITT (died May 7, 1998, lung cancer, age 56): Edward Thomas Rabbitt was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 26, 1941, and raised in New Jersey before relocating to Nashville in 1968. The musician began as a songwriter in the late '60s, and such compositions as "Kentucky Rain" for Elvis Presley in 1970 and "Pure Love" for Ronnie Milsap in 1974 led to the launching of his own solo singing career. Beginning in the late '70s, he scored with a number of crossover hits, such as "Suspicions" (No. 1 C&W, No. 13 pop, 1979), "Drivin' My Life Away" (No. 1 C&W, No. 5 pop, 1980) and "Step By Step" (No. 1 C&W, No. 5 pop, 1981). MUSIC SAMPLE: "I Love A Rainy Night" (No. 1 C&W and pop, 1980).
  • ROGER MILLER (died Oct. 25, 1992, lung cancer, age 56): After growing up in Oklahoma and serving in the U.S. Army, he began his music career in the late '50s as a songwriter, penning such hits as "Billy Bayou" for Jim Reeves and "Invitation To The Blues" for Ray Price. He is best known for novelty songs such as "Dang Me" (No. 1 C&W and No. 7 pop, 1964) and "Chug-A-Lug" (No. 3 C&W and No. 9 pop, 1964). Probably his most-recognized tune is "King Of The Road" (No. 4 pop and No. 1 C&W and adult contemporary, 1965), exemplary of the Nashville Sound. He was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame. MUSIC SAMPLE: "King of the Road" (No. 1 C&W and No. 4 pop, 1965).
  • MARTY ROBBINS (died Dec. 8, 1982, heart complications, age 57): Martin David Robinson, born in Glendale, Ariz., was unquestionably one of the most successful country singers of all time. The multi-talented performer became a Grand Old Opry regular in 1953, and he later became an accomplished stock car racer. He was one of the first C&W stars to impact the pop charts, and he had more than two dozen recordings make the Billboard Hot 100 pop listings. In addition to No. 1 "El Paso", he had a pair of No. 3 pop singles: "A White Sport Coat" (1957) and "Don't Worry" (1961). MUSIC SAMPLE: "El Paso" (No. 1 C&W and pop, 1959).
  • DOTTIE WEST (died Sept. 4, 1991, auto accident, age 58): Dorothy Marie Marsh, a native of McMinnville, Tenn., became one of America's most-influential and groundbreaking female country singer-songwriters. She earned her first Top 40 single with "Let Me Off at the Corner" in 1963, and the following year, Chet Atkins produced her composition "Here Comes My Baby", which enabled her to become the first female country singer to win a Grammy Award. That, in turn, led to an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. She was involved in a car crash on Aug. 30, 1991, and believing she was only bruised and shaken up, she refused treatment at the scene, but internal injuries led to her death five days later. MUSIC SAMPLE: "Country Sunshine" (No. 2 C&W, No. 37 adult contemporary and No. 49 pop, 1973).
  • CONWAY TWITTY (died June 5, 1993, abdominal aortic aneurysm, age 59): Harold Lloyd Jenkins was born on Sept. 1, 1933 in Friars Point, Miss., and he was raised in Helena, Ark. He began his singing career making demos at Sun Records in Memphis, but his success as a pop-rock artist peaked with the smash single "It's Only Make Believe" in 1958. By the mid-1960s, he switched to the C&W genre full-time, and he had more than three dozen country chart-toppers. His famous stage name emerged in 1957, when he looked at a road map and combined the names of Conway, Ark., and Twitty, Texas. MUSIC SAMPLE: "It's Only Make Believe" (No. 1. 1958).

[You may subscribe to Bill Herald's oldies music columns -- free of charge -- by clicking on "subscribe" near the top of the column, after which you will receive e-mail notification each time a new item is published].

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