MISS PATSY CLINE may seem to be the focus of this article, but she’s not—at least, not primarily. Primarily it’s about hyperbole in describing the accomplishments of popular stars, even when the artist doesn’t need any embellishment to shine among the other stars. Fans of any field of artistic or athletic endeavor are given to excessive bragging about their faves, whether it’s rock bands or comic book artists or baseball players.
But what is said in a friendly argument among friends over a few pints looks absurd if not insulting when stated by a writer whose opinions are given weight by being published in a book or posted on a legitimate website.
This braggadocio seems ubiquitous on the Internet, where fan-writers with no training (or even home studying) in common journalistic practices seem like “real” experts when posted on well designed website.
I wouldn’t trade my copy of Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits for all the albums by all the other female artists listed below.
The problem is that over-the-top claims often have the opposite effect, angering those of us who like facts to back up bragging. To some of us, hyperbole comes across as desperate.
And so this article, where I use Patsy Cline as an example because I happened across some hyperbolic statements about her on Wikipedia.
Merriam-Webster defines the transitive verb form of exaggerate as “to enlarge beyond bounds or the truth” or to “overstate.” The MW lexicographers actually provide a better definition for English Language Learners: “to think of or describe something as larger or greater than it really is.”
Hyperbole is a step above mere exaggeration, meaning “extravagant exaggeration.” As an example, Merriam-Webster gives “mile-high ice-cream cones.”
Patsy Cline’s first album (Decca DL-8611) was first issued in 1957 with five song titles in black print in the lower right corner of the front cover. As this was Patsy’s first album and she was essentially unknown, it did not sell well. Consequently, this is a rather rare record!
Hyperbolic exaggeration in celebrity culture
As we are constantly reminded, we now live in a Culture of Celebrity, where everything and anything celebs do, or even discuss doing—or where a celebrity “journalist” implies a celeb might one day someday maybe just might think about doing—is discussed and celebrated by fans and followers.
Claims of greatness are bestowed daily on even the most mediocre talents or modest accomplishments: in books and magazines, on television and radio, and now on the Internet. And in the milieu of the worldwide web, once a claim is made—no matter how easily disproved—it becomes like unto fact. And others fall in line and repeat it, placing it in endless circulation among millions and millions of websites and blogs.
In popular music, every fan or writer’s personal favorite album is “one of the greatest albums ever made.” Every artist outdoes every other artist in sales, popularity, acclaim, etc. Here are a few claims so often repeated one would think they must be true! 1
• ABBA sold more records than the Beatles!
• Michael Jackson sold more records than Elvis!
The first claim was popular in the 1970s when it appeared that everything ABBA touched turned to gold everywhere in the world! While they did sell a helluvalot of records, their tally isn’t close to that of the Fab Four.
The second is still bantered about by MJ’s fans, who even though it’s not close to being accurate. (Especially given that Presley’s total will never be known due to the hilariously inept bookkeeping of RCA Victor into the 1980s!) 2
And a statement that I recently happened across in Wikipedia claims that Patsy Cline was one of the most “influential,” “successful,” and “acclaimed” vocalists of the 20th century. 3
Despite the hype, the market for LP albums outside of the US and the UK was not large. Only a few artists released albums in the ’60s that consistently sold a million copies each: the Beatles and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass were the most prominent. But everything changed in the ’70s when multi-million selling albums became common. One group that reaped enormous benefits from the expanding global market was ABBA, here on their first Swedish album (Polar, 1974) known by their first names. ABBA sold more albums in any one year in that decade than Patsy Cline sold during her life!
Why pick on Patsy Cline?
To repeat myself, I am not picking on Patsy Cline here. Nor am I in any way demeaning her incredible talent or her accomplishments. In fact, I have been a Patsy Cline fan since I inherited several of her 45s as part of the legendary Aunt Judy Collection when I was 12-years-old. (But that’s a story for a rainy night and a few hot-buttered rums).
I’m using Patsy because of her entry on Wikipedia, where she is lauded as “one of the most influential, successful, and acclaimed vocalists of the 20th century.” But first, here is her career in a nutshell:
In September 1954, Patsy Cline signed with tiny 4-Star Records, who leased her to Decca. In six years with 4-Star, she released sixteen singles, only one of which made any real noise.
In early 1957, her fifth single was a double-sided hit: Walkin’ After Midnight reached #2 on Billboard’s Country & Western chart. The flip-side, A Poor Man’s Roses, made it to #14 on the same survey. Walkin’ After Midnight was also a pop hit, peaking at #12 on Billboard’s Top 100.
Over the next three years, 4-Star was unable to follow-up that hit, and none of her sides made any national survey. 4
In late 1960, Cline’s contract with 4-Star ended and she signed with Decca. Her producer, Owen Bradley, was then able to hook her up with Nashville’s best songwriters, and changed her style from honky-tonk to the pop-oriented Nashville Sound. Her career took off!
• In 1961, I Fall To Pieces was a #1 C&W hit and a major hit on the pop charts. Crazy only reached #2 on the country chart, but was her biggest pop hit, peaking at #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
• In 1962, She’s Got You was her second #1 C&W hit and another major pop hit. When I Get Thru With You reached #10, and So Wrong reached #14 on the country chart.
• In 1963, Leavin’ On Your Mind reached #8 on the country chart. On March 5, 1963, Patsy Cline died in an airplane crash.
• In 1963-1964, three posthumously released singles were Top 10 hits on the C&W charts.
After the success of her single Walking After Midnight, a blurb was added to the cover of PATSY CLINE (Decca DL-8611) to call attention to the hit. Sales picked up and copies of this album are much easier to find.
That’s all there is
That was it: seven hits in nine years. When looked at that way, such modest success rarely spelled “S-T-A-R” in the C&W music field. But if we look at it another way—six hits in her last two years—then it’s fair to say that at the time of her death, she was indeed a star in the country field. As the concept of the “superstar” didn’t really exist then, that’s all we can really say.
Those few hits belie her popularity, which grew exponentially in the wake of her death, as did her importance. And she influenced the next few generations of C&W singers. Her reputation grew, and in 1973 she became the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. 5
Patsy’s third album, Sentimentally Yours (Decca DL-4282/DL-74282), was issued in mid-1962. It was the last album released in her lifetime. While there was an outpouring of grief for her loss—especially in the country music field—country albums did not sell in large numbers in the early ’60s, so this album sold modestly at the time.
Wikipedia and hyperbole
To paraphrase me: For those of fans and writers with some semblance of balance, the presence of excessive praise in a description of a record, book, or movie can be a turn-off. When I read that someone or something is “the greatest this” or “the biggest that,” I reflexively take an opposing position! For example, the opening paragraph in Wikipedia’s entry on Patsy Cline reads:
“Patsy Cline was an American country music singer. Part of the early 1960s Nashville Sound, Cline successfully crossed over to pop music and was one of the most influential, successful and acclaimed vocalists of the 20th century. She died at the age of 30 in a multiple-fatality crash of the private plane of her manager, Randy Hughes.”
There are seven basic statements of fact in that paragraph:
• She was a country music singer.
• She was part of the Nashville Sound.
• She had cross-over hits on the pop charts.
• She was one of the most influential vocalists of the 20th century.
• She was one of the most successful vocalists of the 20th century.
• She was one of the most acclaimed vocalists of the 20th century.
• She died at the age of 30.
Statements a, b, c, and g are undeniably true, while d, e, and f are open to all manner of argument. They require discussion and research. It was those three claims that caught my attention and caused me to reflexively take an opposing position.
And look things up.
And write this article.
By the time that Barbra Streisand made the enormously successful movie Funny Girl in 1968, she had already established herself as one of the most successful recording artists in the world, who sold out all her personal appearances, and had made it on Broadway. And she was just getting started! Despite being #1 in RIAA certified album sales in the US, her global sales don’t come close to those of the female stars that have followed her since the 1980s.
One of the “most successful” artists?
In almost every field of endeavor, there are ways of measuring success with some sense of objectively. In the recording business, the ultimate sign of success is record sales. As a performing artist, there are ticket sales. Was Patsy one of the most successful artists of all time based on either? 6
Wikipedia lists the Highest-Certified Music Artists in the United States. This list is based solely on sales of albums certified for Gold and Platinum Record Awards by the RIAA. It does not include albums that did not qualify for those awards, nor does it include EP albums or singles. Here are the top ten female singers on this list. 7
Barbra Streisand: 69,000,000
Mariah Carey: 64,000,000
Whitney Houston: 57,000,000
Celine Dion: 50,000,000
Shania Twain: 48,000,000
Reba McIntyre: 41,000,000
Britney Spears: 34,000,000
Linda Ronstadt: 30,000,000
As already discussed above, the first 6-7 years of Cline’s career were ones of futility as a recording artist. Things only happened in a big way for a brief period prior to her death. That is, she didn’t sell a lot of records while she was alive. Posthumous sales have been better:
• two albums have received a Gold Record Award
• four albums have received a Platinum Record Award
• one album has received a Diamond Record Award
These seven records account for 15,000,000 sales certified by the RIAA, which doesn’t make her close to the Top 10 list above.
Of course, sales of pre-recorded music have grown exponentially around the world since Cline’s death. If she’d had her career in the 1990s, she would have sold considerably more records!
But she didn’t, and we are left to deal with the facts as they are.
You may want to argue that the standard for success in Patsy’s day was singles sales, and you’d be correct. Unfortunately, not one of her hits received an RIAA Gold Record Award for domestic sales. According to Joseph Murrells’ Million Selling Records From The 1900s To The 1980s, none of them even sold a million copies globally.
I couldn’t find a reasonable source for an estimation of her sales of 78 and 45 rpm singles, but it may not have even reached 10,000,000 worldwide.
Just as record sales have exploded, so have ticket sales for personal appearances. I’m not going to hunt those numbers down, but the results would be similar. During the late 1950s and early ’60s, touring was a dirty, grueling business that produced a modest income for even the bigger draws in the business.
Today, artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga can have millions of people pay to see them in one twelve-month period. Today, a single tour can generate millions of dollars in profit. Needless to say, the comparisons between Cline’s day and today are meaningless. Still, it’s all we’ve got that can be considered somewhat “objective.”
So, using record sales and tickets sales as reasonably objective figures of success for a commercial recording artist, is it accurate to say that Patsy Cline is one of the most successful artists of the 20th century?
In 1985, Madonna co-starred in a Desperately Seeking Susan, vehicle that should have made Rosanna Arquette a star. Instead, Madonna stole everyone’s thunder with a performance that looked like she had been acting for years. Few could have predicted that she would become one of the most successful, influential, and acclaimed recording artists in history—or that she would never make another worthwhile movie.
One of the “most influential” artists?
Once upon a time, we could argue that Patsy’s way with a song—simple, direct, honest with just the right touch of emotionalism—was influential on other C&W and pop singers. That influence was important for singers of the 1960s and ’70s.
But as both fields have been dominated for decades by female singers with styles that are anything but simple, direct, or honest—and for whom ersatz over-emoting is the core of their approach to a song—Cline’s influence can be argued to be all but non-existent today. So she was once, but she hasn’t been for a while and may never be again.
She did have a huge influence on the way that women in country music handled their careers and their professional and personal comportment, but that’s another story.
So then, is it accurate to say that Patsy Cline one of the most influential artists of the 20th century?
Perhaps the quintessential over-emoting pop diva, Celine Dion is certainly one of the most acclaimed singers of the past three decades. In 2003-2007, she headlined A New Day at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Paradise, Nevada. A fusion of song, performance art, stagecraft, and state-of-the-art technology, it became the most successful residency show of all time, grossing upwards of $400,000,000. Ms Dion’s initial contract was for three years, for which she received approximately $100 million-plus 50% of the profits!
One of the “most acclaimed” artists?
Back to Wikipedia, who piles on some statistics with more braggadocio to establish Cline’s status:
“Millions of her records have sold since her death. She won awards and accolades, causing many to view her as an icon at the level of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Ten years after her death, in 1973, she became the first female solo artist inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1999, she was voted number 11 on VH1’s special, The 100 Greatest Women in Rock and Roll, by members and artists of the rock industry. In 2002, country music artists and industry members voted her Number One on Country Music Television’s The 40 Greatest Women of Country Music and ranked 46th in the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time issue of Rolling Stone magazine.”
Broken down into plain statements, that reads like this:
1. Millions of her records have sold since her death.
2. She won awards.
3. Many view her on the level of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.
4. She was the first female solo artist in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
5. She continues to win awards.
Let’s address each point:
1. Patsy Cline has sold 15,000,000-20,000,000 albums in the 54 years since her death. This is the equivalent of one best-selling album by today’s biggest artists.
2. During Cline’s career, the apparatus for universal acclamation simply did not exist. The awards given her during her lifetime were relatively minor notices from trade publications:
1957 Most Promising Female Country Vocalist (Cash Box)
1957 Most Programmed Up and Coming Female C&W Artist (Cash Box)
1957 Most Promising Female Artist (Billboard C&W Disc Jockey Poll)
1957 Best New Singer (Country & Western Jamboree)
1961 Favorite Female C&W Artist (Billboard)
1962 Most Programmed Female C&W Vocalist (Cash Box)
1962 Star of the Year Award (Music Reporter)
1962 Favorite Female C&W Artist of the Year (Billboard)
1963 Most Programmed Female C&W Artist (Cash Box)
1963 Favorite Female Country Artist of the Year (Billboard)
There is no comparison with all the sources for public and industry proclamation that have existed for the past few decades.
In the 21st century, any successful artist has a shot at more publicity and its attendant accolades and rewards with a single record than an artist of Cline’s caliber has access to in her entire career. It’s even hard to argue that she was one of the most acclaimed vocalists of the 20th century even while she was alive.
3. No doubt there are “many” who view her on the level of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Of course, they’d all be members of her family or her fan club.
4. Her election into the Country Music Hall of Fame was deserved, but being chosen ahead of Kitty Wells (“The Queen of Country Music”) never made much sense.
5. Her selection by VH1, CMT, and Rolling Stone are deserved and thankfully indicate that appreciation of Patsy Cline continues to this day.
So then, is it accurate to say that Patsy Cline is one of the most acclaimed artists of the 20th century?
Released in 1967, Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits (Decca DL-4854/DL74854) sold reasonably well in the country markets but didn’t make a dent on the national pop albums charts. By 2005, it had officially sold 10,000,000 copies in the US and was awarded an RIAA Diamond Record Award. It holds the dubious distinction of being the biggest selling album never to have found a spot on Billboard’s best-selling LP chart!
Patsy Cline needs no hyperbole
Patsy Cline was a great singer who left an important legacy of recorded music behind that will bring joy to listeners as long as human singing is appreciated. She is not the only popular artist of the pre-global market for entertainment to have her accomplishments dwarfed by modern technology and media.
And there is no need to make hyperbolic and debatable claims about her accomplishments.
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page consists of wax figures of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash with Patsy Cline courtesy of Madame Tussauds Nashville. The figure of Patsy is currently on display at the Patsy Cline Museum in Nashville. Founder Bill Miller brags, “What is absolutely incredible about Madame Tussauds’ figure is that our patrons will be able to touch, snap photos and experience an exact likeness of the icon. We are honored to work with their team to create this unique offering.”
1 According to the US Office of Strategic Services, one of Hitler’s primary rules was that people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one, and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”
2 And Garth Brooks and Led Zeppelin have not sold more albums than Elvis in the US—they’ve just had more album sales certified by the RIAA.
3 The statements attributed to Wikipedia were found on the Patsy Cline entry in February 2017, when I first started writing this. They may have changed or been deleted since.
4 So, under her 4-Star contract, Patsy completed fifty-one masters in eighteen sessions in five years. Her first session under her Decca contract took place in November 1960. Over the next fifteen months, she did sixteen sessions that resulted in fifty-one masters! For detailed information on Cline’s sessions and record releases, refer to G.E. Hewitt’s Patsy Cline Discography.
5 While it’s easy to believe that Cline would have continued having hit after hit on the country charts, it’s just as easy to believe that the Top 40 pop hits would have become less frequent—especially after the British Invasion of early 1964. But we’ll never know.
6 Sales of pre-recorded music on “hard copies” (records, tapes and compact discs) were the standard of success for the hundred years before downloading changed everything.
7 Wikipedia has another list that tallies global record sales, “List of best-selling music artists.” It includes 101 artists. Patsy doesn’t even come close to making this list.