by Kevin Burton
In 1981 Dolly Parton hit number one on both the country and pop charts with the song “9 to 5.”
But which female solo artist was the first to hit those two heights, 13 years before that?
Hint: It’s her birthday today.
The song in question was country to the core. It was played and sung that way. But it had the unmistakable whiff of the rock and roll mentality as it skewered the hypocrisy of the local establishment.
From the song came a movie in 1976 and a TV series in the early 80s. Another hint: Barbara Eden starred in both of those.
This singer did not have a career with anything close to the staying power of Parton’s. But she was briefly about as hot as you can get.
The artist was born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson 76 years ago today. As a teenager she married Mickey Riley, according to Wikipedia. At 23, under the name Jeannie C. Riley, she released “Harper Valley PTA” on Plantation Records.
You know the song I’m sure. It’s about a widow with modern, late 60s sensibilities living in a conservative rural area, raising the ire and the blood pressure of the locals by wearing her dresses “way too high.”
The local PTA sends her a disapproving letter, delivered by her daughter no less. Her reaction/revenge is to burst into a board meeting and reveal in detail, the sins of some of her tormenters.
It was a song very much in tune with its times. One line “This is just a little Peyton place” makes reference to a television show about a corrupt town with a lot of secrets.
The song’s final line, which sends it soaring over the moon, was a last-minute addition. The line is “the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA.”
“Sock it to me” was a catchphrase of the day made widely popular by NBC’s hit comedy series “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In.”
According to Shelby Singleton, producer of Riley’s record, this line was changed at the last minute, at his wife’s suggestion.
Riley nailed the line and the line in turn nailed the late 60s zeitgeist.
Both Riley and her debut song were overnight sensations. She won the Grammy for best female country vocal performance and Harper Valley PTA was the Country Music Association’s song of the year.
“Riley also became one of the few country artists ever nominated in the major pop Grammy categories of “Best New Artist” and “Record of the Year,” according to Wikipedia.
Harper Valley PTA sold more than 5.5 million copies worldwide and was awarded a gold record by R.I.A.A. just four weeks after its release. The album of the same name sold more than one million units to gain a further gold disc for Riley.
“The song was a phenomenon which led to Riley making country music history in 1969 as the first female vocalist to have her own major network variety special, Harper Valley U.S.A., which she hosted along with Jerry Reed and which featured performances by Mel Tillis and the song’s writer, Tom T. Hall,” according to Wikipedia.
Hall, said he wrote the song after witnessing a similar scenario growing up in Olive Hill Kentucky. “In the mid-1940s the mother of one of Hall’s classmates had drawn the ire of local school board members for her modern ways, and the school was taking out their frustrations on her daughter,” reads the Wikipedia entry. “The mother gave a verbal tongue-lashing at the school, an iconoclastic move that was unheard of at the time.”
Riley had five more top ten country hits between 1968 and 1971 but never again dented the pop top 40.
“In 1984 Riley recorded a sequel song, “Return to Harper Valley,” also written by hall, according to Wikipedia. That song failed to chart.
“In the sequel, Riley sings as Mrs. Johnson who is now a grandmother. She observes that some townsfolk conquered their vices while others did not.”
Her later years have been characterized by divorce and sometimes severe depression. But she became a born-again Christian in the mid-1970s, so she has much to look forward to.