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Jeannie C. Riley

Harper Valley P.T.A.

Listener appreciation day at radio station WENO in Madison, Tennessee, 1967: the station laid on food and called in favors to get some entertainment. Tom T. Hall, newly signed to Mercury Records, was there as were Leon Ashley and his wife, Margie Singleton, joint owners of Ashley Records in nearby Hendersonville. As the food was served, Margie Singleton asked Hall to write a song along the lines of Ode To Billie Joe. Driving south of Nashville, a sign saying Harpeth Valley Utility District triggered a memory of a woman in Hall's home town who had taken on the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) for their indiscretions. He didn't see Harper Valley PTA as a sequel or prequel to Billie Joe, but saw both as musical adaptations of Erskine Caldwell-type stories. “I wrote it sitting at my red checkered tablecloth,” Hall wrote later. “I don't recall that it took more than an hour or so, but I had the idea for twenty years.” Some of the rhymes were sloppy (…wife/high, …again/gin, etc.) but the story was compelling.

He called Margie Singleton but she was out on tour, so he took the song to his publisher, Jimmy Key, who asked him to play it to Billy Grammer. According to Hall, Grammer took the song home and played it for his kids, who told him it was implausible. Grammer said he'd record it if he could change it, but Hall refused. Meanwhile, Leon Ashley handed the song to Alice Joy, the wife of Texas dee-jay-songwriter Neal Merritt, who'd written May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose. This was probably in 1967 because Harper Valley was copyrighted that year. Somehow, Margie’s ex-husband, Shelby Singleton, heard Joy's recording. It sat in his desk for six months, he said.

Singleton had only been in business for himself for a little over a year, focusing on R&B. Soon after relocating to Nashville in May 1968, he branched into country with a new imprint, Plantation. Dee-jay Paul Perry brought Jeannie C. Riley to Shelby's attention. In the two years she'd been in Nashville she'd recorded for Little Darlin' Records, and landed a job as a secretary as Passkey Music. Singleton decided that she had the feistiness to make Harper Valley work, so he booked a session at Columbia. It's part of Nashville folklore that he recorded the song after Riley got off work. Jerry Kennedy, who played Dobro on the session, says they recorded at 6PM on Thursday July 25 but the consensus is 6PM on Friday. Singleton's then-wife, Barbara, changed Hall's original concluding words from “that's the day my mama put down the Harper Valley PTA” to “That's the day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA.” Rowan& Martin's Laugh-In was big at the time, and “sock it to me” was one of their trademark lines (some say that Margie Singleton recorded the song before Jeannie C., but Margie used the “socked it to…” line, so that’s unlikely).

Jeannie C. strutted through the words with Kennedy echoing every line. The session was over by 9 or 10PM, but the musicians, who'd been working since 10AM, stuck around to hear the Harper Valley song again. Singleton tested his hunch that he was onto something by taking an acetate to WSM's late night dee-jay, Ralph Emery. Over that weekend, Singleton serviced it by Air Express to every country station. “The first guy to play it was Dick Kent at WMAK in Knoxville,” Shelby told Walt Trott. Kennedy had spent the weekend in nearby Gatlinburg and by the time he drove back on Monday, he was hearing Harper Valley on the radio. “I sat in the office,” Singleton told Trott, “and my sales manager, Colonel Jim Wilson, totaled it up to where I had personally taken orders one day for 900,000 copies.” Harper Valley cracked the country and pop charts on August 24 and reached #1 on the pop charts on September 21 and the country charts one week later. It was a career moment for all involved. Hall would never write a bigger song, nor would Riley record one. Singleton sold 7 million copies of the single and another 5 million LPs, 8-tracks, and cassettes. He plowed the profits into building a studio and buying Sun Records, but never scored another major hit. Jerry Kennedy made $91 in session fees.

 - Colins Escott -

Various Country & Western Hit Parade 1968

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Art-Nr.: CDCR656

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(2013/Charly) 58 tracks. The Plantation recordings 1968-70. Hardcover Digi-Book. Her first five albums pus a non album b-side. Ten hit singles including the US No.1 'Harper Valley P.T.A.' as featured in 'Mad Men' Season 6.

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