Forgotten Artists – Jeannie C. Riley
I want to tell you all a story about a Harper Valley widowed wife
Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High
Well, her daughter came home one afternoon and didn’t even stop to play
She said mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley PTA
– Tom T. Hall – 1967
Starting out at the top may not be a good thing. After all, there is no place to go but down. For 23 year-old Jeannie C. Riley, the top of the mountain was reached in August 1968, when “Harper Valley PTA” jumped from No. 81 to No. 1 on the Billboard (all-genres) Singles Chart. It subsequently reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart and charted in a number of countries around the world (reaching No. 12 in the UK). Jeannie became the first female country singer to simultaneously top the pop and country charts and she won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and the CMA Single of the Year award.
Born Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson in Stamford, Texas to Oscar Stephenson, an auto mechanic, and Nora Stephenson, a nurse, and raised in Anson, Texas, Jeannie developed a strong love for country music as a young girl. As a teenager, she made her first public performances, appearing with her uncle Johnny Moore at Jones County Jamboree in nearby Truby, Texas. On December 20, 1962, shortly after high school graduation, she married childhood sweetheart Mickey Riley. Uncle Johnny took Jeannie and Mickey with him on one of his trips to Nashville, which intensified her desire to be a star in Nashville. Along the way she received encouragement from Weldon Myrick, a one-time member of the Jones County Jamboree, who had since become one of the Nashville’s leading steel guitar players.
Mickey and Jeannie had their first child, Kim Michelle Riley, on January 11, 1966. In August of that year, she and Mickey packed their belongings and moved to Nashville, where she worked as a secretary at Passkey Music. She made a few demo records along the way (under the name Jean Riley) and issued a single, “What About Them,” which failed to chart. Among the then-unreleased recordings were some demos that were recorded for Aubrey Mayhew’s Little Darlin’ records.
Enter Harper Valley PTA. Veteran country singer Margie Singleton, ex-wife of Shelby Singleton (previously associated with Mercury Records), asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to “Ode To Billie Joe,” which she had recorded the previous year. Ever observant, Tom T. noted the name of Harpeth Valley Elementary School while driving through Bellevue, TN. In short order, he wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” about a fictional confrontation between a young widow, Stella Johnson, and a local PTA group who objected to her clothing, social drinking and friendliness with the town’s gentlemen. Tom T. Hall’s “talking blues man” demo was not quite geared to Margie Singleton’s style, but what Shelby Singleton saw in the song wasn’t quite up Margie’s alley, either. Meanwhile, Jeannie had cut a demo of a song written by Royce Clark called “The Old Town Drunk” about a town drunk whose coat had washed up on the banks of the river and watched his own funeral service, then mocked the townsfolk at the end of the service. Remembering the demo and the singer, Shelby rushed the apprehensive Jeannie into the recording studio to record the song on his newly formed Plantation Records. “Harper Valley PTA” was the first single released on the new label (the Harper Valley PTA album was the first album issued by the label, as well). Jeannie had significant misgivings about recording the song, which she felt was not country enough to establish her as a country singer. She also had misgivings about being paraded about in miniskirts and apparently hasn’t worn one since leaving Plantation.
Jeannie continued to have success after “Harper Valley PTA,” although nothing ever approached the heights of Tom T. Hall’s classic song. Jeannie made her Opry debut later in 1968 and the immediate follow up, “The Girl Most Likely,” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Country charts (it reached No. 1 on the Cashbox Country chart). Virtually all of her Plantation recordings attempted to capitalize on the feisty Harper Valley PTA persona–a persona which was actually alien to her true personality. Through 1971, she continued to record for Plantation records, scoring a number of minor hits, as well as five other Top Ten singles, including “Country Girl,” “Oh, Singer” and “Good Enough to Be Your Wife.” The sudden fame took a toll on her marriage and she and Mickey Riley divorced in 1970.
She left Plantation in 1971 to record for MGM where she was promised more artistic freedom. The four albums she recorded for MGM found her cast as a more traditional country singer. While her chart success was minimal, much of this material was excellent. The two biggest hits at MGM, both from 1972, were “Give Myself A Party” at No. 12 (No. 5 Cashbox) and Good Morning Country Rain” at No. 30, the latter of which was her last top 40 single.
In 1974, Jeannie found religion and turned her attention more toward gospel music, although she recorded some secular music for MCA/Dot thereafter. Jeannie and Mickey remarried and Jeannie’s autobiography, From Harper Valley to the Mountain Top was published in 1980, with a gospel album of the same name issued at that time.
The years after 1980 were difficult for Ms Riley, who was reported as possibly suffering from bipolar disorder or long-term clinical depression. In 1994, Jeannie’s family had her committed to a hospital for evaluation after she fell into a deep depression. She and husband Mickey again divorced. At some point she received the appropriate treatment and pulled her life back together.
There is an active website for Jeannie C. Riley but it does not list any tour dates so I am not sure if she is actively performing. Her daughter, Kim Michelle Riley, recorded an album under the name Riley Coyle in 1993 which featured the song “Country In My Genes,” which Loretta Lynn had some success with a few years later. Jeannie sang with her daughter on one of the tracks on the album. Jeannie also appeared as a guest on the Tommy Cash album Let An Old Racehorse Run in 1994. Both albums were on the Playback label.
Unfortunately, none of Jeannie’s MGM or MCA material has made it to CD. Her website (www.jeanniec.com) has had some of it available in the CD-R format in the past, but that portion of the site is currently inoperative.
The demos that Jeannie recorded for Little Darlin’ have been issued on CD and are available at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. Other sources may also have this album. The Little Darlin’ demos were released on LP in the wake of Harper Valley PTA and also were leased to Capitol Records which released the album under the title of The Price I Pay to Stay. Usually recordings released under these circumstances are not good, but these demos were recorded less than a year before her Harper Valley stardom and are surprisingly good.
There are several good collections of Plantation era material available. Collections on the Collectibles and Varese Sarabande labels have been available and other albums issued abroad may be available as well. If you can find it, the Collectibles disc is the better value with 23 songs on it.
Her last album of secular material appeared in 1991 on the Playback label. This CD has been reissued on a number of discount labels over the years, most recently on the St. Clair/Good Old Country label out of Canada. It is worth picking up just to hear her take on the old Huey Smith song “Rockin’ Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu.”
Jeannie C. Riley may not have had a lasting career as a country music star but she remains one of my personal favorites.
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