Virginia’s Voice

Virginia “Ginny” Patterson Hensley was born in 1932 in Winchester, Virginia. Her father, Sam, was an alcoholic with a short temper. He was often without work. Her mother, Hilda, was, by all accounts, a feisty woman out of necessity. She was afraid of Sam at times but she never let it show. Yelling matches between them were common. Ginny witnessed many arguments between her parents, and, like her mother, developed a feistiness out of necessity.

At four years old, Ginny surprised her family and friends when she won a street fair talent contest with a tap dance routine. Her prize was a new electric lamp. She had never taken dance lessons. No one knew exactly how or when Ginny learned to tap dance. They suspected she copied the moves from her idol, Shirley Temple. Confident in herself after the win, she proclaimed to her mother that she was going to become a dancer when she grew up. Her dreams were dashed when she realized there was no money for dance lessons.

When she was a little older, she joined her parents in the church choir. Singing in the choir was her escape from her miserable home life because her parents never fought in church. On her eighth birthday, Ginny received an old piano. Although piano lessons were too expensive for the family to afford, Ginny learned to play by ear. She told her mother that she was going to be a pianist when she grew up. As with dancing lessons, there was no money for piano lessons.

Finally, Ginny focused on singing because, as her mother noted, “It was the one thing she could do that wasn’t going to cost us.” Listening to the radio was free. Ginny sang nonstop. Family and friends recalled that Ginny sang while walking to and from school, while playing with other children, and pretty much any other time she was awake. They remember that, even as a young girl, she sang pretty good.

When Ginny was thirteen-year-old, she developed a terrible throat infection. Ginny’s throat infection progressed into rheumatic fever. The simple act of breathing became a struggle for Ginny. The lack of oxygen put a strain on her heart. At one point, her heart stopped beating. Doctors revived her and put her in an oxygen tent which forced oxygen into her lungs. Her heart began to beat normally again and her condition slowly improved. Doctors determined Ginny’s illness had left none of the long-term negative effects usually associated with rheumatic fever.

Following her serious illness, Ginny noticed a change in her voice. Before her illness, her voice was pretty but somewhat weak. After her recovery, Ginny’s voice was strong and booming. She compared her voice to that of “The First Lady of Radio,” Kate Smith, an American singer with a powerful voice whose signature tune was Irving Berlin’s patriotic song “God Bless America.”

When Ginny was 15 years old, she requested and was granted an audition for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Ginny and her mother drove through the night and arrived in Nashville before daylight the next morning. With no money for a hotel room, they slept in their car until the time of the audition. Ginny, dressed in her best and flashiest cowgirl regalia, performed well at her audition. Representatives of the Grand Ole Opry were impressed but were afraid to hire such a young girl. They said they would be in touch. Ginny anxiously awaited a letter from the Grand Ole Opry that never came, well, not yet.

Undeterred, Ginny kept performing. In 1952, she joined Bill Peer’s Melody Boys and Girls. It was Peer who suggested the Ginny adopt a more professional sounding stage name. In 1953, Ginny met and married a man named Gerald. Although the marriage only lasted four years, Ginny performed under her married name for the remainder of her life. For her stage name, Ginny used a shortened version of her middle name along with her married name. Ginny only recorded three albums as a solo artist before her untimely death in an airplane crash. Ginny is considered one of the most influential vocalists of the twentieth century. Her three albums contained such hits as “Walking After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” and “She’s Got You.” You and I know Virginia Patterson Hensley as… Patsy Cline.

Source: Margaret Jones, Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 1.