August 4, 2013 | by Tom Buckley
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” – How Texan Jeannie C. Riley Lashed Out Against Conservative Hypocrisy and Then Became Typecast

Before the week was out, Nashville’s pressing plants were shipping singles to stores as quickly as they could produce them, and the following week, on August 24, the song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 81. The next week, the song jumped all the way to No. 7, the biggest one-week leap in the pop chart’s history.

I want to tell you all a story ’bout 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 P.T.A.”

The note said, “Mrs. Johnson, you’re wearing your dresses way too high
It’s reported you’ve been drinking and a-runnin’ ’round with men and going wild
And we don’t believe you ought to be bringing up your little girl this way”
It was signed by the secretary, Harper Valley P.T.A.

Well, it happened that the P.T.A. was gonna meet that very afternoon
They were sure surprised when Mrs. Johnson wore her mini-skirt into the room
And as she walked up to the blackboard, I still recall the words she had to say
She said, “I’d like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley P.T.A.”

Well, there’s Bobby Taylor sittin’ there and seven times he’s asked me for a date
Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lot of ice whenever he’s away
And Mr. Baker, can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town?
And shouldn’t widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?

Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath, you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
Then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites

No I wouldn’t put you on because it really did, it happened just this way
The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.
The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.

Tom T. Hall recalls being in a celebratory mood that day in August, 1968, when he heard the news at Tootsie’s. That means it must have been a Friday, because on other days, he and his buddies were more subdued since they were drinking on a tab. But Friday was payday — Hall got a $50 check each week as a songwriter for Newkeys Music in Nashville — and the gang tended to cut loose some.

Little did Hall know how much he’d soon be celebrating.

At 6 p.m. that night, after she’d left her $41-a-week secretarial job at Passkey Music, a little-known, 22-year-old singer from Anson, Texas — Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson — walked into the Columbia studio hesitant about recording with some of Nashville’s top session people and producer Shelby Singleton.  The song wasn’t country enough, she thought, but if she was going to make it in Nashville, she couldn’t turn down offers like this, even though she was tired of dealing with smaller labels — and Plantation Records was surely that. She’d been walking Music Row, demo in hand, for months, and she was here now only because Singleton had heard her recording of a novelty song, “The Old Town Drunk,” and figured she’d be a good fit for a new Tom T. Hall composition.

Jeannie-C-Riley-Harper-Valley-PTAJeanne Stephenson had wanted to be a country singer since childhood, listening to the Grand Ole Opry on radio and playing her parents’ country records of Hank Snow and Lefty Frizell. She’d sung in her uncle’s band at the Jones County Jamboree in Truby, Texas, and after high school, she’d married and moved to Nashville with her high school sweetheart, Mickey Riley.  She recorded a forgettable single for Little Darlin’ records entitled “What About Them” under the name Jean Riley, then settled on Jeannie C. Riley as her stage name only after rejecting her manager’s suggestion: Rhonda Renae. She preferred just Jeannie Riley, but Nashville already had a Jeannie Shepherd and a Jeannie Pruitt, so to distinguish herself and avoid confusion — and to appease her manager — she added the middle initial.

She could have called herself anything, and Tom T. Hall still wouldn’t have heard of her. That was probably just as well, because she didn’t want to record his song anyway. “It was a miserable demo tape,” Riley recalls. “It sounded like some soft re-do of ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ I had no interest in it at all. And I was disappointed that I’d given in and agreed to record it. I was mad.”

As Hall and his buddies were carousing at Tootsie’s, someone from the publishing house stopped by to tell him they were cutting one of his songs. He was still relatively new to the business and couldn’t yet afford a car, so he high-tailed it to the studio on foot, beer in hand. “There were no wristbands in those days,” Hall chuckles. “No badges. No cell phones. Just me and my beer. I walked right on in.”

What he heard was Riley’s second take — the sassy take where she angrily punched out the consonants and socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A. “Son,” Hall’s publisher said when the take was finished, “I believe you have yourself a hit.” Hall’s dad put it more succinctly upon first hearing the song: “That’ll preach,” he insisted.

Soon, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” — along with the careers of both its writer and singer — would take off faster than a small-town rumor.

“My great American novel turned into a song,” Hall now says of his masterfully constructed tale of small-town hypocrisy.  At the height of the women’s movement, his heroic portrayal of a mini-skirted mama calling out local leadership struck a nerve.

“I grew up in a town of 1,300 people,” Hall says of Olive Hill, Kentucky, “but we had our aristocracy — the folks who were the leaders of the town, those we were inclined to believe were more intelligent, more moral. They’d talk about people — how ugly some of them were. But I thought those people were beautiful.” The song was based on a true incident from Hall’s childhood — “a tremendous act of heroism,” he says. “Once I got the first line written, I was home free. It takes a lot of guts to say, ‘I want to tell you all a story.’ But that fit. I knew the characters, the nature of their indiscretions.”

Riley didn’t feel so comfortable. “There’s an element in the song I don’t like,” she says. “I wasn’t about small-town sass. I had more in common with the daughter who brings the note home than the mother in the mini-skirt.” That identification might help explain why, in the second take, Riley unexpectedly changed the last line, surprising everyone in the studio, its writer included. “I’d written the song without identifying the speaker,” Hall says. “We were careful as writers to use gender-neutral narrators so the songs would have a longer shelf life; that way, anyone could sing them. But Jeannie changed ‘that mama’ to ‘my mama,’ which revealed the speaker as female.” That’s not all Riley changed. Capitalizing on one of the nation’s catch phrases — “Sock it to me!” — she replaced “gave it to” with “socked it to,” resulting in a line that would soon become just as ubiquitous: “The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.”

“She was so excited the night she recorded that song,” Riley’s mother, Nora Stephenson, remembers, “that she called me back in Texas and woke me up. ‘Mama,’ she said, ‘I’ve just recorded the No. 1 song in the nation. You’re gonna hear it in a few days.’ And I said, ‘Oh Jeannie, I don’t want you to be disappointed again.’  She wanted so badly to be another Loretta Lynn — someone loved by men and women alike. She wanted to touch people’s hearts.”

The song’s ascension began almost immediately after the recording session was completed — two hours later, in fact, at about 10 p.m. On a hunch, Riley took a tape of the song over to WSM Radio, where Ralph Emery hosted the evening show. He played the song on-air for the first time, and the response was overwhelming. By Saturday afternoon, other Nashville stations had the song in rotation, while Singleton and Riley were back at Plantation Records mastering and pressing promos to mail to stations around the country. Before the week was out, Nashville’s pressing plants were shipping singles to stores as quickly as they could produce them, and the following week, on August 24, the song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 81. The next week, the song jumped all the way to No. 7, the biggest one-week leap in the pop chart’s history.

And — best of all for Riley — “Harper Valley” had also moved into the No. 1 spot on the Billboard country chart, accomplishing for the singer what she’d always hoped a hit record would do: make her a country star. Then, on September 21, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” overtook the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as the No. 1 song in America, marking the first time a female vocalist had topped both the country and pop charts simultaneously.

“I was living on a farm about 15 miles outside of Nashville,” Hall recalls. “I remember driving into the city one day, and every station I tuned to was playing ‘Harper Valley.’” During one 24-hour period, an Ohio pop station is said to have played the song 26 times — itself noteworthy, but all the more so considering that the station’s play list — reflecting the psychedelic era — was dominated by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly and the Doors. The popularity of the song only grew as the effervescent Riley charmed television audiences nationwide with appearances on network icons like The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was a bona fide sensation.

“I was between flights in Chicago,” Hall remembers, laughing, “and I stopped into an airport bar where a woman was playing piano and singing. I ordered a drink, looked over at her, and she said, ‘Don’t ask me to sing “Harper Valley.”’ She hadn’t any idea who I was. I just said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t need to hear that one.’”

The song took home a Grammy that year for Best Female Vocal Performance, and won Single Of The Year honors from the Country Music Association. For her Harper Valley P.T.A. LP, Riley became the first female country artist to receive a gold album, and she was the recipient of the first gold tape cartridge award for album sales in excess of four million. Ultimately, the song sold more than 10-million copies worldwide and spawned a 1978 movie starring Barbara Eden, and a short-lived television series shortly thereafter — one of only two series in television history based on a hit record (The Alvin Show, inspired by “The Chipmunk Song,” was the other). More than a decade after the song’s release, in 1980, a study commissioned by a television studio found that “Harper Valley” had a 98-percent recognition factor among Americans.

“Jeannie loved that song and what it did for her,” Riley’s mother, Nora Stephenson, says. “It got her out of the kitchen and made her a household name. We only wish she could have been herself and not what everyone else wanted her to be.”

“When I hear the song now, “Riley says, “there’s a mixed feeling of sitting down and crying, and standing up and putting my hand over my heart.” Though she never wore skirts above the knee before the success of “Harper Valley,” Riley’s manager and producers now played up her sassy image by dressing her exclusively in mini-skirts and boots, and encouraging her to exploit her sexuality. Her mother remembers a distraught Riley exclaiming, “I‘m the little girl telling the story. I don’t know why they’re dressing me like this.” For the Grammy Awards, Riley designed an elaborate French gown, “a beautiful, Marie Antoinette-type dress,” she says, “layer upon layer until it reached the ground.” When she went to pick the gown up two hours before show time, however, she was horrified to discover that it had been raised to just below the panty line — on the instructions of her producer. “She looked like an ostrich with those long legs and layered top,” her mother recalls. “She came home that night and just cried. She felt like no one accepted her, that no one even knew her.”

To make matters worse, “Harper Valley” seemed to generate as much controversy as sales. “It was banned in some towns,” Riley says. “Can you believe that? Compared to what they’re playing on the radio today, it’s like a nursery rhyme.” The song galvanized P.T.A. groups across the country: offended by the song’s unflattering depiction of some of its members, they successfully petitioned stations in cities like Los Angeles to remove “Harper Valley” from play lists. One newspaper, in its lead editorial, condemned the song as an unconscionable diatribe against one of the country’s most revered institutions. “That song,” ranted the Buffalo Insighter, “has done for the P.T.A. what Godzilla did for downtown Tokyo and the Boston strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.”  (Not so, actually. Riley was later awarded an honorary lifetime membership by the national P.T.A., which claimed she’d done more to increase membership than any publicity campaign.)

But the worst fallout from the success of “Harper Valley” was the typecasting that occurred the moment the song zoomed up the charts. “All anyone wanted me to record was another ‘Harper Valley,’” Riley says. “You know, pointing fingers at people. They wouldn’t even listen to my other music.” Though she recorded five top-ten country songs in her career, she never again had a pop hit.

Hall, meanwhile, became a successful performer in his own right, charting more than 20 top-ten country hits, winning Grammy and Country Music Association awards, and earning the nickname “The Storyteller” for his ability to spin a tale, often about the underdog biting back. He added the middle initial to his stage name once he started recording, though he never recorded “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and he never really got to know Jeannie C. Riley.

“We’d see each other occasionally in passing,” he says, “and she’d say ‘Thanks a lot,’ and I’d say, ‘Thanks a lot.’”

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