Duos are prevalent in Country music, but there are legendary early duo pioneers that paved the way for artists to come. Among those were The Davis Sisters, two young women who were best friends and sisters at heart.
Mary Frances Penick, who was born in Dry Ridge, Kentucky in 1931, met Betty Jack Davis while they were students at Dixie Heights High School in Edgewood, Kentucky. Aspiring performers, the friends began singing together at school.
“We were singing together every day at lunch,” Penick recalled in an early interview. “Then we started spending the night together at each other’s houses and got to be just like real sisters. I even moved in with the Davis family for a while. Betty Jack used to say to me, ‘Skeeter, I never heard anything like you! God sent you to me because, he knew I wouldn’t do it by myself.'”
Penick soon began performing under the first name “Skeeter,” a nickname her father gave her that is slang for mosquito, and using the last name “Davis,” though she was not related to Betty Jack.
While still in high school, the teenagers signed up to compete in an amateur radio contest at a Cincinnati radio station, WCPO-TV. The Davis Sisters duo placed high in the competition, and the radio station offered them a regular job performing in a noon variety show. Since they were still attending classes, they had to go to the station during their lunch break to perform on air. They were paid $14.28 a week, and the gig gave them experience. Soon they were recognized performers in the area. They were also regulars on the Lexington radio station, WLEX. The pair performed on the Midmorning Jamboree, a live broadcast in a popular record store.
In Skeeter’s 1993 autobiography, Bus Fare to Kentucky: The Autobiography of Skeeter Davis, she said on a trip to see the Grand Ole Opry long before they were famous, she and Betty Jack convinced a stage manager to allow them backstage, where they met Hank Williams and Chet Atkins.
The girls believed that new opportunities awaited them in Detroit, Michigan. After high school graduation in 1949, The Davis Sisters packed up and moved to the Motor City long before it became known for its “Motown” music. They performed in a show called Barnyard Frolics at local radio station WJR. Their first demo recordings were made in Detroit, where they also recorded a 1953 single release called “Jealous Love.”
RCA Victor producer Steve Sholes heard their demos and offered the pair a recording contract, prompting a move to Nashville.
The Davis Sisters debuted their first single for RCA, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” in 1953. The crossover hit rose to No. 1 on Country charts and made the top 20 in the Pop genre, catapulting the Davis Sisters into the limelight. It was the girls’ biggest success as a duo and has been ranked as No. 65 on the “Top 100 Country Singles of All Time,: according to Billboard historian Joel Whitburn.
The Davis Sisters possessed the rare ability to sound refined while performing Country ballads while at the same time becoming pioneers of the Rockabilly genre with their 1953 song, “Rock-a-Bye Boogie.”
In the midst of growing success, tragedy hit on Aug. 1, 1953, when The Davis Sisters were in a horrendous car crash near Cincinnati, Ohio. A motorist fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the vehicle in which they were riding while returning from a West Virginia performance. Skeeter, who was 22 at the time, sustained severe head injuries, and Betty Jack lost her life at age 21.
In Sheeter’s autobiography she revealed that she felt after the devastating accident she had been manipulated, illegally sedated and brainwashed by Betty Jack’s mother, Ollie, with whom she lived while recuperating. Ollie Davis allegedly pressured Skeeter to recreate The Davis Sisters with Betty Jack’s younger sister, Georgia, to which Skeeter reluctantly agreed. In 1954 they launched the new duo and held a tribute performance for Betty Jack at the Grand Ole Opry.
Between 1954 and 1956, Skeeter and Georgia released a total of nine singles for RCA as The Davis Sisters, which they recorded in New York City and Chicago, and toured the United States as a part of the RCA Caravan of the Stars alongside Minnie Pearl, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Chet Atkins and others. Their singles where less successful and did not surge to the top of the charts has had been the case with Betty Jack as Skeeter’s partner.
In her autobiography Skeeter remembered that she became friends with a young performer named Elvis Presley while traveling with Georgia in a regional tour alongside Hank Snow, The Carter Sisters and others in 1955.
The duo disbanded in 1956, and Skeeter soon launched a successful solo music career, gaining commercial and critical stardom in the Country and Pop genres. She toured with Ernest Tubb.
She co-wrote and recorded “Set Him Free” for RCA, produced by Chet Atkins, which earned her a Grammy Award nomination for Most Promising Female Vocalist. Over the years Grammy nominations for “What Does It Take (To Keep a Man Like You Satisfied),” “He Says the Same Things to Me” and “Sun Glasses” would bring her total Grammy nominations to four.
Atkins worked with Skeeter as guitarist on all her early solo recordings and even multi-tracked her voice for harmony vocals to resemble the sound of The Davis Sisters in hits such as “Am I that Easy to Forget.”
Some of Skeeter’s top solo hits, most of which charted on both the Country and Pop charts, included “Lost to a Geisha Girl,” “Homebreaker,” “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” “My Last Date with You,” “Where I Ought to Be,” “Optimistic,” “I Can’t Stay Mad at You” “I’m Saving My Love,” “ Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” “There’s a Fool Born Every Minute” and “I Can’t Believe That It’s All Over.”
“I’m a Lover (Not a Fighter)” and “A Dear John Letter” where successful duets with Bobby Bare.
“The End of the World” was a crossover hit on the Country, Pop, Adult Contemporary and Rhythm and Blues charts that would be awarded a Gold Record for selling more than a million copies.
In addition to her vocal success, Skeeter, who became a Grand Ole Opry member in 1959, was a prolific songwriter, penning more than 70 songs and earning BMI awards for “Set Him Free” and “My Last Date With You.”
She toured abroad and performed regularly until the breast cancer she had been fighting for several years ended her life at age 72 in 2004. Skeeter made her final appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in 2002, where she performed her signature song, “The End of the World.”
This copyrighted story by Sasha Dunavant was originally published in Country Reunion Magazine and Country Reunion News.