Patti Page, the Oklahoma-born pop singer whose gossamer voice on “The Tennessee Waltz,” “The Doggie in the Window” and other 1950s hits offered a soothing counterpart to the revolutionary new sound of rock ‘n’ roll, died New Year’s Day in Encinitas, Calif., where she’d lived for several decades. She was 85.
No cause was announced, but her longtime personal manager, Michael Glynn, said she had been suffering from a heart ailment and lung disease.
Page helped bring country music to a broader audience in the late 1940s and early 1950s with smooth, elegantly produced recordings epitomized by “The Tennessee Waltz,” the simply expressed and achingly emotional tale of a woman who loses her sweetheart to an old friend at a dance: “I introduced her to my loved one, and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.”
It spent 13 weeks at No. 1 in Billboard in 1950, becoming one of the biggest hits of all time and selling more than 6 million copies, according to Joel Whitburn’s “Pop Memories 1890-1954.” She landed nearly 100 records on the Billboard singles chart from 1948 through 1970, also including “(How Much Is) The Doggie in the Window,” “Old Cape Cod,” “Allegheny Moon,” and, in her final Top 10 hit, the title song from the 1965 film “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.”
Following a lead established by Tennessee singer Eddy Arnold in the late 1940s, Page was able to reach beyond rural Southern audiences with recordings that betrayed no trace of her native Oklahoma twang and replaced steel guitars, fiddles and other traditional country instrumentation with a muted trumpet and orchestral violins as accompaniment.
According to Page’s entry in the Contemporary Musicians reference work, “In the decade immediately following World War II but preceding the flowering of rock and roll, a set of star vocalists rose to the top of popular music, displacing the big swing bands that listeners and dancers had favored during the war era. This was really the point of origin for the music industry as we know it today: Record-label executives wrested the power in the industry from the old publishing firms and carefully cultivated the careers of singing stars, assiduously managing their public images. One of the very biggest of these stars was Patti Page.”
While her elegant voice and easy-listening arrangements often recalled the golden age of big band singers of the 1930s and ’40s, she embraced new multitrack technology that allowed producers to layer her voice. She often not only sang the leads but provided her own harmonic accompaniment.
She was so popular that she became the only star to host TV shows on each of the three major broadcast networks in the 1950s, including “The Patti Page Show” on ABC.
The singer, who was born Clara Ann Fowler on Nov. 8, 1927, in Claremore, Okla., once said that music provided her with her own form of therapy.
“What I like about singing is that, for me, it’s a substitute for the psychiatrist’s couch,” she said. “I can tell it all in song: pathos, gladness, love, joy, unhappiness. Each song, you’re telling a story and acting.”
She was one of eight girls and three boys in the Fowler family, which moved when she was an infant about 30 miles southwest to Tulsa, where young Clara found work at radio station KTUL on a show sponsored by the Page Milk Co. Another singer using the name Patti Page left the show, so the name was given to Fowler, who came to be called “The Singing Rage — Patti Page.”
Musician Jack Rael heard her on the radio while he was visiting Tulsa and was impressed enough to call the station and inquire about her. He quit his job to become Page’s manager, securing work for her in Chicago and landing her a recording contract with Mercury Records, which released her first charting single, “Confess,” in 1948, a record that reached No. 12.
It was with “Confess” that she, Rael and Mercury producer Mitch Miller chose to have her record all the vocal parts rather than spending more money to hire other singers. They liked the result, and given the song’s success, they continued with the approach. Her 1950 hit “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” was listed on the label of the 45 rpm single as “The Patti Page Quartet” and “Voices by Patti Page, Patti Page, Patti Page, Patti Page.”
She first hit the Top 10 in May 1950 with “I Don’t Care if the Sun Don’t Shine,” and shortly thereafter scored her first No. 1 hit, “All My Love,” a pop hit based on the melody of Ravel’s “Bolero.” Three months later she was back at the top of the charts with “The Tennessee Waltz.”
One key to her success at Mercury was Miller, a classically trained oboist who in the 1950s became the host of one of the most popular TV shows and series of recordings of the era, “Sing Along With Mitch.”
Miller believed that country music could be marketed successfully to mainstream listeners if the songs were sung by classy pop singers, a point he proved with Page’s “The Tennessee Waltz” and, shortly thereafter, a recording of one of Hank Williams’ best-known songs, “Cold, Cold Heart,” by rising singer Tony Bennett.
Page’s song became a huge national hit almost by accident. It was the B side of a holiday-themed single, “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” that Mercury Records executives asked her to record. But disc jockeys and listeners responded quickly to the song on the other side, a bit of serendipity that led to the title of the jukebox musical about her career, “Flipside — The Patti Page Story.”
That show was staged in December at the Roxy Theatre in New York, and also has had runs in her native Oklahoma and in Florida, and was named outstanding musical for its production early last year at the Kennedy Center National Theater Festival.
In the 1970s and ’80s she recorded mostly country music, received the Academy of Country Music’s Pioneer Award in 1980 and was elected to the board of the Country Music Association.
She placed more than a dozen minor hits on the country charts during that time, and when she was asked by Billboard about her latter-day success, she responded: “A lot of people ask me how it feels to be back. And I tell them I’ve never left — that they’ve just not been around to see me.”
In 1997 she performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall in New York and recorded “Patti Page Live at Carnegie Hall — The 50th Anniversary Concert,” which earned Page her first Grammy Award, for traditional pop vocal performance. She was scheduled to receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in February.
Page, who was married twice, is survived by her son, Daniel O’Curran; daughter, Kathleen Ginn; sister, Peggy Layton;, 14 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Times staff writer Marisa Gerber contributed to this report.