Monday November 21st is a big day in the life of Opry legend and Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard. It was on November 21, 1955 that Jean became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. During tonights show, it was mentioned that she is celebrating her 56th year as an Opry member and she mentioned that she is the current Opry member with the longest consecutive years as an Opry member. November 21st is also Jean's birthday and it is also Jean's wedding anniversary.
Jean was born Ollie Imogene Shepard on November 21, 1933 in Paul's Valley, Oklahoma. She grew up in Oklahoma listening to both the Grand Ole Opry and Bob Wills's radio broadcasts out of Tulsa. Just before the end of World War II her family moved to the Southern California city of Visalia. While in high school, Jean and some of her friends formed the Melody Ranch Girls, with whom who both sang and played upright bass. In 1952, as a result of Hank Thompson's recommendation after hearing her perform, Ken Nelson of Capital Records signed her to his label.
Jean's debut single, on which she was co-billed with steel guitar legend Speedy West, fared poorly. But her second single, recorded May 19, 1953, was a #1 smash hit. That record was "A Dear John Letter," to which Ferlin Husky contributed the recitation part. The duet crossed over to the pop Top Five and established both singers' careers. From that point forward, she recorded one vibrant honky-tonk single after another, many featuring Bill Wood's band out of Bakersfield, California, which included guitarist Buck Owens.
In January 1955 Jean was part of the cast that inaugurated the Ozark Jubilee telecast. But in November that year, coming off successive Top Five hits with "A Satisfied Mind" and Beautiful Lies," she joined the Grand Ole Opry. The following months she recorded "Songs of a Love Affair", which is said to have been the first concept album ever recorded by a female country singer. During the late 1950s, Jean became romantically involved with fellow Opry star Hawkshaw Hawkins. On November 26, 1960, the two were married onstage in Wichita, Kansas. Tragically, Hawkins died in the same 1963 plan crash that killed singers Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas. Devastated, Jean gave up singing for several months. But by the close of the year she had returned to the Opry, and in early 1964 she scored a major comeback hit with "Second Fiddle (to an Old Guitar)." In 1968, she married bluegrass musician Benny Birchfield, who was Roy Orbison's road manager at the time of Orbison's death.
Through the remainder of the 1960s, Jean enjoyed moderate success, both solo and in duets with Ray Pillow. Many of her records continued to feature her spunky intolerance of male behavior. In 1973 she switched labels from Capital to United Artists. She scored an immediate Top Five hit with Bill Anderson's "Slippin Away," but it proved to be her last major success. Like many singers of her generation, she found radio airplay harder to come by. She left United Records in 1977 and that basically ended her recording career.
In 2005, Jean Shepard became the first female singer to reach the 50-year milestone as a Grand Ole Opry member. She also was the first post-World War II female to have a million selling record with "A Dear John Letter."
When Jean found out she was joining the Opry in 1955, she would say later that it was somewhat of a surprise. She remembers being at Nashville's old Andrew Jackson Hotel during the annual Disc Jockey convention with then-Opry manager Jim Denny. As Jean said, "Jim was making some announcements to the DJs and the media, and he said, 'By the way, we would like to welcome the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry, Jean Shepard. Happy birthday, Jean.' And what a thrill."
In 2011, Jean Shepard was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, in what many felt was an honor that should have happened years before. Many people forget that it was Jean in the 1950s that set the stage for Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette and the female singers that would follow. She was probably the only female tonky-tonk singer in country music during that period. And, she always stayed true to her roots. She was outspoken, brash and an independent woman singing songs that women should not have been singing at the time. She is one of the underrated women in the history of country music and I find it sad that many of today's younger fans who see her as the elderly lady on the Opry do not realize what she has accomplished during her career.
Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary to Jean Shepard and congratulations on 56 years of Opry membership.