Billie Jo Spears: Country singer who scored her biggest hit with 'Blanket on the Ground'

 

Many artists have a "career record", a song which becomes so well-known that it swamps anything else they do. With Billie Jo Spears, it was her 1975 single, "Blanket on the Ground", a song which suggested putting the romance back into a marriage. "It became controversial," said Spears, "as many of the listeners thought I was singing 'sleep around' instead of 'slip around'. The country fans thought it sounded like a cheating song, and they don't like girls who sing cheating songs." With a few more plays, everyone realised what the song was about and it became an international bestseller.

Spears was born in Beaumont, Texas on 14 January 1937. She was one of six children and her mother worked as both a shipyard welder and a waitress to provide for them. Her sister, Betty, wanted to be a singer and secured a contract through the songwriter Jack Rhodes, who wrote "A Satisfied Mind". "Then she got married and had children," said B J (as she was always addressed), "and I took over. I was 13 and they gave me a children's song." The record, "Too Old for Toys, Too Young for Boys", did moderately well, earning her $2,000.

Despite appearances on the Louisiana Hayride, Spears did not record regularly until she moved to Nashville and signed with United Artists in 1964. She recorded three singles and followed her producer, Kelso Herston, to Capitol Records. She had country hits with "He's Got More Love in His Little Finger" and "Mr Walker, It's All Over". She came to the UK in 1970 with Buck Owens and Tex Ritter as part of the Capitol Country Caravan and developed a love for the UK which never left her. She often thought of settling here – and she did marry her UK coach driver.

Her career was put on hold because of nodules on her vocal cords: "Nodules are less common now because people realise that they can't scream their way through life," she said. "I was singing too high and straining on the high notes. It took six months of total silence to recover. I lowered all my keys and I don't scream anymore."

Spears edged back into the business with records for Brite Star, Cutlass and some disreputable labels. She never discussed these records as she didn't want to give them publicity. She told me, "Everyone involved with them should be behind bars, and some of them are."

In 1974, Spears returned to United Artists, where producer Larry Butler was developing a successful country roster: "Larry Butler rang me at home and told me that the songwriter Roger Bowling had just played him a new song, 'Blanket on the Ground', and I should come and listen to it. Roger played it to me, but I wasn't sure as I hadn't paid attention to the words. When we got into the studio, Larry said we should do 'Blanket on the Ground' first, which was the only one I hadn't learnt."

"Blanket on the Ground" prompted Spears to make other records with a similar theme, notably "What I've Got in Mind" and "'57 Chevrolet". The traditional "Sing Me an Old-Fashioned Song" sold well in the UK, whilst her cover of "Misty Blue" was successful in the US. She also recorded Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive", saying, "It is a country record. I am country. I could never go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers." A single of her blues-soaked cover of "Heartbreak Hotel" was cancelled in 1977 because she did want to exploit Elvis Presley's death.

Spears had hit albums in the UK with Blanket on the Ground (1975), What I've Got in Mind (1976), Everytime I Sing a Love Song (1977), The Billie Jo Spears Singles Album (1979) and Country Girl (1981), but some of her work was not released in the UK, including a duet album with Del Reeves, By Request (1976), and a tribute to her producer, Larry Butler and Friends, with Crystal Gayle and Dottie West. She and Gene Watson recorded duets for the 1980 film Nightkill, but, much to Spears's irritation, the songs were not used.

Among her UK recordings was a duet with Carey Duncan of "I Can Hear Kentucky Calling Me" and an album, B.J. – Billie Jo Spears Today (1983), with her stage band, Owlkatraz, the name referring to her passion for toy owls. Spears performed prolifically in the UK with over 400 concert appearances, but never fulfilled her ambition to record a live album at the Pavilion, Glasgow.

Although past experience should have suggested caution, she became involved with a curious project for Broadland Records in 1990. She recorded her part on several duets and wannabe performers could add their voices for a fee and be considered for a future duets album. She told me in 1994, "The album never got finished and I don't know what happened to the money. It's pathetic and I'm very disappointed."

Emphysema and ischaemic heart disease forced her to cut back on touring, particularly in the US – although she did have a UK tour lined up for 2012. A true ambassador of country music, Spears signed autographs and talked to fans after every appearance. She bought her stage clothes in the UK and refused to wear anything casual. "If I didn't wear gowns," she said, "they'd throw rotten tomatoes."

Spencer Leigh

Billie Jo Spears, country music singer: born Beaumont, Texas 14 January 1937; died Vidor, Texas 14 December 2011.

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