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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?