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
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: Glazier

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This specialist historic buildi...

Recruitment Genius: Office and Customer Services Manager

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small but very busy (and f...

Recruitment Genius: Portfolio Administrator

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has become known a...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer - Midlands

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot