Detroit discography of the Davis Sisters, Betty Jack and Skeeter

The Davis Sisters, Skeeter and Betty Jack, 1953 promotional portrait

The Davis Sisters, Skeeter (left) and Betty Jack. Promotional portrait [5]

Sixty years ago, two young singers from Kentucky topped the country music charts with their first record, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” for the RCA Victor label. [1] Betty Jack Davis (lead) and friend Mary Frances “Skeeter” Penick (harmony) had moved to Detroit in 1952 at the invitation of bandleader Casey Clark. They performed as the Davis Sisters with Clark’s band on WJR radio’s “Big Barn Frolic,” before Clark and group left the show, later that year. The Davis Sisters continued at the WJR barn dance, performing with other local musicians such as Roy Hall, Chuck Hatfield, and the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers through the early months of 1953. By May, the Davis Sisters signed a recording contract with RCA Victor and moved back home.

According to Skeeter Davis, she and Betty Jack made several recordings as demonstrations for Dorothy and Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. To her surprise, the Browns issued records of these (see below). [2] In addition, a WJR engineer cut radio broadcast transcriptions of the Davis Sisters on disc, and sent several to Skeeter Davis following Betty Jack’s death August 2, 1953. [3] Working with Skeeter Davis, in 1993 Bear Family Records of Germany issued a double compact disc set, complete with the Detroit and RCA Victor recordings. [4]

Based on our research and interviews, here is a list of the musicians involved in the Davis Sisters’ Detroit recordings, which we believe is more accurate than the Bear Family discography included in their compact disc set. The stories of these musicians (as well as Casey Clark) are included in the forthcoming book “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies.”

More “that” you’ll ever know

1952 newspaper ad for the "Big Barn Frolic"We also present a sample from a home recording of a radio broadcast of “I’ll Never Be Free,” a C&W hit by Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr when the Davis Sisters performed it on the “Big Barn Frolic” in 1953. As far as we know, the Davis Sisters did not record the song in a studio.

 

Late 1952, Dairy Workers Hall, 15840 Second Avenue, Highland Park, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; Roy Hall: piano; Bud White: rhythm guitar; Harvey “Flash” Griner: bass; Myrl “Rusty” McDonald: fiddle
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
“Jambalaya”
“Just When I Needed You”
“Tomorrow’s Just Another Day”
[WJR radio broadcast transcriptions]

Late 1952, possibly WJR radio studio, 3011 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; Roy Hall: piano; Bud White: rhythm guitar; Harvey “Flash” Griner: bass
“Tomorrow I’ll Cry”

Late 1952 or early 1953, possibly WJR radio studio, 3011 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; unknown: guitar
“Takin’ Time Out For Tears”

Listen to: Davis Sisters – Crying Steel Guitar Waltz

Early 1953, Dairy Workers Hall, 15840 Second Avenue, Highland Park, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; Chuck Hatfield: steel guitar; Betty Lee “Boots” Gilbert: bass; Al Allen: electric guitar; Myrl “Rusty” McDonald: fiddle
“Crying Steel Guitar Waltz”
“Rag Mop” (vocal trio, with Boots Gilbert singing lead)"Sorrow And Pain" by the Davis Sisters, Fortune 174-A 45rpm record label
“Your Cheatin’ Heart”
[WJR radio broadcast transcriptions]

Early 1953, Fortune Records, 11629 Linwood Street, Detroit, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; Roy Hall: piano; Leon Benson: rhythm guitar; Cliff Southers: steel guitar
“Jealous Love”
[Issued on Fortune 170, backed with “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” by Roy Hall. “Jealous Love” also appeared on 4-Star 1630, backed with “Firecracker Stomp” by Jimmie Lane (not a Detroit artist)]

Early 1953, Fortune Records, 11629 Linwood Street, Detroit, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; Chuck Hatfield: steel guitar; possibly Ezra Cline: bass; Paul Williams: rhythm guitar; Curly Ray Cline: fiddle; Al Allen: electric guitar
“Heartbreak Ahead” (Undubbed Version)
[Issued on Fortune 175, backed with “Steel Wool” by Chuck Hatfield and his Treble-Aires]

Listen to: Davis Sisters – I’ll Never Be Free

Early 1953, Fortune Records, 11629 Linwood Street, Detroit, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; Chuck Hatfield: steel guitar; Betty Lee “Boots” Gilbert: bass; Dorothy “Dee” Cardis: rhythm guitar; Victor Cardis: fiddle; Al Allen: electric guitar
“Kaw-Liga”
“Sorrow And Pain”
[Both songs issued on Fortune 174.]

The Davis Sisters, Skeeter and Betty Jack. Snapshot ca. 1952, with microphone.

Skeeter (left) and Betty Jack, the Davis Sisters. [5]

Early 1953, unknown studio (possibly United Sound Systems), Detroit, Michigan
Betty Jack Davis: vocal; Mary Frances “Skeeter Davis” Penick: vocal; Chuck Hatfield: steel guitar; Betty Lee “Boots” Gilbert: bass; Dorothy “Dee” Cardis: rhythm guitar; Victor Cardis: fiddle; Al Allen: electric guitar
“Sorrow And Pain” (Fast Version)
“You’re Gone” (Swinging Version)

Postscript

A couple of Detroit musicians and fans have stated the Davis Sisters recorded “I Forgot More” in Detroit. A copy of the song pressed on a Detroit label (such as Fortune Records) remains elusive. Perhaps a demonstration record was made in Detroit, before the girls cut the song in Nashville at their first session for RCA Victor.

 

Notes

  1. “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” backed with “Rock-A-Bye Boogie” by the Davis Sisters (RCA-Victor 5345, 1953)
  2. Skeeter Davis. Bus Fare to Kentucky, the Autobiography of Skeeter Davis (Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Pub. Group, 1993)
  3. After Betty Jack’s death, Skeeter continued the Davis Sisters act with Betty Jack’s older sister Georgie.
  4. Davis Sisters Memories. Bear Family BCD15722BH, 1993. Compact disc.
  5. Photos from “The Singing Sweethearts – Story of the Davis Sisters” Hoedown magazine. Artist Publications, Inc. Cincinnati, Ohio. (Oct. 1953. Vol. 1, No. 2) 20, 24

10 Comments to "Detroit discography of the Davis Sisters, Betty Jack and Skeeter"

  • Larry L. Stout
    May 3, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    Thanks for this on the Davis Sisters. I am going to post your website on the Miss Skeeter Davis Facebook page so other fans can view it.
    Interested in the 1953 Hoedown magazine article. Any change you could download the article for us. This would be one of the first (if not the first) on their career.

    • May 3, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

      Glad to be of service, Larry, and thanks for sharing on your Facebook page. I wrote about many of these musicians, including the Davis Sisters, in the upcoming book “Detroit Country Music.” The Hoedown article is a fascinating piece, and mentions the name or nickname of a man who travelled with BJ and Skeeter to New York City – someone who Skeeter didn’t write about in her autobiography. Perhaps it didn’t seem “proper” to present a story of two young Southern women traveling without a man to escort them in NYC in 1953. I’ll see what I can do to share it with you.

      • Larry L. Stout
        May 3, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

        Craig:
        After finding your website, I found the Hoedown issue for sale on Amazon and ordered it. So before you go to the trouble to post it for me, I will see if I get the same magazine within the next couple weeks. Thanks, again. I have posted your site on the Skeeter Facebook and hope you get some more readers. I am looking forward to future stories on your site. Thanks again.

        • May 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

          Glad to hear you found the magazine, Larry. Enjoy!

  • Randy Bridges
    May 4, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    Loved the article on The Davis Sisters. Larry & I are a part of the Skeeter Davis Facebook page. Great Work.

    • May 5, 2013 at 10:47 am #

      Thank you! Although their career was brief, the Davis Sisters’ recordings certainly deserve a place among the best country music made during that era.

  • June 9, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    Elvis may have been the first billy culturally but not musically. Clearly The Davis Sisters rank as major precursors and originators, with consistency, of rock-a-billy. Yet, even after all these years their music still sounds fresh, fun, and innovative: it still measures up with what the most commercial country and rock-a-billy have become, hence its staying power.

    • June 9, 2013 at 11:39 am #

      I agree that the Davis Sisters vocal performances on records sound timeless, and the “live” recordings from 60 years ago still sound electrifying. They certainly had something that pull on my heart strings whenever I listen to them.

  • Randy Bridges
    July 9, 2016 at 6:18 pm #

    I have read an online article on Fortune Records that they pressed an Lp of the Davis Sisters’ tracks under the name of Skeeter Davis. None of my fellow Skeeter collectors have never seen this LP….

    • July 10, 2016 at 6:40 pm #

      I have never seen a copy of that album, too.

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