Kitty Wells, also known as the legendary “queen of country music,” died at the age of 92 on Monday.
Wells went down in history as the first female singer to reach the top of the country charts with her 1952 song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honkey Tonk Angels.”
Rockingham resident Coleman O’Neal, 86, remembers Kitty Wells before she landed the title of “queen.”
“She didn’t change when she became a big star,” said O’Neal. “What you saw was what you got. She was always a very nice person to be around.”
Wells was the woman who paved the way for other females to rise in the country music industry. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.
O’Neal, no stranger to fame himself, worked in various facets of the music industry — including as a DJ personality on radio shows, radio ad sales and promotions.
He’s interviewed names like Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline.
“Back in those days I had an office in Nashville next to Willie Nelson’s office — before he was real big,” said O’Neal. “I didn’t think anything about it. I was just a mill worker, really.”
He might have been a mill worker, but he spent enough time working in the radio industry to get an “in” with Tree Publishing.
“They used to pay for me to push their records on the air,” he said. “So, one day I told them I had a couple of songs I’d like them to hear. I sold two songs at that first meeting.”
His 1963 title “Mr. Heartache Move On” hit number eight on the U.S. country music charts, and he made 12 to 14 other records that also received accolades.
“I was really surprised when my songs took off,” he said.
He even worked with Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry, and wrote some commercials for her.
“Writing is what I always really wanted to do. I never really saw myself as much of a singer,” he said.
He finally grew tired of traveling and the music industry, and decided to settle back down in his hometown. He couldn’t escape his honky-tonk connections though, because he ended up doing another show with Kitty Wells — right here in Richmond County.
“The VFW contacted her and asked her to come perform, and help them raise some money,” said O’Neal. “She did it too — that’s the type of person she was.”
O’Neal said Wells’ stardom didn’t make her thumb her nose at small town performances, especially those that would benefit veterans.
“She performed over at Monroe Avenue School,” he said.
She also made a special guest appearance on O’Neal’s WKDX radio show, where she was joined by community leaders Richard Condor and G.R. Kindley who presented her with a key to the city.
“Oh, she thought that was great,” said O’Neal.
Since O’Neal’s wife Frances passed away in 1993, he said he hasn’t been much interested in making music.
“I spend a lot of my time delivering Meals on Wheels to seniors these days,” he said. “But I do still host a Saturday morning radio show on WKDX.”
— Staff Writer Kelli Easterling can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 18, or by email at email@example.com.