In 1968, Harper Valley P.T.A.’ launched a virtually unknown songwriter and an unknown songstress into the country music spotlight.
It was the first single recorded by a woman to hit #1 on Billboard’s country and pop charts. It also won both a Grammy and a CMA award and sold over six million copies.
Who wrote this record-breaking song? Who had the vocal talent to give this song life?
Let’s find out!
Who Originally Wrote Harper Valley P.T.A.?
Thomas Hill was born outside Olive Hill, Kentucky, in 1936.
He received his first guitar as a gift from his dad at age eight and wrote his first song one year later. He performed in a bluegrass band called the Kentucky Travelers as a teen.
After a stint in the Army, he returned home, finding work as a radio DJ in West Virginia. It was during this time Tom married his first wife in 1961.
A gentleman from Nashville came to the station promoting some records. He noticed Thomas’ guitar behind his desk and asked if Tom wrote songs. The man then asked him to sing one. He liked what he heard and took some of Tom’s songs back to Nashville.
NewKeys music picked up one of Tom’s songs, recorded by Jimmy C. Newman, “DJ for a Day,” hit the Top 10. After another song reached the Top 10, Tom moved to Nashville in 1964. He became a songwriter for NewKeys, often writing up to a half dozen songs a day.
Becoming The Storyteller
At the suggestion of Jimmy Key, Tom added the middle initial T to his name. Key thought it would help Tom stand out from other country singers that used the same name. It was during this time Tom was dubbed “The Storyteller.”
In 1965 Tom met Dixie Hall at a BMI (Broadcast Music Inc) awards banquet. Dixie received a co-songwriting distinction for “Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a Gun.” They would marry in 1968 and spend 46 years together. Their bluegrass collaborations allowed them to win honors almost every year from 2002 to 2015.
Tom became a member of Grand Ole Opry in 1971. He wrote many songs over the years and recorded his own albums. Over a dozen songs reached number one throughout his career.
The Storyteller passed away in his home in Franklin, Tennessee, in August 2021.
What Was Hall’s Creative Process for the Hit Song?
As one of ten children, Tom and his siblings would spend their days hanging around town. Once when Tom was downtown, he heard about a local woman ostracized by the local P.T.A. He was fascinated by this “socially disenfranchised lady” standing up to the local P.T.A. members.
When he began to write Harper Valley P.T.A. he recalled the writings of one of his favorite authors, Sinclair Lewis. One of Lewis’ novels, Elmer Gantry, was about hypocrisy. It was then that Tom incorporated the novel into the storyline.
Who First Recorded Harper Valley P.T.A.?
Jeannie C. Riley was born in a small town called Anson, Texas, in 1945. She fell in love with country music as a young woman and dreamed of becoming a big star someday. She took shorthand in high school so she could quickly write down lyrics she heard on the radio and practice them.
Growing up, Jeannie’s uncle Johnny Moore played guitar in a country music band, and he had been to Nashville. He arranged for Jeannie to sing at the Jones County Jamboree, and that night, the teen didn’t miss a beat or forget a word.
Jeannie’s boyfriend Mickey Riley returned from active duty in the navy at the start of her senior year. Soon after, the two wed. While saving money to move to Nashville, they became pregnant. In early 1966 their daughter was born.
Confidence Leads to Success
Soon after, a man who had heard her sing at the Jamboree sent Jeannie a letter in the mail. He talked of moving to Nashville and working for Bill Anderson, who discovered a housewife from Ohio. He wrote that he thought Jeannie could do just as well as Connie Smith, who had already been nominated for several awards and won a few.
That was all she needed to hear to reinforce her dream.
Uncle Johnny invited Jeannie and Mickey on a trip to Nashville, and he took her straight to the Grand Ole Opry. Here she met Doyle Wilburn of The Wilburn Brothers. The next day she was recording demos and having her photo taken. Jeannie could hardly believe it was happening.
After returning to Anson, there was talk that Jeannie may join The Wilburn Brothers on tour in Germany. She never received a call, though.
Late in 1966, Mickey had Jeannie pack her things, and they left for Nashville. While working as a secretary for Passkey Records, Jeannie would record demos on the side.
Former Mercury Records producer Shelby Singleton had heard Jeannie’s voice on a demo. He started his own label and worked with her to record Harper Valley P.T.A.
In the 70s, Jeannie became a born-again Christian and switched from country to gospel music. These works didn’t have the same success as Harper Valley P.T.A. but Jeannie was happy.
Was there a Harper Valley P.T.A movie?
George Edwards and Barry Schneider joined to write the screenplay for a movie adaptation. Released to drive-in theaters in 1978, Harper Valley P.T.A. starred Barbara Eden as Mrs. Johnson. And finally, Mrs. Johnson had a first name, Stella.
Then, from January 1981 to August 1982, Barbara Eden brought Mrs. Johnson back to the screen. This time, on NBC television.
Hear Our Roar
In a time when women were fighting for their voice and rights, Harper Valley P.T.A. was ahead of its time. Some considered the song scandalous. But it rose to number one on multiple charts in many countries.
Harper Valley P.T.A. broke records and catapulted two immense talents into celebrity status. It will forever be remembered as a song of empowerment.