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Harper Valley PTA, the country hit that displaced The Beatles


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Harper Valley PTA is a country song written by Tom T. Hall that was a major international hit single for country singer Jeannie C. Riley in 1968. Riley's record sold over six million copies as a single. The song made Riley the first woman to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the U.S. Hot Country Singles charts with the same song.


This song sent a huge shockwave through country music in the 60's! The song is about this kickass woman who makes these hypocrites look at themselves before they judge other people. It's just so cool! If you haven't heard, here you have the lyrics and the link to watch it on YouTube


Harper Valley P.T.A., as recorded by Jeannie C. Riley, written by Tom T. Hall


I wanna tell you all a story 'bout a Harper Valley widowed wife

Who had a teenage daughter who attended Harper Valley Junior High

Well her daughter came home one afternoon and didn't even stop to play

She said mom I got a note here from the Harper Valley P.T.A.


The note said Misses Johnson you're wearing your dresses way too high

It's reported you've been drinking

And a running round with men and going wild

And we don't believe you ought to be a bringing up

Your little girl this way

It was signed by the secretary Harper Valley P.T.A.


Well it happened that the P.T.A. was gonna meet that very afternoon

They were sure surprised when Misses Johnson

Wore her miniskirt into the room

And as she walked up to the blackboard

I can still recall the words she had to say

She said I'd like to address this meeting of the Harper Valley P.T.A. 


Well there's Bobby Taylor sitting there

And seven times he's asked me for a date

Misses Taylor sure seems to use a lot of ice whenever he's away

And Mister Baker can you tell us why your

Secretary had to leave this town

And shouldn't widow Jones be told to keep

Her window shades all pulled completely down


Well Mister Harper couldn't be here

Cause he stayed to long at Kelly's Bar again

And if you smell Shirley Thompson's breath

You'll find she's had a little nip of gin

Then you have the nerve to tell me you think

that as a mother I'm not fit

Well this is just a little Peyton Place

And you're all Harper Valley hypocrites 


No I wouldn't put you on because

It really did it happened just this way

The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A. 

The day my Mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.




This country-and-western standard is so much a start-to-finish narrative that it actually starts off "I want to tell you all a story…", and it inspired a film and a spin-off TV series. The song tells the story of Stella Johnson, a widowed mother of a teenage girl, who becomes outraged when one afternoon her daughter brings home a note from her junior high school's PTA decrying Mrs. Johnson's supposedly scandalous behavior by small-town standards. According to the PTA she is setting a bad example for her daughter; they think that she is a little too liberal and liberated for them, so they are making things tough for her and her daughter.


In response, Mrs. Johnson attends the next PTA meeting (being held that same afternoon), wearing a miniskirt, to the surprise of the PTA members. She shows up to call out every member by name and publicly reveal their cheatin', drinkin', sneakin'-around ways, exposing episodes of misbehavior and indiscretion on the part of several members of the PTA, concluding with the line "this is just a little Peyton Place, and you're all Harper Valley hypocrites." Riley then reveals, in the big finish, that this "really… happened just this way / The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA."


The song makes two references to short hemlines ("you've been wearing your dresses way too high"; "wore her miniskirt into the room") in reference to the miniskirt and the minidress, which had been gaining popularity in the four years since they were first introduced.


The expression, "This is just a little Peyton Place..." is a reference to the television show based on the 1956 novel by Grace Metalious, and  the 1957 film of the same name stared by Lana turner and Hope Lange, wherein a small town hides scandal and moral hypocrisy behind a tranquil facade. The show, then in the top 20 of Nielsen ratings, was in its fourth season when "Harper Valley PTA" was released.


In the final line of the song, the singer reveals herself as Mrs. Johnson's daughter, with the line: "The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley PTA", referring to the popular phrase of that period "sock it to me".

Strangely enough, after the song became a hit, such country luminaries as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Billie Jo Spears all recorded cover versions, indicating that the exact same thing "really" happened to their mamas, too.


Songwriter Tom T. Hall, is also singer, instrumentalist, novelist, and short-story writer. He has written 11 No. 1 hit songs, with 26 more that reached the Top 10, including international pop crossover smash "Harper Valley PTA" and the hit "I Love", which reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. He became known to fans as "The Storyteller," thanks to his storytelling skills in his songwriting. Hall's big songwriting break came in 1963 and since then he has written songs for dozens of country stars, including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Alan Jackson, and Bobby Bare. "Harper Valley PTA," recorded in 1968 was one of his earliest successful songwriting ventures. Precisely, Harper Valley PTA is the production that threw songwriter Tom T. Hall into the spotlight. The song became a major, international hit, No. 1 in Canada and Australia, among Top 20 in the U.K. (No. 12) and has sold more than 6 million copies. “Harper Valley PTA” also made Riley the first woman to land at No. 1 on both the Billboard Hot Country Singles and Hot 100 charts with the same song — something that no other female artist would do until 1981 (Dolly Parton‘s “9 to 5?).


Harper Valley PTA shows off Hall’s mastery of translating keen observations into compelling lyrics and music and that’s no accident. The now-famous songwriter had planned on making a career as a journalist or novelist, but then “Harper Valley PTA” won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance and the CMA Award for Single of the Year.


When asked what inspired him to write this song, Hall told: "The story is a true story. I didn’t make the story up; I chose the story to make a statement, but I changed the names to protect the innocent. There were 10 kids in our family. We’d get up in the morning, and my mother and father would get bored with us running around, and we’d go terrorize the neighbors up and down this little road we lived on — after we had done our chores, of course. I was just hanging around downtown when I was about nine years old and heard the story and got to know this lady. I was fascinated by her grit. To see this very insignificant, socially disenfranchised lady — a single mother — who was willing to march down to the local aristocracy read them the riot act, so to speak, was fascinating. I wrote the song 30 years later; that song was my novel. I had been reading Sinclair Lewis. As a young man, I read Lewis’ novels Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, which is about hypocrisy; Babbitt is, of course, about the social structure of the small town. So, being a big Sinclair Lewis fan, when I wrote “Harper Valley,” I incorporated elements of Elmer Gantry into the song”.


I grew up in a town of 1,300 people,” Hall says of Olive Hill, Kentucky, “but we had our aristocracy — the folks who were the leaders of the town, those we were inclined to believe were more intelligent, more moral. They’d talk about people — how ugly some of them were. But I thought those people were beautiful.”


Hall later stated that his inspiration for the song came when one day he was passing by the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, not far from his then-home in Franklin. He liked the sound of the name and decided to use a similar place name in the song he was to write, though the song is about Olive Hill, Kentucky, where Hall grew up.


Jeanne Carolyn Stephenson grew up ashamed of her West Texas farm family’s poverty. Her father, Oscar, picked his own cotton; her mother, Nora, a preacher’s daughter, wore feed sack dresses. Bedridden at 10 with rheumatic fever, Jeannie used to tune in the Grand Ole Opry and she vowed to become a country star, and rich. At 16, she and an uncle became a smash at the monthly Jones County Jamboree in the Truby, Texas schoolhouse. At 18, she wed Mickey Riley, who worked at a gas station, and two years later had a daughter, Kim. Then her uncle got a gig in Nashville; the Rileys went along, and decided to cut their future in the country music capital where she landed a $41-a-week secretarial job at record firm Passkey Music.


In early August 1968, at 6 p.m. after she’d left job, she walked into the Columbia studio hesitant about recording with some of Nashville’s top session people and producer Shelby Singleton.  The song, written by a then-unknown song-factory scribe named Tom T. Hall, wasn’t country enough, she thought, but if she was going to make it in Nashville, she couldn’t turn down offers like this, even though she was tired of dealing with smaller labels — and Plantation Records was surely that. She’d been walking Music Row, demo in hand, for months, and she was here now only because Singleton had heard her recording of a novelty song, “The Old Town Drunk,” and figured she’d be a good fit for a new Tom T. Hall composition. She already recorded a forgettable single for Little Darlin’ records entitled “What About Them” under the name Jean Riley, then settled on Jeannie C. Riley as her stage name only after rejecting her manager’s suggestion: Rhonda Renae. She preferred just Jeannie Riley, but Nashville already had a Jeannie Shepherd and a Jeannie Pruitt, so to distinguish herself and avoid confusion — and to appease her manager — she added the middle initial. She could have called herself anything, and Tom T. Hall still wouldn’t have heard of her.


Originally Hall wrote the song for country singer Margie Singleton who asked him to write a song similar to Bobby Gentry’s Grammy-winning hit “Ode to Billie Jo”, which she had covered the previous year. The melody is quite similar as that of the Gentry song but seemingly Gentry was never given any credit by Hall.

Jeannie Riley didn’t want to record his song anyway. “It was a miserable demo tape,” Riley recalls. “It sounded like some soft re-do of ‘Ode to Billie Joe.’ I had no interest in it at all. And I was disappointed that I’d given in and agreed to record it. I was mad.”


Tom T. Hall recalls being in a celebratory mood that day in  August, 1968, when he heard the news at Tootsie’s. It was Friday, payday, and Hall got a $50 check as a songwriter for Newkeys Music in Nashville. He and his buddies were carousing at Tootsie’s when someone from the publishing house stopped by to tell him they were cutting one of his songs. He was still relatively new to the business and couldn’t yet afford a car, so he high-tailed it to the studio on foot, beer in hand. “There were no wristbands in those days,” Hall chuckles. “No badges. No cell phones. Just me and my beer. I walked right on in.


What he heard was Riley’s second take — the sassy take where she angrily punched out the consonants and socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A. “Son,” Hall’s publisher said when the take was finished, “I believe you have yourself a hit.” Hall’s dad put it more succinctly upon first hearing the song: “That’ll preach” he insisted.


Soon, Harper Valley P.T.A. — along with the careers of both its writer and singer — would take off faster than a small-town rumor.


My great American novel turned into a song” Hall now says of his masterfully constructed tale of small-town hypocrisy.  At the height of the women’s movement, his heroic portrayal of a mini-skirted mama calling out local leadership struck a nerve.


Riley didn’t feel comfortable about the song. “There’s an element in the song I don’t like,” she said in an interview “I wasn’t about small-town sass. I had more in common with the daughter who brings the note home than the mother in the mini-skirt.”


That identification might help explain why, in the second take, Riley unexpectedly changed the last line, surprising everyone in the studio, its writer included. “I’d written the song without identifying the speaker,” Hall says. “We were careful as writers to use gender-neutral narrators so the songs would have a longer shelf life; that way, anyone could sing them. But Jeannie changed ‘that mama’ to ‘my mama,’ which revealed the speaker as female.” That’s not all Riley changed. Capitalizing on one of the nation’s catch phrases, she replaced “gave it to” with “socked it to,” resulting in a line that would soon become just as ubiquitous:


“The day my mama socked it to the Harper Valley P.T.A.”


She was so excited the night she recorded that song,” Riley’s mother, Nora Stephenson, remembers, “that she called me back in Texas and woke me up. ‘Mama,’ she said, ‘I’ve just recorded the No. 1 song in the nation. You’re gonna hear it in a few days.’ And I said, ‘Oh Jeannie, I don’t want you to be disappointed again.’  She wanted so badly to be another Loretta Lynn — someone loved by men and women alike. She wanted to touch people’s hearts.”


The song’s ascension began almost immediately after the recording session was completed — two hours later, in fact, at about 10 p.m. On a hunch, Riley took a tape of the song over to WSM Radio, where Ralph Emery hosted the evening show. He played the song on-air for the first time, and the response was overwhelming. By Saturday afternoon, other Nashville stations had the song in rotation, while Singleton and Riley were back at Plantation Records mastering and pressing promos to mail to stations around the country. Before the week was out, Nashville’s pressing plants were shipping singles to stores as quickly as they could produce them.


Billie Jo Spears and Margie Singleton had just recorded the song as well. Riley's record was an immediate smash; Capitol Records did release Spears' version the same week, but it failed to chart.


The following week, on August 24, the song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 81. The next week, the song jumped all the way to No. 7, the biggest one-week leap in the pop chart’s history.


And — best of all for Riley — “Harper Valley” had also moved into the No. 1 spot on the Billboard country chart, accomplishing for the singer what she’d always hoped a hit record would do: make her a country star. Then, on September 21, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” overtook the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” as the No. 1 song in America, marking the first time a female vocalist had topped both the country and pop charts simultaneously.


I was living on a farm about 15 miles outside of Nashville,” Hall recalls. “I remember driving into the city one day, and every station I tuned to was playing ‘Harper Valley.’”


During one 24-hour period, an Ohio pop station is said to have played the song 26 times — itself noteworthy, but all the more so considering that the station’s play list — reflecting the psychedelic era — was dominated by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, Iron Butterfly and The Doors. The popularity of the song only grew as the effervescent Riley charmed television audiences nationwide with appearances on network icons like The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. “Harper Valley P.T.A.” was a bona fide sensation.


I was between flights in Chicago,” Hall remembers, laughing, “and I stopped into an airport bar where a woman was playing piano and singing. I ordered a drink, looked over at her, and she said, ‘Don’t ask me to sing “Harper Valley.”’ She hadn’t any idea who I was. I just said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t need to hear that one.’”

The song took home a Grammy that year for Best Female Vocal Performance, and won Single Of The Year honors from the Country Music Association. She was the first female artist to receive a gold album a  for her Harper Valley P.T.A. LP and she was the recipient of the first gold tape cartridge award for album sales in excess of four million. Ultimately, the song sold more than 10-million copies worldwide and spawned a 1978 movie starring Barbara Eden, and a short-lived television series shortly thereafter — one of only two series in television history based on a hit record (The Alvin Show, inspired by “The Chipmunk Song,” was the other). More than a decade after the song’s release, in 1980, a study commissioned by a television studio found that “Harper Valley” had a 98-percent recognition factor among Americans.


“Jeannie loved that song and what it did for her,” Riley’s mother, Nora Stephenson, says. “It got her out of the kitchen and made her a household name. We only wish she could have been herself and not what everyone else wanted her to be.”


When I hear the song now, “Riley says, “there’s a mixed feeling of sitting down and crying, and standing up and putting my hand over my heart.” Though she never wore skirts above the knee before the success of “Harper Valley,” Riley’s manager and producers now played up her sassy image by dressing her exclusively in mini-skirts and boots, and encouraging her to exploit her sexuality. Her mother remembers a distraught Riley exclaiming, “I‘m the little girl telling the story. I don’t know why they’re dressing me like this.” For the Grammy Awards, Riley designed an elaborate French gown, “a beautiful, Marie Antoinette-type dress,” she says, “layer upon layer until it reached the ground.” When she went to pick the gown up two hours before show time, however, she was horrified to discover that it had been raised to just below the panty line — on the instructions of her producer.


To make matters worse, “Harper Valley” seemed to generate as much controversy as sales. “It was banned in some towns,” Riley says. “Can you believe that? Compared to what they’re playing on the radio today, it’s like a nursery rhyme.” The song galvanized P.T.A. groups across the country: offended by the song’s unflattering depiction of some of its members, they successfully petitioned stations in cities like Los Angeles to remove “Harper Valley” from play lists. One newspaper, in its lead editorial, condemned the song as an unconscionable diatribe against one of the country’s most revered institutions. “That song,” ranted The Buffalo Insighter, “has done for the P.T.A. what Godzilla did for downtown Tokyo and the Boston strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.  (Not so, actually. Riley was later awarded an honorary lifetime membership by the national P.T.A., which claimed she’d done more to increase membership than any publicity campaign.)


But the worst fallout from the success of “Harper Valley” was the typecasting that occurred the moment the song zoomed up the charts. “All anyone wanted me to record was another ‘Harper Valley,’” Riley says. “You know, pointing fingers at people. They wouldn’t even listen to my other music.” Though she recorded five top-ten country songs in her career, she never again had a pop hit.


Hall, meanwhile, became a successful performer in his own right, charting more than 20 top-ten country hits, winning Grammy and Country Music Association awards, and earning the nickname “The Storyteller” for his ability to spin a tale, often about the underdog biting back. He added the middle initial to his stage name once he started recording, though he never recorded “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” and he never really got to know Jeannie C. Riley.


"We'd seen each other ocassionally in passing· he says, "and she'd say 'Thanks a lot' and I'd say, 'Thanks a lot".


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As a kid my first record player was a wee portable turntable in a box with a handle, and one of the first records I had was one of those various artists  compilation discs by K-Tel. They were just cover versions by "sound alike" singers and Harper Valley PTA was one of the songs. I remember playing the LP a lot and liked this song even though I had no idea about the original version. If my memory serves the LP also had cover versions of "Little Arrows" by Leapy Lee and "I'm a Tiger" by Lulu (?). I played that record until the needle wore out!!! lol:D:D:D

PS:- My taste in music has improved....a little!!!

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14 hours ago, funkyy said:

If my memory serves the LP also had cover versions of "Little Arrows" by Leapy Lee and "I'm a Tiger" by Lulu (?). I played that record until the needle wore out!!! lol:D:D:D

PS:- My taste in music has improved....a little!!!


Well, "Little Arrows" by Leapy Lee, was a "one hit wonder" in 1968 even if it sounds quite strange for current music taste and even for the final 60s, with all the "psichodelia", hippies and hard rock of those years. As for "I'm a Tiger", it's not among the best of Lulu but makes for a nice kiddie song. So, if you played that record until the needle wore out, most probably your disk also wore out too:D:D:D

Wonder by whom was your "sound alike" version of Harper Valley PTA. Quiet probably the one by Margie Singleton or Loretta Lynn. Does it sound to you?

By the way, not all the tracks of those "compilation" disks were covers; some were the orignals. And some of the covers were really so good that you couldn't note that they were covers and some of the covers are actually better than the originals!

Just as an example, the orignal of "Love Hurts" is by The Everly Brothers, 1960,  but the cover by Nazareth 1975, is absolutely great!






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Luisam, I'm sure the artists on the disc I mentioned were like "session singers", not famous at all..but their versions were really good imitations of the originals. They seemed to be chosen for their voice likeness to the originals. I said it was a K-Tel record but it may have been another brand...at that time there were LP's of that kind and they were cheaper since the singers were not the original artists.

As far as cover versions by other famous artists are concerned, I agree that the Nazareth version of Love Hurts is a great version.:)

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