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The country singer Margie Singleton asked Tom T. Hall to write her a song similar to "Ode To Billie Joe
," which she had covered the previous year. After driving past a school called Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Bellevue, Tennessee, he noted the name and wrote "Harper Valley P.T.A." about a fictional confrontation between a young widow Stella Johnson and a local PTA group who objected to her manner of dress, social drinking, and friendliness with town's men folk. Jeannie C. Riley, who was working as a secretary in Nashville for Jerry Chesnut, got to hear the song and recorded it herself and it became a massive hit for her.
A "PTA" is a Parent Teacher Association. Popular in small towns of the United States, the organizations work to improve school conditions and encourage communication between parents and teachers. In some cases, the members of PTAs can be righteous and petty, and the characters in this song are depicted as such. The song struck a nerve with many women who felt some empathy with the character Stella Johnson.
Tom T. Hall is known as a Country music storyteller and he has racked up a number of solo hits, including 7 #1 Country singles. In 1974 he had a #12 pop hit in the States with "I Love," a sentimental list of things he likes. He recalled to The Boot
in a 2011 interview that the song was based on a true story. Said the songwriter: "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 and read them the riot act so to speak, was fascinating."
This won the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance. It was also voted the Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.
This had the then biggest chart leap in American history, going from #81 to #7 in one week.
This topped both the Pop and Country charts in America, the first song by a female country artist to achieve this feat.
This proved to be Riley's only major Pop hit single, though she had further success on the Country charts. In the mid-'70s Riley became a Christian and began recording on the God's Country label. In 1981, she recorded the Gospel album From Harper Valley To The Mountain Top. Throughout the '80s and '90s, she continued to be a popular contemporary Christian recording and performing artist.
This hit inspired a 1978 film and a 1981 spin-off television series, both starring Barbara Eden playing Stella Johnson.
Tom T. Hall, who wrote this song, had planned a career as a journalist or novelist until the success of this song threw him into the spotlight. He told The Boot: "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."
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