She was famous for her 1975 international smash hit “Blanket on the Ground,” as well as for working-girl anthems and for songs that fused country and disco. Spears was extremely popular in Great Britain and was a fixture in Branson, Mo. for a time.
Born in 1937 in the shipyard city of Beaumont, Texas, she was the daughter of a truck driver father. Her mother was a welder in the shipyards, as well as a guitarist in the Light Crust Doughboys western-swing band. Billie Jo Spears began singing professionally at age 13. She first recorded in Houston at that age and also appeared on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, La.
After working as a drive-in restaurant carhop and as a secretary, she moved from Texas to Nashville in 1964. Signing with Capitol Records, she first hit the top-10 on the country charts with 1969’s “Mr. Walker It’s All Over,” the saga of a downtrodden secretary. She followed it with “Pittsburgh General,” which stood up for nurses. Other early singles included “Stepchild” (1969), in which a boy kills his abusive stepfather, and “Marty Gray” (1970), which dealt with teen pregnancy.
She faded from the hit parade and underwent vocal-cord surgery, then scored a huge comeback on United Artists Records with the toe-tapping “Blanket on the Ground.” It became her first and only No. 1 hit, both in the U.S. and abroad.
She fused country songs with danceable pop rhythms in such big hits as 1976’s “What I’ve Got in Mind,” 1977’s “If You Want Me,” 1978’s “57 Chevrolet” and 1979’s remake of Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic “I Will Survive.” Spears was also distinctive in that she rarely recorded female “victim” material. Almost all of her hit ballads are about women asserting themselves. These include “Standing Tall” (1980), “I’ve Got to Go” (1978), “I’m Not Easy” (1977), “Never Did Like Whiskey” (1976) and her revival of Tammy Wynette’s “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” (1981).
Her other hits include 1976’s “Misty Blue” 1978’s Love Ain’t Gonna Wait for Us” and 1979’s “Livin’ Our Love Together.” She also recorded several notable duets with the late Del Reeves. Throughout her career, she sang with a tangy Texas accent and a feisty attitude. Her last appearance on the national country charts was in 1984.
Billie Jo Spears was married five times. In later years, she retained her popularity in the U.K. and recorded several albums for that market. She continued to tour stateside, despite triple-bypass heart surgery in 1993. Her most recent album was released in 2005. She had 22 British shows booked for 2012 at the time of her death.
She died of cancer on Wednesday morning, December 14. Survivors and funeral details were not available at press time.
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