Happy birthday to Jeannie Seely, who turns 81 today. The “Don’t Touch Me” singer was born July 6, 1940 in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Seely began her career by performing on radio and television in Pennsylvania. In 1961, she moved to Los Angeles and took a job working at a bank, while still writing songs and singing. She later began working for record label Liberty Records, and co-wrote “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand),” which would become an R&B and pop hit for Irma Thomas in 1964.
Songwriter Hank Cochran and artist Dottie West encouraged Seely to move to Nashville. After relocating to Music City in 1965, Seely signed to Monument Records and recorded “Don’t Touch Me,” which would earn a Grammy for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance-Female. “Don’t Touch Me” was penned by Cochran, who wrote or co-wrote the majority of Seely’s country chart hits (Seely and Cochran married in 1969 and divorced in 1981). In 1967, she earned the Top 10 hit “I’ll Love You More (Than You Need),” while her soulful vocal delivery earned her the title “Miss Country Soul.”
In 1967, Seely also became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Seely went on to sign with Decca in the late ’60s and earned a hit duet with Jack Greene with “Wish I Didn’t Have to Miss You.” For four consecutive years, Seely and Greene were nominated for Vocal Duo of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards. She earned her last Top 10 hit with “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” in 1973, followed by “Lucky Ladies,” which reached No. 11 the next year. As a songwriter, Seely has had songs recorded by Ray Price, Connie Smith, West and Faron Young, among others. In recent years, Rhonda Vincent earned a No. 1 bluegrass hit with “Like I Could,” which Seely co-wrote.
In addition to her work as an artist and writer, Seely is also known as a fierce advocate for female artists. In addition to challenging the Grand Ole Opry’s conservative dress code standards at the time by choosing to perform while wearing miniskirts, Seely was also the first woman to host one of the Opry’s half-hour performance segments, in January 1985. She previously told MusicRow how that hosting gig came about.
“There was an ice storm and I was the only Opry artist in the building that evening,” she recalled. “I opened the show, because there weren’t many other artists there…after that, every manager that came in, I would make an appointment with them to discuss the fact that women simply were not allowed to host the Opry. To me, they were ignoring 50 percent of the audience and 50 percent of the talent pool and Opry cast. Every time, they would say, ‘Well, that’s the tradition here.’ And I would point out that it sure looked and smelled like discrimination to me,” she told the outlet.
Eventually, she was given the chance to host the Opry’s segments, and she made the most of it. “I did my homework every week,” she said. “I was aware that if I didn’t do that, that door would be closed, not only to me, but all the other young women coming up. It’s such a rewarding thing to me when Lorrie Morgan and Pam Tillis and that generation came in, and they could walk out there, and do a great job without ever having to be even concerned with that. It was just simply the right thing to do.”
To date, Seely has released 17 studio albums. Onscreen, she also appeared in films including Honeysuckle Rose (starring Willie Nelson) and Changing Hearts. At 81, Seely is going as strong as ever. Last year, she issued the project An American Classic, which includes collaborations she’s recorded over the course of her career, featuring duets with artists including Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan and more.
Listen to a few of Seely’s essential hits below, including “Don’t Touch Me,” “Wish I Didn’t Have To Miss You,” “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” and “I’ll Love You More (Than You Need).”