Hank Williams is the father of contemporary country music. Williams was a superstar by the age of 25; he was dead at the age of 29. In those four short years, he established the rules for all the country performers that followed him and, in the process, much of popular music. Williams wrote a body of songs that became popular classics, and his direct, emotional lyrics and vocals became the standard for most popular performers. Hank lived a life as troubled and reckless as that depicted in his songs.
Hank Williams was born in Mount Olive, Alabama, on September 17, 1923. When he was eight years old, Williams was given a guitar by his mother. His musical education was provided by a local blues street singer, Rufus Payne, who was called Tee Tot. From Tee Tot, Hank learned how to play the guitar and sing the blues, which would come to provide a strong undercurrent in his songwriting. Williams began performing around the Georgiana and Greenville areas of Alabama in his early teens. His mother moved the family to Montgomery, AL, in 1937, where she opened a boarding house. In Montgomery, Hank formed a band called the Drifting Cowboys and landed a regular spot on the local radio station, WSFA, in 1941. During his shows, Williams would sing songs from his idol, Roy Acuff, as well as several other country hits of the day. WSFA dubbed him the Singing Kid and Williams stayed with the station for the rest of the decade.
Williams met Audrey Mae Sheppard, a farmgirl from Banks, AL, in 1943 while he was playing a medicine show. The following year, the couple married and moved into Lilly's boarding house. Audrey became Hank's manager just before the marriage. By 1946, Williams was a local celebrity, but he was unable to make much headway nationally. That year, Hank and Audrey visited Nashville with the intent of meeting songwriter/music publisher Fred Rose, one of the heads of Acuff-Rose Publishing. Rose liked Williams's songs and asked him to record two sessions for Sterling Records, which resulted in two singles. Both of the singles -- "Never Again" in December, 1946 and "Honky Tonkin'" in February, 1947 -- were successful and Hank signed a contract with MGM Records early in 1947. Rose became the singer's manager and record producer.
"Move It On Over," released later in 1947, became Hank Williams's first single for MGM. It was an immediate hit, climbing into the country Top Five. By the summer of 1948, he had joined the Louisiana Hayride, appearing both on its tours and radio programs. "Honky Tonkin'" was released in 1948, followed by "I'm a Long Gone Daddy." While neither song was as successful as "Move It On Over," they were popular, with the latter peaking in the Top Ten. Early in 1949, he recorded "Lovesick Blues," a Tin Pan Alley song initially recorded by Emmett Miller and made popular by Rex Griffin. The single became a huge hit upon its release in the spring of 1949, staying at number one for 16 weeks and crossing over into the pop Top 25. Willliams sang the song at the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed an unprecedented six encores. He had become a star.
Hank and Audrey had their first child, Randall Hank, in the spring of 1949. Also in the spring, Hank assembled the most famous edition of the Drifting Cowboys, featuring guitarist Bob McNett, bassist Hillous Butrum, fiddler Jerry Rivers, and steel guitarist Don Helms. Soon, he and the band were earning $1,000 per concert and were selling out shows across the country. Williams had no fewer than seven hits in 1949 after "Lovesick Blues," including the Top Fives "Wedding Bells," "Mind Your Own Business," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." In addition to having a string of hit singles in 1950 -- including the number ones "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me," and "Moanin' the Blues," as well as the Top Tens "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'," "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy," "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me," "Why Should We Try," and "Nobody's Lonesome for Me." That same year, Williams began recording a series of spiritual records under the name Luke the Drifter.
Williams continued to rack up hits in 1951, beginning with the Top Ten hit "Dear John" and its number one flip-side, "Cold Cold Heart." That same year, pop vocalist Tony Bennett recorded "Cold, Cold Heart" and had a hit, leading to a stream of covers from such mainstream artists as Jo Stafford, Guy Mitchell, Frankie Laine, Teresa Brewer, and several others. Hank had also begun to experience the fruits of crossover success, appearing on the Perry Como television show and being part of a package tour that also featured Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Minnie Pearl. In addition to "Dear John" and "Cold, Cold Heart," Hank had several other hits in 1951, including the number one "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Howlin' at the Moon," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)," "Crazy Heart," "Lonesome Whistle," and "Baby, We're Really in Love," which all charted in the Top Ten.
Though his professional career was soaring, Hank Williams's personal life was beginning to spin out of control. Before he became a star, he had a mild drinking problem, but it had been more or less controlled during his first few years of fame. However, as he began to earn large amounts of money and spend long times away from home, he began to drink frequently. Furthermore, Hank's marriage to Audrey was deteriorating. Not only were they fighting, resulting in occasional separations, but Audrey was trying to create her own recording career without any success. In the fall of 1951, Hank was on a hunting trip on his Tennessee farm when he tripped and fell, re-activating a dormant back injury. Williams began taking morphine and other pain killers for his back and quickly became addicted.
In January of 1952, Hank and Audrey separated for a final time and he headed back to Montgomery to live with his mother. The hits were still coming fast for Williams, with "Honky Tonk Blues" hitting number two in the spring. In fact, he released five more singles in 1952 -- "Half As Much," "Jambalaya," "Settin' the Woods on Fire," "You Win Again," and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" -- which all went Top Ten. In spite of all of his success, Hank turned completely reckless in 1952, spending nearly all of his waking hours drunk and taking drugs, while he was frequently destroying property and playing with guns.
Williams left his mother in early spring, moving in with Ray Price in Nashville. In May, Audrey and Hank were officially divorced. She was awarded the house and their child, as well as half of his future royalties. Williams continued to play a large number of concerts, but he was always drunk during the show, or he missed the gig altogether. In August, the Grand Ole Opry fired Hank for that very reason. He was told that he could return once he was sober. Instead of heeding the Opry's warning, he just sank deeper into his self-destructive behavior. Soon, his friends were leaving him, as the Drifting Cowboys began working with Ray Price and Fred Rose no longer supported him. Williams was still playing the Louisiana Hayride, but he was performing with local pickup bands and was earning reduced wages. That fall, he met Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar, the 19-year old daughter of a Louisiana policeman. By October, they were married. Hank also signed an agreement to support the baby -- who had yet to be delivered -- of one of his other girlfriends, Bobbie Jett, in October. By the end of the year, Williams was having heart problems and Toby Marshall, a con-man doctor, was giving him various prescription drugs to help soothe the pain.
Hank Williams was scheduled to play a concert in Canton, OH, on January 1, 1953. He was scheduled to fly out of Knoxville, TN, on New Year's Eve, but the weather was so bad he had to hire a chauffeur to drive him to Ohio in his new Cadillac. Before they left for Ohio, Williams was injected with two shots of the vitamin B-12 and morphine by a doctor. Williams got into the backseat of the Cadillac with a bottle of whiskey and the teenage chauffeur headed out for Canton. The driver was stopped for speeding when the policeman noticed that Williams looked like a dead man. Williams was taken to a West Virginian hospital and he was officially declared dead at 7:00 AM on January 1, 1953. Hank Williams had died in the back of the Cadillac, on his way to a concert. The last single released in his lifetime was "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."
Hank Williams was buried in Montgomery, AL, three days later. His funeral drew a record crowd, larger than any crowd since Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy in 1861. Dozens of country music stars attended, as did Audrey Williams, Billie Jean Jones, and Bobbie Jett, who happened to give birth to a daughter three days later. "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" reached number one immediately after his death and it was followed by a number of hit records throughout 1953, including the number ones "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Kaw-Liga," and "Take These Chains from My Heart."
After his death, MGM wanted to keep issuing Hank Williams records, so they took some of his original demos and overdubbed bands onto the original recording. The first of these, "Weary Blues from Waitin'," was a hit but the others weren't quite as successful. In 1961, Hank Williams was one of the first inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Throughout the '60s, Williams's records were released in overdubbed versions featuring heavy strings, as well as reprocessed stereo. For years, these bastardized versions were the only records in print and only in the '80s, when his music was released on compact disc, was his catalog restored to its original form. Even during those years when only overdubbed versions of his hits existed, Hank Williams's impact never diminished. His songs have become classics, his recordings have stood the test of time, and his life story is legendary. It's easy to see why Hank Williams is considered by many as the defining figure of country music. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine
|Song Title||Recording Artist||Chart*||Year|
|Cold, Cold Heart||Hank Williams||1||1951|
|Hey Good Lookin'||Hank Williams||1||1951|
|Honky Tonk Blues||Charley Pride||1||1980|
|Honky Tonkin'||Hank Williams, Jr.||1||1982|
|Long Gone Lonesome Blues||Hank Williams||1||1950|
|Mind Your Own Business||Hank Williams||1||1986|
|Moanin' The Blues||Hank Williams||1||1950|
|Why Don't You Love Me||Hank Williams||1||1950|
|You Win Again||Charley Pride||1||1980|
|Your Cheatin' Heart||Hank Williams||1||1953|
|Honky Tonk Blues||Hank Williams||2||1952|
|I Can't Help It||Linda Ronstadt||2||1975|
|I Can't Help It||Hank Williams||2||1951|
|You Win Again||Jerry Lee Lewis||2||1958|
|Howlin' At The Moon||Hank Williams||3||1951|
|Why Should I Cry||Eddy Arnold||3||1950|
|Baby We're Really In Love||Hank Williams||4||1952|
|Song Title||Recording Artist||Chart*||Year|
|I Won't Be Home No More||Hank Williams||4||1953|
|Move It On Over||Hank Williams||4||1947|
|You're Gonna Change||Hank Williams||4||1949|
|I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'||Hank Williams||5||1950|
|Long Gone Lonesome Blues||Hank Williams, Jr.||5||1964|
|Mind Your Own Business||Hank Williams, Jr.||5||1949|
|I'm A Long Gone Daddy||Hank Williams||6||1948|
|Never Again||Hank Williams||6||1949|
|There's A Tear In My Beer||Hank Williams & Hank Jr.||7||1989|
|Weary Blues From Waiting||Hank Williams||7||1953|
|Your Cheatin' Heart||Ray Charles||7||1962|
|I Can't Help It||Johnny Tillotson||8||1962|
|I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry||B.J. Thomas||8||1966|
|I'm Sorry For You My Friend||Moe Bandy||9||1977|
|Lonesome Whistle||Hank Williams||9||1951|
|Me And My Broken Heart||Rex Allen, Jr.||9||1979|
|My Son Calls Another Man Daddy||Hank Williams||9||1950|
|Nobody's Lonesome For Me||Hank Williams||9||1950|
|Pan American||Hawkshaw Hawkins||9||1948|
|Why Should We Try Anymore||Hank Williams||9||1950|
|I Can't Help It||Al Martino||10||1968|
|You Win Again||Hank Williams||10||1952|
|Jambalaya||Blue Ridge Rangers||11||1973|
|Song Title||Recording Artist||Chart*||Year|
|Honky Tonkin'||Hank Williams||14||1948|
|Why Don't You Love Me||Connie Smith||15||1975|
|I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry||Terry Bradshaw||17||1976|
|I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry||Charlie McCoy||23||1972|
|Honky Tonk Blues||Pirates Of The Mississippi||26||1990|
|Lonesome Whistle||Don Gibson||29||1971|
|Countryfied||George Hamilton, IV||35||1971|
|Mind Your Own Business||Jimmy Dean||35||1964|
|My Sweet Love Ain't Around||Suzy Bogguss||38||1989|
|I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry||Hank Williams||43||1966|
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