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Hank Williams  Hank Williams 
The First Country Superstar 
By Graham Lees

 

 

Regarded as the greatest singer-songwriter in country music's history, Hank Williams consistently crossed over into pop music with heartfelt songs such as "Your Cheating Heart", "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". Sadly Hank Williams died over 50 years ago at the age of twenty-nine years in the back seat of his Cadillac on New Years Day 1953.

Misspelled "Hiriam" on his birth certificate, Hiram Williams was born in Mount Olive West, Alabama on 17th September 1923. Growing up in abject poverty in a clapboardyoung Hank house; he had an absentee father (Lonnie) and a domineering mother (Lilly) and started singing in the Mount Olive Baptist Church at six where his mother played the organ. In 1930 Lonnie entered the VA hospital in Alexandria and Lilly moved Hiram and his sister Irene from the country to Georgiana. After a fire burnt-down the shack where they lived, Lilly rented a furnished room in Greenville. Irene roasted which Hiriam sold on the streets and along with shining shoes for a nickel a time Hank made a little money to buy food for the family. Lilly found a bigger house and decided to open a boarding house about a hundred yards from the railroad tracks and the clatter of the big Pan American became a welcome sound. The young Hiram hated his name and stated calling himself Hank. At birth Hank had a crippling birth defect of the lower spine, which was aggravated when a bronc threw Hank while working as a cowboy in Texas, causing injury to his back that was to plaque him for the rest of his life.

Lilly bought Hank a second-hand Silvertone guitar for $3-50, which she paid off at 50 cents a month. Hank started taking lessons from an elderly black street musician known by the name of Tee-Tot (Rufus Payne). Hank stated singing with Tee-Tot on the streets of Greenville and the courthouse lawn on a Saturday when the farmers came into town and people started calling them the "Greenville Troubadours". As well as learning to play guitar, Hiram also learnt from Tee-Tot how to work a crowd. As young Hiram progressed, Tee-Tot taught him what he called his "bestest" song..."My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" was later to be copyrighted by Hank Williams and published in the Acuff-Rose catalogue.

Lilly's main concern was status and money and said Hank was "wasting his time lollygagging around town with that guitar and that nigger and woolgathering around Hank and his mother Lillythe house listening to hillbilly singers on the radio." "He would never make anything of himself that way" she lectured him. Hank got pretty hot under the collar telling his mother, "That maybe he had already decided to become a hillbilly singer and there wasn't a gol-durned thing wrong with that. He continued, "Hillbilly singers got to be on the radio and travel and own big cars and fancy suits."

Things weren't working out as Lilly had hoped in Greenville and moved her brood to Montgomery in 1937, starting another boarding house. Barley into his teens, Hank Williams entered a Christmas talent contest and won $15 singing an original song "WPA Blues". In the wake of his first public appearance Lilly shocked Hank by telling him she was proud of him and even bought him a new Gibson guitar. Hank started playing with Smith "Hezzy" Adair calling themselves Hezzy and Hank, which within a few weeks had changed to Hank and Hezzy. Soon after, Braxton Schuffert joined the pair forming the band The Drifting Cowboys with Hank on guitar and vocals, Hezzy on bass, Braxton on guitar and vocals, Freddy Beech on fiddle and Irene Williams on vocals and ticket-taker. Very soon they were playing on radio station WSFA's Saturday Night Jamboree in Montgomery, followed by a twice-weekly show on WCOV. When Hank got his own show on WSFA the fan mail came rolling in. It was time for Hank WilliamsHank to start playing show dates and as Schuffert had a car, they loaded it up and headed out to play dances and parties. The Drifting Cowboys soon graduated to playing honky-tonks and dances at Thigpen's Log Cabin, north of Georgiana, where the working man could let off steam and wanted to listen to raucous dance music such as "Honky Tonk Blues" and "Headin' Down The Wrong Highway."

Hank was eighteen years old when World War II broke out. He was rejected for military service due to his bad back. Hank continued playing the honky-tonks, always handing his money over to Lilly, though he held on to a little so that he could get drunk and get himself a woman. After a fight with Lilly, Hank took the few dollars he had and set off for Mobile, Alabama hoping to go to sea. Unfortunately he never got out to sea. Feeling sad and lonely Hank started thinking about a woman he had got to know while playing at a medicine show in Pike County...Miss Audrey!!!

Audrey Sheppard had already been married and had a daughter by the name of Lycrecia. Hank was "Hot" for Audrey...another tempestuous woman who drove Hank Hank and his first wife Audreywith a driving ambition for herself as well as Hank. They set up home together and in December 1944 Audrey and Hank were married at a filling station by Justice of the Peace M. A. Boyett in Alabama. In the meantime Hank's mother Lilly was busy booking dates for Hank, with 60 days solid in the date book. Lilly travelled to Mobil and when Hank saw the date book he crawled back to Montgomery with Lilly and re-formed the Drifting Cowboys, which included Audrey. As Hank's career blossomed, Audrey wanted a greater part of the limelight. Though she couldn't sing, Audrey insisted that she had equal stage time and even wanted to co-write his songs, with the likes of "My Darling Baby Girl", written about Audrey's daughter Lycrecia.

In 1946 Hank signed with Sterling Records. Taking a trip to Nashville with Audrey, Fred Rose of the Acuff-Rose publishing house was so impressed with Hank, that he became his manager and instrumental in getting Hank a more prestigious recording contract with the new MGM in 1947. Hank's first release with MGM was "Move It On Over", selling several thousand copies. In 1948 Hank joined the popular radio show, Louisiana Hayride and then became a regular on The Grand Ol' Opry on 11th June 1949 resulting in six demanding encores of Hank Williams"Lovesick Blues"a first in the Opry history. "Lovesick Blues" was originally recorded by Emmett Miller in 1925 and then by Rex Griffin in 1939, but Hank's recording went straight to the top of the country charts, staying there for 16 weeks and remaining on the list for the rest of the year. Hank was the hottest property in town, dominating both the country and pop charts. In 1950 "Wedding Bells" made #2 as did "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", backed with "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It". Three number 1 hits saw "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love me" and "Moanin' The Blues". 1951 saw "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Hey Good Lookin" topping the charts and the double sided "Howlin At The Moon"/"I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" made #2. The following year Hank made #1 with the Cajun styled "Jambalaya" and "Half As Much" made #2 as did the double sided "Settin' The Woods On Fire"/"You Win Again".

Hank also recorded Saturday night sin songs under the alter ego "Luke The Drifter", including "Beyond The Sunset", "Pictures from The Other side Of Life" and "Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals". Audrey also had an attempt at a solo Hank with Audrey, Lycrecia and Hank Jnr.recording, which was a non-starter from the beginning as her singing talent was virtually non-existent. Hank and Audrey had a son Hank Williams Jnr (fondly known as Bocephus) born on 26th May 1949. The two were divorced on 19th May 1952, with Audrey receiving one-half of Hank's future royalties. Due to Hank's heavy drinking he was fired from the Opry in August 1952 and returned to the Louisiana Hayride. On 19th October 1952 Hank married teenaged Billie Jean Jones - three times. First before a Justice of the Peace in Minden, Louisiana, then at two concerts at New Orleans, before thousands of paying guests. By this time Hank's career was in a shambles, due to his drinking and pill popping causing him to miss several dates.

Hank's biggest booking for some time was to be on New Year's Day 1953 at Canton, Ohio. Also on the bill were Hawkshaw Hawkins and Homer & Jethro. Due to a blizzard Hank William's plane was cancelled and he booked into a hotel at Knoxville. Hank had not been feeling well and the desk clerk called a doctor who gave Hank two morphine injections. An18-year-old taxi driver by the name of Charles Carr had been hired to drive Hank to the gig in Hank's own Cadillac. Hank was barely conscious and was loaded into the back seat. Nursing a bottle of vodka Hank woke-up and washed down a chloral hydrate tablet. En-route Highway Patrolmen Swann Kitts pulled Carr over for speeding near Rutledge, Tennessee. Looking at Hank in the back of the car, he casually commented, "hey that guy looks dead." Carr said that he was just sedated and after paying the $25 fine he drove on. At around 5:30 am Carr stopped at a gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia to ask directions. Hank's final resting placeHank was very still, slumped in the back of the car. Carr found him cold to the touch and went to get help. Patrolman Howard Jamey was summoned and found that Hank was dead. He drove the Cadillac to Oak Hill Hospital where Hank was confirmed Dead On Arrival at the age of 29 years.

Hank's funeral took place in Montgomery attended by 20,000 mourners. Earnest Tubb sang "Close To The Lord", Red Foley sang "Peace In The Valley" and Roy Acuff sang "I Saw The Light". The irony of it all was that Hank's single "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" had just been released and within weeks was riding high in the charts. Within months of his death, other hits included "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Take These Chains From My Heart", "I Won't Be Home No More" and "Weary Blue From Waitin". Hank was elected into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1961 and actor George Hamilton portrayed Hank in the 1965 movie Your Cheatin' Heart, with the soundtrack dubbed by Hank Williams Jnr.

2005 in Oak Hill, West Virginia, locals hope to turn an old Pure Oil service station into a museum to honour Hank Williams.   The city of Oak Hill plans to hold a lease on the proposed museum property until it can be turned over to a foundation.

In the summer of 2002 Hank Williams' gravesite was vandalized. A large marble vase was stolen from the site according to the Tuscaloosa News. The vase, made of Georgia marble and engraved with the initials H.W., was stationed at the grave of Williams' and an ex-wife, Audrey. It wasn't the first time the vase had been stolen. Someone took it about three years ago, but the vase found undamaged shortly after. Said Beth Birtley, manager of the Hank Jett Williams with photo of her fatherWilliams Museum, "We don't want to prosecute. We don't have to know who took it. We just want it back". Hank Williams is buried in the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery, Alabama.

Hank was the biggest innovator of country music. He recorded 166 songs between 1946-52 and has drawn tribute records from a host of country singers. Hank's songwriting contained a lot of pain; he made a great contribution to country music, influencing many generations of country singers who followed in his wake. As we revere this man, he continues to be a legend in our time.

A postscript comes with claims from an illegitimate daughter Jett Williams, who was born three days after Hank's death. The claim by the daughter of country singer Bobbie Jett was upheld after a bitter court case took place for her to be recognised as a daughter of Hank Williams.but that is another story!!!! 
Check out my book review of 
Ain't Nothin' as Sweet as My Baby  The Story of Hank Williams' Lost Daughter