Williams, Hank (Hiram)

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Williams, Hank (Hiram)

Williams, Hank (Hiram), preeminent American country singer, songwriter, and guitarist; b. Mount Olive West, Ala., Sept. 17, 1923; d. Oak Hill, W. Va., Jan. 1, 1953. Williams was among the most popular recording artists in country music in the late 1940s and early 1950s, numbering among his hits “Lovesick Blues”; as a songwriter he was without peer in country music, penning songs such as “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),’ and “Kaw-Liga” that defined the musical genre and set a permanent standard for country songwriting. His work alternated between maudlin and vengeful romantic sentiments such as “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and expressions of giddy and humorous elation such as “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Baby, We’re Really in Love.” While these songs and his performances of them determined the form of country music, they also appealed beyond it: many of his compositions were covered as pop hits, and his music influenced the development of rock ’n’ roll.

Williams’s father, Elonzo Huble Williams, was a farmer at the time of his birth, although he was usually employed as a railroad engineer for a lumber company. After his father was hospitalized in January 1930, Williams was raised by his mother, Jessie Lillybelle Skipper Williams, who worked as a nurse and later ran board-inghouses. He attended a singing school as a child and learned to play the guitar before adolescence, taking lessons from a street musician named Rufus Payne who was known as “Tee-Tot.” In 1937 he moved with his family to Montgomery, Ala., where he performed on the street, won amateur contests, and sang on local radio; soon he formed his own band, The Drifting Cowboys, for personal appearances around the area. In 1942 he gave up regular performing and turned to defense work after having been rejected for the service due to a back problem later diagnosed as spina bifida. He left his job and returned to performing full-time in August 1944.

On Dec. 15, 1944, Williams married Audrey Mae Sheppard Guy, a divorcée with a daughter who had worked at a drugstore. In September 1946, Williams went to Nashville to audition songs for publisher Fred Rose of the Acuff-Rose publishing company. Rose accepted several of Williams’s songs and, also impressed with him as a performer, arranged for him to make his first recordings for the independent Sterling Records label on Dec. 11,1946. This resulted in his debut record release, “Calling You”/“Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)” in January 1947; both songs were his own compositions. There was a second Sterling recording session on Feb. 13,1947, then Rose got Williams signed to the larger MGM label, for which he began recording on April 21, resulting in the June single release “Move It on Over”/”(Last Night) I Heard You Crying in Your Sleep”; again, both songs were written by Williams. “Move It on Over” became his first country chart hit in August 1947. His subsequent releases were less successful, but Hawkshaw Hawkins recorded his song “Pan American” for a Top Ten country hit in May 1948. On May 26, 1948, Williams and his wife divorced, though they reconciled shortly after.

Williams’s recording of his song “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” reached the country charts in July 1948, on its way to a Top Ten showing in September; on Aug. 7, Williams became a regular performer on the Shreveport, La., radio show the Louisiana Hayride. His breakthrough hit came not with one of his own songs, but with his revival of the 1922 song “Lovesick Blues” (music by Cliff Friend, lyrics by Irving Mills), which topped the country charts and reached the pop charts in May 1949, selling a million copies. As a result,he was invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, the premiere country radio show based in Nashville; he made his debut on June 11,1949, and quickly becoming a regular. On May 26 he and his ex-wife became the parents of Randall Hank Williams, known as Hank Williams Jr.; their divorce was nullified on Aug. 9.

Williams scored another five Top Ten hits on the country charts during 1949, the most successful being “Wedding Bells” (music and lyrics by Claude Boone) and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (music and lyrics by Clarence Williams). He reached the country Top Ten eight times in 1950, hitting #1 with “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” and “Moanin’ the Blues,” all his own compositions. He had eight more Top Ten country hits in 1951, including two chart-toppers, the million-selling “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Hey, Good Looking” both of which he wrote. Tony Bennett’s cover of “Cold, Cold Heart” hit #1 in the pop charts in November, also selling a million copies, and in the same month Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine reached the pop Top Ten with their version of “Hey, Good Lookin’.”

Williams hit the Top Ten of the country charts with six recordings in 1952, only one of which, “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (music and lyrics by Hank Williams), went to #1 during the year, selling a million copies and crossing over to the pop charts. With three of the others, “Honky Tonk Blues” (music and lyrics by Hank Williams), “Half as Much” (music and lyrics by Curley Williams), and “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” (music and lyrics by Fred Rose and Ed G. Nelson), just missing the top of the charts, he ranked as the year’s most successful country recording artist. In addition, Jo Stafford reached the pop Top Ten with “Jambalaya.” But at the same time Williams’s personal life was disastrous. Drinking heavily and taking drugs to ease the pain from his spinal disorder, he frequently missed performances. He and his wife separated in January 1952 and divorced on July 10. On Aug. 11 the Grand Ole Opry fired him, and the following month he returned to the Louisiana Hay-ride. On Oct. 15 he agreed to support the child of Bobbie Jett, a woman with whom he had had a liaison; three days later he married Billie Jean Jones Eshliman, a telephone operator. He died at 29 of a severe heart condition and hemorrhage sometime during the night of Dec. 31, 1952-Jan. 1, 1953, while on his way to a concert performance.

Williams’s most recent single at the time of his death, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (music and lyrics by Hank Thompson and Fred Rose), re-entered the country charts and hit #1 in late January. As MGM released his last recordings, he scored five more Top Ten country hits during the year, including three #ls, “Kaw-Liga” (music and lyrics by Hank Williams and Fred Rose), “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (music and lyrics by Hank Williams; inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1983), and “Take These Chains from My Heart” (music and lyrics by Fred Rose and Hy Heath). “Kaw-Liga” was the biggest country hit of the year, and Williams again was the year’s most successful country recording artist. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was covered for a million-selling Top Ten pop hit by Joni James. In April 1954, Tony Bennett peaked in the pop Top Ten with a cover of “There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight” (music and lyrics by Hank Williams and Nelson King), a song Williams had used as the B-side of a single in 1949.

After 1953, MGM continued to release archival recordings by Williams, scoring a Top Ten country hit in the spring of 1955 with his 1949 demo “Please Don’t Let Me Love You” (music and lyrics by Ralph Jones). His catalogue of songs became a basic repertory for country artists, who frequently revived his songs for hits. Among the most successful of these were Jerry Lee Lewis’s country Top Ten rendition of Williams’s 1952 song “You Win Again” in 1958 and Charley Pride’s country #1 with the same song in 1980; B. J. Thomas’s pop Top Ten version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in 1966; Charley Pride’s “Kaw-Liga,” a country Top Ten in 1969; Linda Ronstadt’s country Top Ten with “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” in 1975; and Charley Pride’s country chart-topper with “Honky Tonk Blues” in 1980.

Meanwhile, Williams’s own recordings proved perennially popular. The album Hank Williams’s Greatest Hits, released in April 1963, reached the country charts in 1968 and went gold in 1969. In 1966, MGM over-dubbed strings on some of his recordings and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” returned to the country charts, followed by the album The Legend Lives Anew. The double album 24 of Hank Williams’s Greatest Hits,though it contained overdubbed recordings, was MGM’s most elaborate reissue yet when it was released in 1971, and it became the most successful, eventually going platinum. Hank Williams Sr. Live at the Grand Ole Opry reached the country charts in 1976, and “Why Don’t You Love Me” returned to the country singles charts. His 24 Greatest Hits Vol. 2 was in the country charts in 1977 and, in the 1980s and 1990s, Williams’s recordings, now controlled by the PolyGram label and released on its Polydor and Mercury labels, benefited from more care and scholarship. Rare Takes and Radio Cuts reached the country charts in 1984. During the later 1980s and 1990s, almost every known recording by the legendary star became available in one form or another.


With J. Rule, H. W. Tells How to Write Folk and Western Music to Sell (Nashville, 1951); D. Cusic, ed., H. W.: The Complete Lyrics (NY., 1992).


Hank Williams Sings (1952); Moanin’ the Blues (1952); Memorial Album (1953); Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter (1953); Honky Tonkin (1954); / Saw the Light (1954); Ramblin’ Man (1954); 36 of Hank Williams’s Greatest Hits (1957); 36 More of Hank Williams’s Greatest Hits (1958); Sing Me a Blue Song (1958); The Immortal Hank Williams (1958); The Unforgettable Hank Williams (1959); The Lonesome Sound of Hank Williams (1960); Wait for the Light to Shine (1960); Greatest Hits (1961); Hank Williams Lives Again (1961); Sing Me a Blue Song (1961); Wanderin’ Around (1961); I’m Blue Inside (1961); The Spirit of Hank Williams (1961); On Stage! Hank Williams Recorded Live (1962); Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1962); 14 More Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (1962); On Stage, Vol. 2 (1963); 14 More Greatest Hits, Vol. 3 (1963); Very Best (1963); Very Best, Vol. 2 (1964); Lost Highway (and Other Folk Ballads) (1964); The Hank Williams Story (1965); Kaw-Liga and Other Humorous Songs (1965); The Legend Lives Anew (Hank Williams with Strings)(1966); More Hank Williams and Strings (1966); 7 Won’t Be Home No More (1967); Hank Williams and Strings, Vol. 3 (1968); In the Beginning (1968); The Essential Hank Williams (1969); Life to Legend (1970); 24 of Hank Williams’s Greatest Hits (1970); 24 Karat Hank Williams (1970); Archetypes (1974); A Home in Heaven (1976); On Stage Recorded Live (1976); Live at the Grand Ole Opry (1976); 24 Greatest His, Vol. 2 (1977); Hank Williams (1965); Mr. and Mrs. Hank Williams (with Audrey) (1966); The Immortal Hank Williams (1966). LUKE THE DRIFTER: Luke the Drifter (1955); Movin’ On-Luke the Drifter (1966). HANK WILLIAMS AND HANK WILLIAMS JR.: Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Jr.(1965); Hank Williams Sr. and Hank Williams Jr., Again (1966); The Legend of Hank Williams in Song and Story (1973); Insights into Hank Williams in Story and Song (1974); The Best of Hank and Hank Back to Back: Like Father, Like Son (1992); 40 Greatest Hits (1984); Rare Takes and Radio Cuts (1984); Hank Williams on the Air (1985); Í Ain’t Got Nothin’ but Time, December 1946-August 1947 (1985); Lovesick Blues, August 1941-December 1948 (1985); Lost Highway, December 1948-March 1949 (1985); I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, March 1949-August 1949 (1986); Long Gone Lonesome Blues, August 1949-December 1950 (1987); Hey Good Lookin , December 1950-July 1951 (1987); Let’s Turn Back the Years, July 1951-June 1952 (1987); Í Won’t Be Home No More, June 1952-September 1952 (1987); The Original Singles Collection (1990); Health and Happiness Shows (1993); The Hits, Vol. 1 (1994); The Hits, Vol. 2 (1995); The Collectors’ Edition (1995); Low Down Blues (1996); Lonesome Blues (1990); Hank Williams and The Drifting Cowboys on Radio (1982); Just Me and My Guitar (1985); The First Recordings (1986); Rare Demos: First to Last (1990); The Legend Lives Anew (1995); The Legendary Hank Williams (2000); Grand Ole Country Classics (1987). HANK WILLIAMS SR./HANK WILLIAMS JR./HANK WILLIAMS III: Men with Broken Hearts (1996).


W. Stone and A. Rankin, Life Story of Our H. W. “The Drifting Cowboy” (Montgomery, Ala., 1953); J. Rivers, H. W.: From Life to Legend (Denver, 1967); R. Williams, Sing a Sad Song: The Ufe of H. W.(Garden City, N.Y., 1970; rev. ed., 1973); H. W.: The Legend (Nashville, 1972); Odom and Burton, The H. W. Story (Greenville, Ala., 1974); R. Krishef, H. W.(Minneapolis, 1978); J. Caress, H. W.: Country Music’s Tragic King (Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., 1979); H. W. as We Knew Him (Georgiana and Chapman, Ala., 1982); C. Flippo, Your Cheatin Heart: A Biography of H. W.(Garden City, N.Y., 1981); G. Koon, H. W.: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1983); J. Sutton, The Man Behind the Scenes (Pappy Neal McCormick and H. W.) (DeFuniak Springs, Fla., 1987); L. Williams (his stepdaughter) and D. Vinicur, Still in Love with You: The Story ofH. and Audrey W.(Nashville, 1989); J. Williams (his illegitimate daughter) and P. Thomas, Ain’t Nothin’ As Sweet as My Baby: The Story ofH. W.’s Lost Daughter (N.Y., 1990); A. Rogers and B. Gidoll, The Life and Times ofH. W.(Nashville, 1993); C. Escott with G. Merritt and W. MacEwen, H. W.: The Biography (Boston, 1994); T. Jones, The Essential H. W.(Nashville, 1996); Zwisohn, H. W.(N.Y., 1998); J. Arp, The First Outlaw: H. W..

—William Ruhlmann

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Williams, Hank (Hiram)

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