Singer, songwriter, guitarist, harmonica Singer
In a career that has spanned nearly seven decades, country music legend Hank Thompson blended the sounds of Texas and western swing with the nascent honky-tonk and singer/songwriter subgenres of the late 1940s. He became one of the most important country music musicians of the post-World War II era, scoring 28 top-ten hits and 19 top-20 singles in the period between 1948 and 1974; this placed him in a league with such other legends as Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, and Faron Young.
Thompson was the first country star to host his own television program, as well as one of the first to perform in Las Vegas and record a live album. Trained as an electrical engineer, he also pioneered concert sound and light systems for the more than 200 live shows he performed annually with his band, the Brazos Valley Boys—a group that was named Billboard’s top-ranked band from 1953 to 1965, a record that has never been broken. The two-step, steel guitar, and twin fiddles of the Brazos Valley Boys, combined with Thompson’s stage presence, smooth baritone, clear enunciation, and selection of readily identifiable songs made him one of the most enduring stars of country music’s golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, a popularity that he was able to extend to into the twenty-first century.
As a child, Thompson was a prodigy on harmonica, winning several amateur talent contests in the Waco area. He switched to the guitar after his parents bought him one (for four dollars) as a Christmas present. This allowed him to more fully emulate his hero and perhaps biggest musical influence, Gene Autry. Thompson was still in his teens when he began broadcasting his own show, Hank the Hired Hand, on radio station WACO. After graduating from high school he enlisted in the Navy; stationed in San Diego, he gave live performances in Southern California clubs. When he put out to sea, the Navy broadcast his performances over a network of American military radio stations in the South Pacific. The Navy also allowed Thompson to study electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas, and Princeton University. Intending to find work as an engineer after his honorable discharge, Thompson instead made radio appearances and scored a regional hit single, “Whoa Sailor.” Issued on Globe Records, the song received prominent airplay on KRLD in Dallas, a 50,000-watt station that gave Thompson’s first disc wide coverage. He subsequently recorded four tracks for the Blue Bonnet label, and later earned a contract with Capitol Records with help from Tex Ritter.
Thompson’s association with Capitol helped catapult him into national stardom. Between 1948 and 1949, he scored major hits with a remake of “Whoa Sailor,” as well as “(I’ve Got a) Humpty Dumpty Heart” and “Green Light.” This string continued into the 1950s with such songs as “Swing Wide Your Gate of Love,” “Wake up, Irene,” and the 1952 smash “The Wild Side of Life.” The latter is a fiddle-and steel-guitar-drenched lament for a woman who has left the narrator for a life of presumed promiscuity and other decadent behavior. Thompson and Ken Nelson, his producer at Capitol, were initially reluctant to release the song because it was so nearly identical to the 1940s recording “The Great Speckled Bird” by Roy Acuff. Nelson released the song as a B-side, and it quickly became a number-one hit for 15 weeks. Written by William Warren and Arlie Carter and originally recorded by Jimmy Heap and the Melody Masters, the song’s chorus, “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels/l might have known you’d never make a wife/You gave up the only one who ever loved you/And went back to the wild side of life,” and such lyrics as “The glamour of the gay night life has lured you/To the places where the wine and liquor flow/Where you wait to be anybody’s baby/And forget the truest love you’ll ever know” shocked many listeners of the time for its straightforward acknowledgment of infidelity.
The song’s immense popularity prompted the release of “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Sung by Kitty Wells, the song is a response to Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” told from the point of view of a woman listening to Thompson’s song on a jukebox. She protests that honky-tonk angels weren’t created by God, but by straying husbands. Wells’s response subsequently became one of the top-selling recordings by a female (and the first million-seller for a female country artist), which paved the way for such female
Born on September 3, 1925, in Waco, TX.
Hosted radio program Hank the Hired Hand, early 1940s; enlisted in U.S. Navy, mid-1940s; signed by Capitol Records, 1948; released single “The Wild Side of Life,” 1952; hosted WKY-TV variety show in Oklahoma City, 1954-57; released live album, Live at the Golden Nugget, 1961; signed with Step One Records, 1987; released Hank Thompson and Friends, 1997.
Awards: Induction, Country Music Hall of Fame, 1989.
Addresses: Website—Hank Thompson Official Website: http://www.hankthompson.com.
Thompson moved his home base to Oklahoma City in 1954 to host the first country variety program on WKY-TV—it was also the first variety program to be broadcast in color. He also worked hard to promote the careers of future rockabilly star Wanda Jackson and country guitar and songwriting great Merle Travis. Thompson’s subsequent hits—among them “Mark of a Heel,” “On Tap, in the Can, or in the Bottle,” and “A Six-Pack to Go”—reflect a sense of humor that embraces whimsy while avoiding novelty. In 1966 Thompson left Capitol Records to sign with Warner Bros. His tenure with Capitol had resulted in more than 100 hit records and more than 30 million records sold. He recorded the hit single “Where Is the Circus?” for Warner Bros, in the mid-1960s, but left in 1968 to sign with ABC/Dot Records, with whom he celebrated his twenty-fifth anniversary as an entertainer in 1971, releasing Hank Thompson’s 25th Anniversary Album. When ABC Records was subsumed by MCA in the late 1970s, Thompson stayed on, scoring a hit with the single “Tony’s Tank-Up, Drive-In Café.”
While continuing to write and perform songs that adhered to a genre he dubbed honky-tonk swing, Thompson released a string of hits that dealt with such standard themes of drunkenness and heartbreak. Rather than depicting these themes in a maudlin fashion, however, he enlivened them with sprightly rhythms, tongue-in-cheek vocals, the consummate musicianship of the Brazos Valley Boys, and lyrics that humorously veered into the realm of hyperbole. According to Country Music: The Rough Guide writer Kurt Wolff, “His songs had the essence of honky-tonk down-and-outers at their core, but Thompson’s music was all about making people dance and smile, not drop their faces on the counter and sob.” In 1997 Thompson earned critical accolades for his album Hank Thompson and Friends, which featured duets with such diverse stars as Vince Gill, George Jones, Marty Stuart, Kitty Wells, Junior Brown, Brooks & Dunn, and Lyle Lovett. He continued to record and tour well into the early years of the twenty-first century.
North of the Rio Grande, Capitol, 1956.
Songs of the Brazos Valley, Capitol, 1956.
Hank!, Capitol, 1957.
Dance Ranch, Capitol, 1958.
Favorite Waltzes, Capitol, 1959.
Songs for Rounders, Capitol, 1959.
Most of All, Capitol, 1960.
This Broken Heart of Mine, Capitol, 1960.
A six Pack to Go, Capitol, 1961.
An Old Love Affair, Capitol, 1961.
At the Golden Nugget, Capitol, 1961.
Cheyenne Frontier Days, Capitol, 1962.
Number One Country and Western Band, Capitol, 1962.
Live at the State Fair of Texas, Capitol, 1963.
It’s Christmas Time, Capitol, 1964.
Breakin’ in Another Heart, Capitol, 1965.
Countrypolitan Sound of Hank’s Brazo Boys, Warner Bros., 1967.
Just an Old Flame, Capitol, 1967.
Country Blues, Tower, 1968.
On Tap, in the Can, or in the Bottle, Dot, 1968.
Hank Thompson Salutes Oklahoma, Dot, 1969.
Smokey the Bear, Dot, 1969.
Next Time I Fall in Love, I Won’t, Dot, 1971.
Hank Thompson’s 25th Anniversary Album, ABC/Dot, 1971.
Cab Driver: A Salute to the Mills Brothers, Dot, 1972.
Kindly Keep It Country, Dot, 1973.
Moving On, ABC, 1974.
Back in the Swing of Things, ABC/Dot, 1976.
Take Me Back to Tulsa, MCA, 1980.
One Thousand and One Nighters, Churchill, 1983.
Here’s to Country Music, Step One, 1988.
The Best of Hank Thompson, 1966–1979, Varèse Sarabande, 1996.
Vintage Collections, Capitol, 1996.
Hank Thompson and Friends, Curb, 1997.
Real Thing, Curb, 1997.
Hank World, Bloodshot Revival/Soundies, 1999.
Seven Decades, Hightone, 2000.
Kingsbury, Paul, editor, The Encyclopedia of Country Music,
Oxford University Press, 1998.
Stambler, Irwin, and Landon Grelun, Country Music: The Encyclopedia, St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.
Wolff, Kurt, Country Music: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, Ltd., 2000.
“Hank Thompson,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 23, 2003).
Hank Thompson Official Website, http://www.hankthompson.com (February 24, 2003).
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