Williams, Hank, Sr. (1923-1953)
Williams, Hank, Sr. (1923-1953)
Widely acknowledged as the father of contemporary country music, Hank Williams, Sr., was a superstar at the age of 25 and dead at 29. Like Jimmie Rodgers, Williams had a short but highly influential career in country music. Though he never learned to read or write music, during his years of greatest commercial success, Williams wrote and recorded over 100 polished, unique, and lasting songs, releasing at least half a dozen hit records every year from 1949 until 1953. His direct, sincere, and emotional lyrics ("Your cheatin' heart / Will make you weep / You'll cry and cry / And try to sleep") set the stage for much of the country music that followed, and many of his songs, including "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Your Cheatin' Heart," have become classics.
His ability to transfix his audiences is the stuff of legend. Chet Hagan's Grand Ole Opry offers the following assessments: Little Jimmy Dickens said that "You could hear a pin drop when Hank was working. He just seemed to hypnotize those people. It was simplicity I guess. He brought his people with him. He put himself on their level." Minnie Pearl said, "He had a real animal magnetism. He destroyed the women in the audience. And he was just as authentic as rain." And according to Mitch Miller (a Columbia Records executive), "He had a way of reaching your guts and your head at the same time." Williams had the unique ability to connect with his audiences, comprised primarily of poor, white Southerners like himself, and, particularly in the early days, fist-fights often broke out among his female fans.
Born and raised in Alabama, Williams got a guitar at the age of eight and learned to play and sing from a local blues street performer known as "Tee Tot." This early exposure to African-American blues styles shaped his own musical character, forming a key element of Williams's trademark honky-tonk, country-blues sound. When he was 12 years old, Williams won 15 dollars in a songwriting contest with his "WPA Blues." At the age of 14, Williams had organized his own band and had begun playing locally for hoedowns, square dances, and the like. In 1941, Williams and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, began performing at a local radio station, most often covering the songs of other country artists, including Williams's hero, Roy Acuff. Despite attempts to make a name for himself and his band, Williams's musical career stayed in a holding pattern for several years.
In 1946, Williams went to Nashville with his wife and manager, Audrey, where a music publishing executive for Acuff-Rose Publishing set up a recording session for Williams with Sterling Records. The two singles he recorded then, "Never Again" (released in late 1946) and "Honky Tonkin"' (released in early 1947) were quite successful, rising to the top of the country music charts and breaking Williams's career out of its holding pattern. Williams signed the first exclusive songwriter's contract issued by Acuff-Rose Publishing, and he began a long and productive songwriting partnership with Fred Rose, with Williams writing the songs and Rose editing them.
In 1947, Williams won a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) Records. "Move It On Over," Williams's first MGM single, was a big hit, and Williams and the Drifting Cowboys began appearing regularly on KWKH Louisiana Hayride, a popular radio program. Several other releases followed, and Williams became a huge country music star. Already earning a reputation as a hard-drinking, womanizing man, he had trouble being accepted by the country music establishment, and Ernest Tubb's attempts to get the Grand Ole Opry to sign him on were initially rebuffed for fear that he would be too much trouble. He was finally asked to join the Opry in 1949, and earned an unprecedented six encores after singing the old country-blues standard "Lovesick Blues" at a 1949 Opry performance. Strings of hit singles in 1949 and 1950 (including "Lovesick Blues," "Mind Your Own Business," and "Wedding Bells" in 1949, and "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "Moaning the Blues," and "Why Don't You Love Me" in 1950) led to sell-out shows for Williams and the reorganized Drifting Cowboys, earning Williams and the band over $1,000 per performance. From 1949 through 1953, Williams scored 27 top ten hits. During this period, Williams began recording religious material (both music and recitations) under the name Luke the Drifter, and he managed to keep his drinking and womanizing in check.
In 1951, Tony Bennett had a hit single with a cover of Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart," and other singers began recording (and having hits) with Williams's songs: Jo Stafford recorded "Jambalaya," Rosemary Clooney sang "Half As Much," and both Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford covered "Hey Good Lookin'." As a result, Williams began to enjoy crossover success on the popular music charts, appearing on the Perry Como television show, and touring as part of a package group that included Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Minnie Pearl. Though not all of his hit records were his own compositions, many of his best known works are ones he wrote, and many of them seem to have an autobiographical bent.
Williams's professional success, however, began to take a toll on his private life. His long-time tendency to drink to excess became full-blown alcoholism. Williams began showing up at concerts drunk and abusive. As a result, he was fired from the Grand Ole Opry and told to return when he was sober. Rather than taking the Opry's action as a wake-up call, Williams drank even more heavily. An accident reinflamed an old back injury, and Williams began abusing the morphine he was prescribed to deal with back pain. His marriage fell apart, in part due to his drinking and drug abuse, and in part due to his increasingly frequent dalliances with other women. In 1952, after divorcing his first wife, Audrey, he quickly married a 19-year-old divorcee named Billie Jean, selling tickets to what was billed as a matinee "wedding rehearsal" and "actual wedding" that evening (both were frauds; Billie Jean and Williams had been legally married the previous day). Williams also came under the spell of a man calling himself "Doctor" Toby Marshall (actually a paroled forger), who often supplied him with prescriptions and shots for the sedative chloral hydrate, which Marshall claimed was a pain reliever.
In December of 1952, Williams suffered a heart attack brought on by "alcoholic cardiomyopathy" (heart disease due to excessive drinking); found in the back seat of his car, he was rushed to the hospital but was pronounced dead on January 1, 1953. His funeral, held at a city auditorium in Montgomery, Alabama, was attended by over 25,000 weeping fans. After his death, his record company continued to issue a number of singles he had previously recorded, including what is probably his most famous song, "Your Cheatin' Heart." These singles earned a great deal of money for his record company and his estate, and artists as diverse as Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello have made their own recordings of Williams' songs in recent years. Many of those associated with Williams attempted to trade on his reputation after his death. Both of his wives went on tour, performing as "Mrs. Hank Williams." A supposedly biographical film, Your Cheatin' Heart, also exploited Williams' fame and untimely death. Williams' children, Jett and Hank, Jr., went into country music and have enjoyed some success (particularly Hank "Bocephus" Williams, Jr.). But it is Hank, Sr., who left his mark on country music. Along with Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose, he was one of the first inductees into Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame, elected in 1961.
—Deborah M. Mix
Hagan, Chet. Grand Ole Opry: The Complete Story of a Great American Institution and Its Stars. New York, Holt, 1989.
Williams, Hank, Sr. The Complete Hank Williams. Polygram Records, 1998.
Williams, Roger M. Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1981.