Hiram "Hank" Williams was born in Mt. Olive, Alabama, the
son of Elonzo (Lon) H. and Lilly Williams. His parents
were in Georgiana for a while until they moved up to Mt. Olive
in 1923. By then, they had a year old baby girl, Irene.
Hank learned to
play the guitar legend has it from a black street singer
by the name of Rufe Payne or Tee Tot as everyone called him.
Ole Tee Tot would come to town a couple times a week as the story
goes and would play songs for the folks anywhere they'd let him
and collect a few coins for his efforts. He also had a bunch of
little boys around him to that would follow him around. One of them
was Hank, where he probably got his influence from the blues guitar
and lonesome sounds played by this street singer.
Along the way, Hank's interest in music kept growing. He got a new
guitar one Christmas after trading in an old $3.50 guitar his mom
had given him. Then, along came amateur night at the Montgomery
Empire Theater. Hank was said not to have been to a movie theatre to
even see a movie, let alone perform at one. But, by that time he
had written his first tune, "WPA Blues".
"I got a home in Montgomery
A place I like to stay.
But I have to work for the WPA
And I'm dissatisfiedI'm dissatisfied.
Early on, Hank formed his band and it was called the Drifting Cowboys.
Over the years when he was at his peak, that band would become the sound
of legends along with Hank and the tunes they did.
He continued to write his songs. Some of those first efforts included,
"Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door)" - (the flip side of Hank's "Lovesick
Blues" record eventually), "I Don't Care (If Tomorrow Never Comes)" and
"Six More Miles". Early in his songwriting career it goes that Hank sold
a song called "I'm Praying For The Day That Peace Will Come" to another
legend in the business, Pee Wee King. They said Hank was down on his luck
a bit at the time when he sold the song when he had met up with Pee Wee King
and Minnie Pearl who were in Dothan, Alabama to do a show.
Hank eventually went to Nashville and was signed up by Fred Rose at Acuff-Rose.
Hank had met Roy Acuff several times when Roy would be performing down in Alabama.
One of the legendary stories about Hank's ability to write songs was when he
first met Fred Rose and more or less wanted to test him after he sang him
a few songs after showing up at their offices unannounced. Fred said he didn't
know that Hank actually wrote them, so he gave Hank a situation where a gal married
a rich boy instead of the poor boy who lived in the cabin. Hank went to another
room and composed his song. It took him a half hour to write "A Mansion On The Hill".
And the legend grows.
Later on, after being signed by Acuff-Rose, Hank got a spot on the WSM Grand
Ole Opry. Another legend has it that when he made that first appearance and
did Lovesick Blues, he brought the house down. And got the unheard of response
of six encores. And the legend grows...
Hank first was signed by the Sterling Record label. Hank did two sessions with
Sterling, being paid a flat fee for them instead of getting royalties. But Fred Rose
was impressed enough with what he had heard and wanted to negotiate a contract
with a larger label. Fred knew Frank Walker who had previously been president
of the Columbia and RCA Victor labels. At the time, he was in the midst of
starting a new label for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. And so, Hank was signed by
MGM as one of their first artists.
Throughout his career it is well documented that the songs he wrote often
mirrored what was going on his life. His marriage to Audrey Williams is well
documented in several of the biographies about Hank's life. She also wanted
to be a singer herself. Though at times that may have caused some tension
at her insistence on being a performer, too, Hank and Audrey recorded several
duets together along the way. Hank and Audrey had a child, Hank Williams, Jr.
or Little Bocephus as he was nicknamed and who later on in his life, would become
a famous entertainer himself. But the happiness in their marriage didn't last. And
eventually, the day would come they were divorced.
Hank always fought a battle with his drinking. He could go months without
it, but then when he would drink, it seems it got the best
of him many times. He also had back problems that he had to deal with, seeing
doctors, getting medication, etc. It all came to a point where the Opry decided
they had to deal with it by letting Hank Williams go. Everyone knew he was sick
at the time and needed to recuperate. But fate never allowed that to happen it
seemed. He went back home to Alabama. And later on, hooked up with the Louisiana
Hayride who were willing to give Hank a chance to restart his career. Everyone
knew he could still sing.
Towards the end of his life, Hank met up with a gal by the name of Billie Jean Jones
Eshlimar and they were to marry on October 18, 1952. But it wasn't to be any
ordinary wedding. It was a very public ceremony, combined with a performance
on the Louisiana Hayride.
Then, late in 1952, there was to be a new tour for Hank to show everyone he
was on the way back. A performance in Canton had been scheduled for New Year's
Eve in Canton, Ohio. Hank had arranged with Don Helms to have a few of the Drifting
Cowboys meet him up there, using the old limousine they toured in. Hank was
originally supposed to fly up there and meet them. But when the day came around,
snow had started to fall and flying was out of the question. So, Hank hired a driver,
a fellow by the name of Charles Carr, to drive him to Canton. Along the way,
Carr got pulled over in Knoxville, Tennessee for speeding. The officer had asked
about the fellow in the back seat that wasn't moving it seems, but the driver
mentioned that he had taken a sedative and was just sleeping it off. Into the
night they drove and about when he got to Oak Hill, West Virginia, he decided
to check up on Hank after pulling into a Pure Oil station. But he couldn't wake
Hank and drove him to the Oak Hill Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
On January 1, 1953, the legend of Hank Williams' life came to an end. But the
legend of his musical legacy lives on today. In the music played by his original
band the Drifting Cowboys, in the careers by his son, Hank Williams, Jr., his
grandson, Hank Williams III and a daughter born after he had died, Jett Williams.
And his music also lives on as there is hardly a country band that won't play a
tune by Hank Williams at one time or another. His music stands the test of time,
simple as it was, but in that simplicity lies its greatness and ability to
touch folks that listen to it and play it.
They've written many tribute songs about Hank after his death. They've
written many an article about his life and music. They've written
many a book, too. Even made movies and plays about the man and his music.
But perhaps the best way to know Hank, is to listen to the music. It says
it better than anything else.
Timeline and Trivia Notes
- Hank Williams, lead, vocals, guitar
- Don Helms, steel guitar
- Jerry Rivers, fiddle
- Hillous Butrum, bass
- Bob McNett, guitar
- Sam Pruitt, guitar
- Slim Watts, bass
Suggested Further Reading
- Hank Williams The Biography
By Colin Escott with George Merritt and William MacEwen
- Hank Williams Country Music's Tragic King
By Jay Caress
- Sing a Sad Song
The Life of Hank Williams
By Roger M. Williams
- From Life to Legend
By Jerry Rivers
More information on the above books can be found in
our "Library" section.
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