Country Music Hall of Famer Hank Thompson's music was a hard-driving,
crowd-pleasing blend of honky-tonk and western swing, and his deep, resonant voice
helped him to score Top 40 country hits across five decades. On Tuesday, around 10:45 p.m.,
Mr. Thompson, 82, succumbed to lung cancer. He was at his Keller, Tex. home,
surrounded by friends and family.
Mr. Thompson burst onto the national music scene with 1948's "Humpty Dumpty Heart,"
and in 1952 his "The Wild Side Of Life" stayed at the top of the country charts
for 15 weeks. "The Wild Side Of Life" also inspired an answer-record from
Kitty Wells called "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,"
a recording that made Wells into a star.
In 1961, Mr. Thompson became the first single country artist to record a live album
with the rousing At The Golden Nugget. The song-set was aided by his Brazos Valley
Boys band, a group that won Billboard magazine's touring band of the year award
for 14 straight years. The Golden Nugget album concludes with
Mr. Thompson introducing the Brazos Valley Boys and telling the crowd,
"If we've entertained you it's certainly been our privilege, and our pleasure."
“That album is tremendous,” said Chuck Mead, a Thompson disciple and a founding member
of country band BR549. “He had this voice that the men wanted and the women
loved. It spoke to everybody. What a great, unique singer.”
Mr. Thompson entertained for more than 60 years, from his "Whoa Sailor" single
in 1946 to his Oct. 8, 2007, performance in his hometown of
Waco, Tex. Born to immigrant parents (they hailed from Bohemia),
he grew up listening to the music of "Father of Country Music"
Jimmie Rodgers, to cowboy star Gene Autry and to western swing kingpin
Bob Wills. As a high school student, Mr. Thompson got a job on radio
station WACO, spinning records and identifying himself to listeners as
"Hank The Hired Hand." Then it was on to the Navy, where he was stationed in
San Diego and where he continued to play music in clubs.
"Whoa Sailor" was released on the small Globe label in 1946. Tex Ritter soon became
a fan, and Ritter brought Mr. Thompson to the attention of Capitol Records officials.
Signed to Capitol, Mr. Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys made music that included sophisticated,
swing-inspired arrangements but which never lost the snarl and stomp favored by
those who plugged dimes into honky-tonk jukeboxes.
Perhaps inspired by the helping hand he’d gotten from Ritter, Mr. Thompson sought
to bring scuffling performers into the spotlight. He heard Wanda Jackson on local
radio in Oklahoma City when she was still in high school, and he brought her into
the recording studio and onstage with the Brazos Valley Boys. He also discovered
Jean Shepard and helped set up her record deal at Capitol.
“Hank was a good-hearted person, and if he thought someone had potential he would
help them,” Shepard said. “And so much wonderful music came from Hank Thompson.
I used to follow him and the Brazos Valley Boys all over California, just to hear
the music. I will remember Hank with a lot of love in my heart.”
Mr. Thompson brought about numerous country "firsts." He was the first artist to
tour with a sound and lighting system, the first to receive corporate sponsorship on tour
and the first to record in high-fidelity stereo. His 1950s television show in Oklahoma
City was the first variety show to be broadcast in color, which helped him
to show off an outlandish wardrobe that was impressive enough to make even Porter
Wagoner nervous. His good-time sets included songs with titles
such as "Rub-A-Dub-Dub," "Hangover Tavern," "On Tap, In The Can, Or In The Bottle"
and "Smoky The Bar."
Mr. Thompson requested a “Celebration of Life” ceremony rather than a traditional funeral
service, and that celebration will take place at 2 p.m. on Nov. 14 at
Billy Bob’s Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza in Fort Worth.
In lieu of flowers, Mr. Thompson’s wife, Ann Thompson, has asked that donations be made
in Hank Thompson’s name to the Heart of Texas Country Music Museum, 1701 South
Bridge Street, Brady, Tex., 76825.
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