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Rufus Payne may not have really been a hillbilly music singer or performer in the strictest sense of the word. But his influence on country music and one particular performer in particular, Hank Williams, has been documented through the years. He was living in Greenville, Alabama when a youngster by the name of Hiram Williams met him. He became known as Tee Tot to Hank.
Hank got his first guitar from his mother, Lillie. It cost her $3.50 and she has told authors that she paid for it fifty cents a month until it was paid for. Hank contributed to that effort by turning over the money he made from his shoeshining efforts and selling peanuts. One story goes he was so happy when he got it, he ran outside and slipped and fell and broke his arm. But even with the cast on, he still tried to play the guitar.
Working the streets in Georgiana, Alabama, Hank encountered someone Jay Caress called a '...worldly-wise old black street minstrel.' He played the guitar and would entertain folks on the street corners to try and get a bit of money. That man was Rufus Payne, who locals called "Tee Tot". That was short for "Teetotaler" but in another sense, it more likely had to do with the storied 'tea' that he always had in his flask, a combination of home brew whiskey and tea.
Rufus worked part time doing odd jobs such as cleaning or delivery for a local business, Peagler's Drug Store. And spent other times, playing his music with two other musicians for anyone that would listen and contribute a few coins. He often played local dances when asked.
Hank met Tee Tot when he was about 12 years old. But that relationship would be the beginning of a legend.
Hank was determined to learn to play the guitar and he was just as determined that Tee Tot would be his teacher. He taught Hank more than just the guitar. Tee Tot began to open Hank's eyes to the world a bit, and more of what it might take to be an entertainer and keep the crowds happy. Mr. Caress notes that they had to put the poetry aside and learn to draw a crowd. Being a street singer meant he did not get to play to a captive audience. That meant he had to grab their attention with a style and delivery that would make them want to stop and listen and in the end, drop a few coins in appreciation. Another aspect was to not only get them to stop and listen, but to keep them through a couple of songs or three. The thought was that folks might feel like they owed something to the spontaneous entertainment they enjoyed before they went on with their daily lives.
Jay Caress notes that Hiram Hank Williams was "...too frail for sports, too smart for farming, too poor for politics and still a bit too young for girls, performing with Tee Tot was the challenge of his young life."
Hank was around Tee Tot so much that he began calling Hank "Little White Boss". Recall the old south and the era they were a part of. Tee Tot is said to have warned Hank that some of the local white folks did not like him taking so much care of Hank. But if it worried Hank, he never showed it. Tee Tot was a frequent visitor to the kitchen of Hank's mom, Lillie, who fed him as a sort of payment for what he was doing for Hank.
Pictures of Hank at this early age show him wearing wire-rimmed glasses that are more suited for scholarly types perhaps. One of the lessons Hank must have learned was to make sure he had the timing and a strong rhythm down for the band behind him to follow. It must have been apparent he would never be a lead guitar player.
Mr. Caress inferred that in the few years Hank worked with Tee Tot, it laid the foundation for everything that Hank would need musically going forward. Chords, chord progressions, some bass runs, rhythms, the feeling of a song, communicating not only with the voice and body, but speaking "soul to soul." This learning of providing a strong rhythm has been noted by other autors such as Roger M. Williams.
Hank always gave credit to Tee Tot. "All the musical training I ever had was from him." Colin Escott cites the Montgomery Advertiser article from 1951 in his book.
During those two years of mentoring, teaching and friendship, Hank's family moved to Greenville, Alabama where Hank's mother setup another boarding house. Greenville was also where Rufus Payne lived. Hank hung around Tee Tot so much in Greenville that Chet Flippo notes they were calling them the "Greenville Troubadours." In fact, it seems that local merchants would encourage the duo to perform in front of their stores.
In his book, Chet Flippo seeming quotes a conversation between Tee Tot and Hank as Tee Tot tries to educate young Hank how to work a crowd. Hank trusted Tee Tot. He saw all of the give and take he did with the local white folks and saw his entertainment talent. He told Hank to smile. Folks wanted to see that he was friendly. Tell them jokes. Make them laugh. It don't even matter if they are homey or corny jokes. He told Hank, don't act like you are above your audience. Let them feel like there is nothing you would rather be doing than entertaining them at that moment. Hank was a bit shy at the time, perhaps uncomfortable in front of a crowd and what he saw. But Tee Tot persisted and perhaps the lessons began to sink in.
Mr. Flippo relates that one day Tee Tot set his pupil down and taught him the best song he had, a tune that had been passed down to him. It was called "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It". That song bears the copyright of Clarence Williams. Clarence was a black composer from New Orleans as well as a pianist. He also wrote "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home." Colin Escott notes that there was a unique aspect to Hank's recording. The version included an acoustic guitar break that was perhaps played by Hank himself; that makes it the only recorded solo of Hank's guitar work. Louis Innis was playing rhythm guitar on that session in the manner and sound that Fred Rose was looking for.
Why did Tee Tot have such influence over Hank's musical education? Mr. Escott points out it may have been largely due to the fact the local musicians were what he was exposed to as he grew up. His mom could not afford or own a radio or a phonograph record player.
Not much else is known about Mr. Payne's later life after Hank went off on his own. The sources we've read indicate he died in a 'charity hospital' and was on 'relief' at the time of his death. Some accounts indicate he was about 55 at the time of his death, which means he was born around 1884 or so. Some accounts indicate he had white hair by the time Hank met up with him.
Hank did not keep in touch with his mentor after leaving Alabama. Greenville held a homecoming tribute of sorts for Hank in 1951. Hank would again tell the press of the influence of Tee Tot and tried to find him, but at the time, it appears no one knew and could tell Hank he had died in 1939.
In the MGM movie of Hank's life story, Hollywood took a bit of liberty to go so far as to show Tee Tot dying in Hank's arms. But at least they did pay a bit of homage to the person who had a hand in developing Hank's career. Rex Ingram played the part of Tee Tot / Rufus Payne in the movie.
The theme is consistent throughout the research on the career of Hank Williams. It seems a given that this street singer Rufus Payne known as Tee Tot had a distinct and lasting influence on the musical development of one of country music's all time legends, Hank Williams.
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