Hank Williams will forever live on in the hearts of millions. His success as a singer/songwriter can be attributed to the simplicity of his lyrics, melody and his sincerity. Hank Williams was truly a one of a kind. He was a man who could barely scribble his own name and could not read a single note of music; however, he changed the face of country music forever.
There is of course no way to evaluate this but Hank Williams probably has as much claim to being the greatest figure in country music history as anyone. He is considered to be the greatest songwriter in its history and when he was probably one of its two or three best performers as well.
Hiram Williams was born on September 17, 1923 to Elonzo Huble Williams and Jessie Lillybelle Skipper Williams near the town of Georgianna, Alabama in the Mt. Olive Community. He had a sister named Irene and a brother who died shortly after birth.
Elonzo or "Lon" was in the logging industry. This type of life forced the family to move a lot; however, they never left Alabama. In January 1930 Lon was institutionalized in a Veteran's Hospital for "shell shock" from World War I. He would never return to the family because Lilly would file for divorce during his ten year stay. This would leave Hank without a true father figure forever.
Hank's musical experience really started at the age of three while he sat beside his mother on the organ at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church. However, he didn't begin to get serious about his musical skills until the age of eleven when he played the jazz horn. Although many people claim to have gotten Hank his first guitar, the most believeable, in my opinion, is that Lilly ordered him one from Sears and Roebuck for $3.50.
He never had any formal training on the guitar but he learned from a black street singer named Rufus Payne or "Tee-Tot". Apparently, Tee-Tot was very accomplished as an entertainer, he knew how to capture an audience. During the Depression someone had to be very good for a person to give them their money. Obviously, this is where Hank also picked up his talent of holding an audience in the palm of his hand.
The first band in which Hank was involved with was called "The Drifting Cowboys" and this name would never change throughout his career, although the band members were different much of the time. The first group was headed by not only Hank but also Hezzy Adair. Hank was only thirteen and was regularly playing on radio station WSFA-AM in Montgomery.
After his success with the band he played local honky tonks and schoolhouses while being managed by his mother who not only booked the shows but also took the money at the door.
At the age of fourteen, Hank won an amateur night contest at the Empire Theater in Montgomery. He sang a self-composed song "WPA Blues" and was awarded fifteen dollars. With this victory he became known around Montgomery as "The Hillbilly Shakespeare".
On the dark side of things he was also known as a problem drinker--even at fourteen. This reputation would follow him the rest of his short life.
By his twentieth year he was a grown man of a slight build standing six feet two inches tall and weighing around one hundred forty pounds. Bobby Moore, a Nashville bass player, was later quoted as saying, "Hank Williams is the only guy I ever saw who could sit back in a chair and cross his legs and still put both feet on the floor."
Soon Hank got involved singing in a medicine show where he met a woman named Audrey Mae Sheppard. They hit it off from their first meeting and were marred in Andalusia, Alabama at a filling station in December 1944.
Hank may have never achieved his stardom had it not been for Audrey. She knew he had what it took to make it in the business and never let him forget it. On September 14, 1946 she convinced him to travel to Nashville and meet with Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose Publishing.
Fred Rose could smell talent and set up a recording session with Hank and released four songs. After these were out Hank became a star around the southeast area of the United States and thought he was ready for the Opry. However, his reputation had preceded him and they wanted no part of him.
His best bet was to go to the "minor leagues" and become a regular on the Louisiana Hayride. He did so in August 1948 and was an instant success. Some believe if Hank had remained on the Hayride the Opry would have lost all of its big performers to the Hayride.
On December 22, 1948 Hank recorded a song written by Irving Mills and Cliff Friend called "Lovesick Blues". This song raced to the top of the charts and stayed there. The Opry could no longer resist Hank and he debuted on June 11, 1949. He sang "Lovesick Blues," which by now had sold three million copies. He recieved a standing ovation - and six encores. This had never happened before and hasn't happened since.
This was an especially happy time for Hank. He was a superstar, a regular on the Opry, and he and Audrey had a new baby, Randall Hank Williams. Hank called him Little Bocephus after a ventriloquists dummy that was on the Opry at that time.
When Hank wanted to "preach" in his songs, he used the pseudonym "Luke The Drifter". This was done primarily for marketing purposes because jukebox owners would quickly buy something by Hank but would shy away from the "Drifter" because he moralized a bit much for honky-tonks.
Now Hank's life was turning sour. On May 29, 1952 his divorce from Audrey was final. She got custody of Little Bocephus and half of all he had as well as half he'd ever make, providing she never remarried. He also got fired, or suspended, from the Opry on August 11, 1952. From this point on Hank Williams probably never drew another sober breath.
Even though Hank was in a very bad shape he still did exceptionally magnificent recordings on September 23, 1952. This, his last ever recording session, he recorded, "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Kawliga," and "Take These Chains From My Heart." These were some of his greatest songs but he would never see their outcome.
Hank, now twenty-nine, married a nineteen year old beauty named Billie Jean Jones Eshliman on October 18, 1952. The next day he married her again, twice, in front of a paying audience in New Orleans.
Hank's recording life was good but seeing him live was another story. He missed shows, fell off stages and sometimes forgot words to songs because he was so drunk. His mother took him home to dry him out and was fairly successful until he received a phone call to appear in Canton, Ohio on New Year's Day.
The weather on the night of December 31 was terrible. It was freezing cold and snow was falling, but Hank decided to go anyway. He hired a college student named Charles Carr to drive him to Canton.
Hank never made the Canton show. He died in the back seat of his 1952 Cadillac, in his hands he clutched a piece of paper. On the paper were these words: "We met, we lived and dear we loved, then comes that fatal day, the love that felt so dear fades far away." Autopsy reports show he died of alcoholic cardiomyopathy. But he was probably lucky to have lived as long as he did because of a birth disorder called Spina Bifida Occulta which if not treated in childhood can be fatal. His was never treated.
Hank died at the age of twenty-nine years, three months, and fourteen days. During his lifetime he recorded one hundred twenty-nine songs, but left a legacy of over seven hundred.
Hank's funeral was on January 4, 1953 in Montgomery, Alabama. Over twenty-five thousand gathered to see him off on his final ride. After the funeral Horace Logan, an Opry official, flew to Montgomery with Felton Pruett (one of Hank's early steel guitarists), Louisiana Hayride guitarist Dobber Johnson, and a few others. Jim Denny (who was sitting in front of Logan and who had also fired Hank from the Opry) said, "Logan, if Hank could raise up in his coffin, he'd look up toward the stage and say, 'I told you dumb sons-of-bitches I could draw more dead than you could alive.'"
As old Hank would say, "If the good Lord's willin' and the creeks don't rise, I'll see you soon. I'll be home soon, Little Bocephus."
James Felton Hall, Jr