Monday, January 30, 2017

Spirits in the Sky - Hank Williams - the Father of Contemporary country music

Legendary Country Music Performer Hank Williams was born September 17, 1923 in Alabama.  By the early age of 25, he was a country music superstar and by the early age of 29, he was dead.  Williams left behind a legacy of country classics in his brief but lasting repertoire.

Hank Williams, known as the Father of contemporary country music, is perhaps one of the most misunderstood of country legends.  During his lifetime, he was known as increasingly unreliable, a drunk, a drug addict, and reckless womanizer.

What was unknown to almost everyone at the time was Williams suffered from a congenital spinal disorder since birth and every year his condition worsened.  He was born with a mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him lifelong pain—a factor in his later abuse of alcohol and drugs.

As a result, Williams first used excessive alcohol in his early teens to disguise the intense pain he suffered all the time.  It was not an easy life growing up in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930's.

When he was eight years old, he was given a guitar by his mother. His musical education was provided by a local blues street singer, Rufus Payne, a Black musician who was called Tee Tot. From Tee Tot, Williams learned how to play the guitar and sing the blues.  Hank was a gifted musician and songwriter who had his own band and radio show by the time he was in his late teens.

Hank’s monumental legacy becomes even more notable when realizing he issued only thirty singles in his lifetime—and five more posthumously. Eleven went to #1. All were recorded in less than six years, between December 1946 and September 1952. Yet that small body of work changed the course of American music, forever altering the sound of country music and motivating songwriters of all styles to dare to be as emotionally bare and as unabashedly real as Hank had been.

The following are more detailed accounts of the life and times of Hank Williams and his remarkable journey from the pinnacle of success to the depths of defeat.  We dedicate this story to the true legacy of the most famous country singer of all time who set the standard for being the best at a level seldom achieved in any musical genre.

CMT Artists Biography

Hank Williams - Father of Contemporary Country Music

Hank Williams is the father of contemporary country music. He was a superstar by the age of 25; he was dead at the age of 29. In those four short years, he established the rules for all the country performers who followed him and, in the process, much of popular music. Hank wrote a body of songs that became popular classics, and his direct, emotional lyrics and vocals became the standard for most popular performers. He lived a life as troubled and reckless as that depicted in his songs.

Hiram King Williams was born in Mount OliveAL, on September 17, 1923. When he was eight years old, he was given a guitar by his mother. His musical education was provided by a local blues street singer, Rufus Payne, who was called Tee Tot. From Tee Tot, Williams learned how to play the guitar and sing the blues, which would come to provide a strong undercurrent in his songwriting. Williams began performing around the Georgiana and Greenville areas of Alabama in his early teens. His mother moved the family to MontgomeryAL, in 1937, where she opened a boarding house. In Montgomery, he formed a band called the Drifting Cowboys and landed a regular spot on a local radio station, WSFA, in 1941. During his shows, Williams would sing songs from his idol, Roy Acuff, as well as several other country hits of the day. WSFA dubbed him "the Singing Kid" and Williams stayed with the station for the rest of the decade.

Williams met Audrey Mae Sheppard, a farm girl from Banks, AL, in 1943 while he was playing a medicine show. The following year, the couple married and moved into Lilly's boarding house. Audrey became Williams' manager just before the marriage. By 1946, he was a local celebrity, but he was unable to make much headway nationally. That year, Hank and Audrey visited Nashville with the intent of meeting songwriter/music publisher Fred Rose, one of the heads of Acuff-Rose Publishing. Rose liked Williams' songs and asked him to record two sessions for Sterling Records, which resulted in two singles. Both of the singles -- "Never Again" in December 1946 and "Honky Tonkin'" in February 1947 -- were successful and Williams signed a contract with MGM Records early in 1947. Rose became the singer's manager and record producer.

"Move It on Over," released later in 1947, became Hank's first single for MGM. It was an immediate hit, climbing into the country Top Five. By the summer of 1948, he had joined The Louisiana Hayride, appearing both on its tours and radio programs. "Honky Tonkin'" was released in 1948, followed by "I'm a Long Gone Daddy." While neither song was as successful as "Move It on Over," they were popular, with the latter peaking in the Top Ten. Early in 1949, he recorded "Lovesick Blues," a Tin Pan Alley song initially recorded by Emmett Miller and made popular by Rex Griffin. The single became a huge hit upon its release in the spring of 1949, staying at number one for 16 weeks and crossing over into the pop Top 25. Williams sang the song at the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed an unprecedented six encores. He had become a star.

Hank and Audrey Williams had their first child, Randall Hank, in the spring of 1949. Also in the spring, Hank assembled the most famous edition of the Drifting Cowboys, featuring guitarist Bob McNett, bassist Hillous Butrum, fiddler Jerry Rivers, and steel guitarist Don Helms. Soon, he and the band were earning $1,000 per concert while selling out shows across the country. Williams had no fewer than seven hits in 1949 after the success of "Lovesick Blues," including the Top Five smashes "Wedding Bells," "Mind Your Own Business," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." A string of additional singles followed in 1950, including the number one hits "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me," and "Moanin' the Blues," as well as the Top Ten hits "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'," "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy," "They'll Never Take Her Love From Me," "Why Should We Try," and "Nobody's Lonesome for Me." That same year, Williams began recording a series of spiritual records under the name Luke the Drifter.

Williams continued to rack up hits in 1951, beginning with the Top Ten hit "Dear John" and its number one flip side, "Cold, Cold Heart." That same year, pop vocalist Tony Bennett recorded his own version of "Cold, Cold Heart" to popular acclaim, leading to a stream of covers from such mainstream artists as Jo Stafford, Guy Mitchell, Frankie Laine, Teresa Brewer, and several others. Williams had also begun to experience the fruits of crossover success, appearing on the Perry Como television show and joining a package tour that also featured Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Minny Pearl. In addition to "Dear John" and "Cold, Cold Heart," Williams had several other hits in 1951, including the number one song "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "Howlin' at the Moon," "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)," "Crazy Heart," "Lonesome Whistle," and "Baby, We're Really in Love," which all charted in the Top Ten.

Though his professional career was soaring, Hank's personal life was beginning to spin out of control. He had suffered a mild drinking problem before becoming a star, but it had been more or less controlled during his first few years of fame. However, as he began to earn large amounts of money and spend long times away from home, he began to drink frequently. Furthermore, Hank's marriage to Audrey was deteriorating. Not only were they fighting, resulting in occasional separations, but Audrey was trying to create her own recording career without any success. In the fall of 1951, Hank was on a hunting trip on his Tennessee farm when he tripped and fell, re-activating a dormant back injury. Williams began taking morphine and other painkillers for his back and quickly became addicted.

In January of 1952, Hank and Audrey separated for a final time and he headed back to Montgomery to live with his mother. The move had little effect on his music career, however, with "Honky Tonk Blues" peaking at number two during the spring. In fact, he released five additional singles in 1952 -- "Half as Much," "Jambalaya," "Settin' the Woods on Fire," "You Win Again," and "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" -- all of which charted in the Top Ten. In spite of such success, Hank turned completely reckless in 1952, spending nearly all of his waking hours drunk and taking drugs. He also frequently destroyed property and played with guns.

Williams left his mother in early spring, moving in with Ray Price in Nashville. In May, Audrey and Hank were officially divorced. She was awarded the house and their child, as well as half of his future royalties. Williams continued to play a large number of concerts, but he was always drunk during the show, and he sometimes missed the gig altogether. In August, the Grand Ole Opry fired Williams for that very reason, explaining that he could return once he was sober. Instead of heeding the Opry's warning, the singer just sank deeper into his self-destructive behavior. Soon, his friends were leaving him, as the Drifting Cowboys began working with Price and Fred Rose no longer supported him. Williams was still playing The Louisiana Hayride, but he was performing with local pickup bands and began earning reduced wages.

That fall, he met Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar, the 19-year-old daughter of a Louisiana policeman. By October, they were married. Hank also signed an agreement to support the baby -- who had yet to be delivered -- of one of his other girlfriends, Bobbie Jett, in October. By the end of the year, Williams was having heart problems and Toby Marshall, a con man doctor, was giving him various prescription drugs to help soothe the pain.

Hank was scheduled to play a concert in CantonOH, on January 1, 1953. He was scheduled to fly out of KnoxvilleTN, on New Year's Eve, but the weather was so bad that he had to hire a chauffeur to drive him to Ohio in his new Cadillac. Before they left for Ohio, Williams was injected with two shots of vitamin B-12 and morphine by a doctor. Williams got into the backseat of the Cadillac (allegedly with a bottle of whiskey), and the teenage chauffeur headed out for Canton. When the driver was stopped for speeding, the policeman noticed that Hank looked like a dead man. Williams was taken to a West Virginia hospital and he was officially declared dead at 7:00 a.m. on January 1, 1953. He had died in the back of the Cadillac, on his way to a concert. Ironically, the last single released in his lifetime was "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."

Hank was buried in MontgomeryAL, three days later. His funeral drew a record crowd, larger than any crowd since Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as the President of the Confederacy in 1861. Dozens of country music stars attended, as did Audrey Williams, Billie Jean Jones, and Bobbie Jett, who happened to give birth to a daughter three days later. "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" reached number one immediately after his death, and it was followed by a number of hit records throughout 1953, including the number ones "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Kaw-Liga," and "Take These Chains From My Heart."

After his death, MGM wanted to keep issuing Williams records, so they took some of his original demos and overdubbed bands onto the original recording. The first of these, "Weary Blues from Waitin'," was a hit, but the others weren't quite as successful. In 1961, Hank was one of the first inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Throughout the '60s, Williams' records were released in overdubbed versions featuring heavy strings, as well as reprocessed stereo. For years, these bastardized versions were the only records in print, and only in the '80s, when his music was released on compact disc, was his catalog restored to its original form. Even during those years when only overdubbed versions of his hits existed, Williams' impact never diminished. His songs have become classics, his recordings have stood the test of time, and his life story is legendary. It's easy to see why Hank Williams is considered by many as the defining figure of country music. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi.

Hank Williams
Encyclopedia of World Biography | 2004
COPYRIGHT 2004 The Gale Group Inc.
Hank Williams
In his tragically short career, Hank Williams (1923-1953) became one of the most famous country and western performers in the United States. He wrote and recorded songs that are still considered to be country music standards.
Hiram King "Hank" Williams was born on September 17, 1923, near Mt. OliveAlabama, the third child born to Elonzo Huble and Lillian (Skipper) Williams. His father abandoned the family when Williams was a young child, spending many years at veterans' hospitals for various ailments. It therefore became the responsibility of his strong-willed mother to raise Williams and the other children. Williams attended SidneyLanier High School in Montgomery, but left school at the age of 16.
Raised as a Fundamentalist Baptist, Williams was steeped from his earliest childhood in the church's distinctive sermons and music. He remained fond of the fire and brimstone images, especially from the songs. His mother played the organ at Mt. Olive West Baptist Church. "My earliest memory," Williams told Rolling Stone writer Ralph J. Gleason, (as quoted by Williams' biographer Colin Escott), "is sittin' on that organ stool by her and hollerin'. I must have been five, six-years-old, and louder'n anybody else." Williams also found inspiration in black music. He learned to play the guitar in GreenvilleAlabama, from a street performer named Rufe Payne, known as Tee-Tot. "I was shinin' shoes and sellin' newspapers and following [him] around to get him to teach me to play the git-tar," Williams told Gleason. "I'd give him 15 cents, or whatever I could get ahold of for a lesson." Yet another musical inspiration for the lanky teenager were the ever-present sounds of traditional country music performers like the Carter family and Monroe brothers.
Early Career
Trying to break into the music business, Williams entered talent contests all over the country. He won $15 at the Empire Theater in Montgomery by performing what is probably the first song he wrote, "WPA Blues," a blues critique of President Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era work program. Too sickly and skinny for the hard labor jobs of his peers, Williams honed his guitar and singing skills. In 1942, he managed to get his own weekly 15-minute show on Montgomery radio station WSFA. (In those days, radio programming was composed almost entirely of live acts.) Williams spent several years (the precise number varied wildly depending on who told it) at WSFA, eventually becoming a disk jockey. In Montgomery, Williams made his first recording, at Griffin's Radio Shop. Around this time, he organized his backup band, the Drifting Cowboys, who would play with him through most of his career.
In 1943, Williams met Audrey Mae Sheppard. At the age of 20, she was separated from her husband and a single mother. In a ceremony just ten days after her divorce became final, she and Williams were married before a justice of the peace at his gas station near AndalusiaAlabama in December 1944. With the help of his new bride, who took over his mother's motivating role, Williams traveled to Nashville. He was determined to build a successful career in the country music business.
In 1946, Williams earned a writer's contract after auditioning for Acuff-Rose publishing. He recorded his first session in December 1946, and the single "Calling You" was released in January 1947. The success of that record led to a one-year recording contract with MGM records in March 1947. His first MGM single, "Move It On Over," sold 108,000 copies in less than a year. His growing popularity enabled Williams to secure a position on a bigger radio show, the Louisiana Hayride, which was broadcast out of Shreveport,Louisiana. It was the biggest listening audience he had ever reached.
Big Break
Williams recorded "Lovesick Blues," from a 1922 musical called Oooh Ernest! "Lovesick Blues, a song that was neither country nor blues in origin, and not even from Hank's pen, gave him his breakthrough," Escott later wrote. "From the opening line, with its keening yodel adding a dramatic flourish to the word "blues," it was obvious that this was a performance—rather than a song—that was impossible to ignore. Hank's performance almost instilled the lyrics with meaning."
The song, released February 11, 1949, quickly became Williams' trademark tune. It spent a year on the charts, including 16 weeks at the top. Suddenly, Williams found himself on a roll. He quickly recorded two more songs that also hit the charts, "Wedding Bells," and "Mind Your Own Business," a tune allegedly aimed at his wife. Even though Williams was gaining a reputation for being unreliable and having a problem with alcohol, the Grand Ole Opry reluctantly hired the rising young star as a regular cast member in the summer of 1949.
As Williams grew more famous, his wife began to push for her own spot in the limelight. Since the start of their relationship, Williams had sometimes allowed her to play with the Drifting Cowboys. They recorded several duets together. One demo revealed that "Audrey's voice sounded like fingernails scraping down a blackboard. She was shrill and tuneless, and her problems were compounded by a weak sense of time," Escott wrote. "Her duets with Hank were like an extension of their married life—she fought him for dominance on every note."
Rising Star

1949 was a very successful year for Williams. Not only was he hired by the Grand Ole Opry, but he became the proud parent of a son, Randall Hank Jr., who would later become a country music star in his own right. In 1950, Williams had a series of successful songs including "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," and "Why Don't You Love Me." He also released a series of religious duets with his wife. Using his own increasing stardom as leverage, Williams had helped his wife get a recording contract with Decca. They were far less successful. He recorded his unpopular religious sermons under the name "Luke the Drifter," so that jukebox operators who had standing orders for any Hank Williams release wouldn't buy them.
Williams' success continued through 1951, and culminated with the release of "Cold, Cold Heart." The tune spent almost a year at the top of the country music charts. Music executives convinced pop crooner Tony Bennett to record a version of the song, which became a hit for him as well. This was especially significant because it was the first time a country song recorded by a pop artist had achieved such stunning commercial success. Subsequently, Williams became noticed on a national level, one of the first country singers to do so. In addition to their musical activities, Williams and his wife found the time to launch a Nashville clothing store, Hank and Audrey's Corral.
Decline and Fall
With greater success came increased pressure. Williams felt an obligation to continue producing hit songs. He allegedly bought some songs under shady circumstances and called them his own. The relationship between Hank and Audrey Williams also grew tense, as allegations of mutual infidelities flew. His problem with alcohol grew worse. In January 1952, Audrey Williams filed for divorce.
"As his personal life began its disintegration," Escott wrote, "Hank's recording career swung into high gear. Every record he released under his own name during the last two years of his life entered the top five of the country charts, and many were covered for the pop market. Williams canceled some sessions, and failed to show at others, but when he actually appeared in front of the studio microphone, it seemed as though he could do no wrong."
Williams could not maintain the front for long. Although he made television appearances and had even gotten some movie offers, Williams lost what little control he had maintained over his drinking. He also began abusing amphetamines and barbiturates. In 1952, he lost his job with the Grand Ole Opry and was forced to return to the Louisiana Hayride. He moved into his mother's boarding house in MontgomeryAlabama.
Williams married for the second time on October 19, 1952. His new bride was Billie Jean Jones, the daughter of the Bossier CityLouisiana, police chief. The wedding took place three times at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium for an estimated 14,000 spectators who paid to see the event. The couple was only married for ten weeks before Williams' reckless lifestyle caught up with him. On New Year's Eve, 1952, he was riding in the back seat of his chauffeured Cadillac to a show in Ohio. Williams was heavily medicated and drunk when he died of an alcohol-induced heart attack sometime during the night in Oak HillWest Virginia. On January 1, 1953, Williams was pronounced dead. He was 29 years old.
Williams' funeral in MontgomeryAlabama, drew more than 20,000 mourners from all over the country. Country stars Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Carl Smith, and Webb Pierce sang in memory of their lost friend. The Montgomery Advertiser reported (as noted in Country: The Music and Musicians ) "They came from everywhere, dressed in their Sunday best, babies in their arms, hobbling on crutches and canes, Negroes, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, small children, and wrinkled faced old men and women. Some brought their lunch."
Legal Wrangling
Almost immediately after Williams' death, a battle over his estate broke out between the surviving members of the family. Audrey Williams, Billie Jean Williams, and Williams' mother sued and counter-sued for years. Lawsuits continued into the late 1980s between Hank Williams, Jr., and the "lost daughter" of Hank Williams, Sr., who was conceived during a short affair Williams had after his first wife threw him out of the house. Jett Williams was born five days after her father's death. Like her half brother, she later launched a singing career and hired several members of her father's Drifting Cowboys to play backup.
Despite his excesses the controversy regarding his estate, Williams could be proud of his musical legacy. In The Illustrated History of Country Music, music legend Johnny Cash stated, "Hank Williams is like a Cadillac. He'll always be the standard for comparison." Williams' trademark hillbilly-tinged sound remains a country music staple. In 1990, Poly Gram Records released a popular collection of every known single he recorded. In 1998, famed auction house Christie's, auctioned off one of his old Gibson guitars. The guitar fetched $112,000. Clearly, Williams continues to lure fans.
The key to Williams' long-lasting popularity "is passion," concluded Escott. "The entire range of human emotions is within these recordings: love, hate, envy, joy, guilt, despair, remorse, playfulness, sorrow, and more. The lyrics were simple, but simplicity does not preclude meaning. In writing for the man who could barely sign his name, Hank Williams wrote for us all." He cited some of Williams' more poignant lyrics, noting: "There can be few who haven't felt as though Hank Williams has read their mail, their diary, or their mind."
Further Reading
Brown, Charles T., Music U.S.A.America's Country and Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
Country: The Music and the Musicians, edited by Paul Kingsbury and Alan Axelrod, Country Music Foundation, 1988.
Escott, Colin, Hank Williams: The Biography, Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
The Illustrated History of Country Music, edited by Patrick Carr, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979.
Williams, Jett, with Pamela Thomas, Ain't Nothin' as Sweet as My Baby: The Story of Hank Williams' Lost Daughter, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.
Williams, Roger M., Sing a Sad Song: The Life of Hank Williams, University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Forbes, March 9, 1998, p. 249.
"Hank Williams: The Complete Website," (February 12, 2000).
Hank Williams, Sr., "Welcome to the Official Website of: Hank Williams, Sr.," (February 12, 2000). □

Faces of Spina Bifida Magazine

Hank Williams, Sr.

December 29, 2011   Famous Faces
Faces Archive | Source

"The far best explanation of his problem lies in the symptoms of spina bifida occult in Hank's medical reports and in his autopsy. Spina bifida occult is a birth defect; the vertebral arches fail to unite and this allow the spinal cord to herniate, to extend outward from the spine. Hank's type was not so severe. there evidently was no external growth, but even the lesser version (the occult) can leave a mark on the back and effect the lower extremities. The ailment is progressive and thus explains some of Hank's problems, especially his occasional paralysis, along with his trouble with sports as a child."

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