|Hank Williams, Sr.|
AKA Hiram King Williams, Sr.
Birthplace: Georgiana, AL
Location of death: Oak Hill, WV
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, Oakwood Annex Cemetery, Montgomery, AL
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Country Musician
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Take These Chains From My Heart
A key figure in the development of country music during the 1940s (and the subsequent development of rock and roll during the 1950s), Hank Williams also helped to establish the tradition of the short-lived, substance abusing renegade that remains so fondly regarded by the music community to this day. Born to a train conductor and his wife in southern Alabama, Williams was raised solely by his mother from the age of seven onward, as his father spent the next 8 years in a VA hospital in Louisiana for a condition related to his experiences in World War I. Hanks's mother Lillie was an organist in the local Baptist church, and it was here that the young boy was given his earliest experiences as a performer, singing as part of the church choir. Throughout the depression Lillie Williams managed to maintain a reasonable standard of living for her family by working several side-jobs to supplement her husband's disability pension and the primary income she received as a boarding house manager.
At the age of 11 Hank was sent to live with relatives in Fountain, where he would receive his first guitar lesson his aunt Alice McNeil (while also getting his introduction to alcohol at the town's week-end dances. The following year he returned to his mother's home in Georgiana and continued his musical education with the help of Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, a local street musician and shoe-shiner who taught him how to play the blues. Music remained William's central interest throughout his childhood and teen years -- a situation probably encouraged by a painful spinal affliction (spina bifida occulta) he had suffered from since birth, which might have made more strenuous youthful activities too difficult. In 1937 Lillie relocated the family to Montgomery, and it was here that Hank's pursuit of a music career began in earnest. With his self-penned song W.P.A. Blues he took first place in a local talent competition, and soon afterward landed a regular spot as a radio performer on the Montgomery station WSFA (billed as "The Singing Kid").
The success of Williams' radio performances allowed him to assemble The Oklahoma Cowboys as a backing band in 1938; with his mother acting as road manager and sometime driver, the Cowboys hit the road, touring around the Alabama club and road-house circuit. The following year the 16-year-old would drop out of school in order to fully pursue his burgeoning career as a musician. By the start of America's involvement in World War II, Hank's reputation had spread well beyond the confines of Alabama: unfortunately, it was not only his reputation as a superb performer, but his reputation for constant drunkenness, which created a strong deterrent to music executives despite the singer's rapidly growing popularity. In 1946, with his career now in the hands of his new wife Audrey Mae Sheppard, Williams traveled to Nashville and finally secured a songwriting contract with the Acuff-Rose publishing company; the single Never Again (Will I Knock on Your Door) b/w Calling You was released on the Sterling label in January '47 to considerable acclaim, on the strength of which Fred Rose eventually was able to arrange a recording contract with the newly-founded MGM label.
In Nashville Hank Williams assembled a new backing band called The Drifting Cowboys. His first MGM single Move It On Over had an immediate impact in the charts. The second single Honky Tonkiní was also a success, but the severity of the singer's alcoholism was already creating a serious threat to his future in the industry. For a while Williams managed to gain control of this problem, and in the summer of 1948 Williams was added to the roster of musicians on the prestigious country radio show Louisiana Hayride. His version of the song Lovesick Blues (originally recorded by Emmett Miller in 1925) placed him at the top of the charts for four months in 1949, earning him both a "crossover" audience and his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in June of that year; two more hit songs (Wedding Bells and Mind Your Own Business) followed in quick succession, prompting the Opry to overlook Williams' excessive drinking and add him to the regular cast.
Between 1949 and 1951 Williams continued to churn out hit songs: I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and its flipside My Bucket's Got A Hole In It, Long Gone Lonesome Blues, Why Don't You Love Me, Moanin' the Blues, Howlin' at the Moon and Hey, Good Lookin' amongst them. This enormous success allowed him to pursue a parallel, gospel-themed output under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter -- usually music-backed "sermons" rather than actual songs, with considerably less commercial appeal than his other material. The peak of his success arrived with the release of Cold, Cold Heart (1951), a song that was originally just the B-side to the top 10 single Dear John but then took on a life of its own. The song gave Williams his longest stay at the top of the country charts, while its already considerable popularity was given an added boost later in the year through a pop version recorded by Tony Bennett; Bennett's version also reached #1, as well as providing its author with the most significant mainstream exposure he had received up to that point.
Hank Williams' career continued at full steam into 1952 with another series of top ten singles: Jambalaya (a #1), Half As Much, You Win Again, Settin' the Woods on Fire and I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. The singer's personal life had reached a state of complete disarray, however, and by the middle of the year his tumultuous marriage to Audrey had come to a permanent end. This only served to worsen an already severe drinking problem, which found him continually drunk during live performances and fueled his erratic, destructive behavior. In addition to his long-standing dependency on alcohol, Williams was now also in the grip of an addiction to painkillers, brought about after a hunting accident in 1951 had aggravated the existing difficulties with his spine. In August he was fired from the Opry, and soon afterward both publisher Fred Rose his backing band The Drifting Cowboys severed their ties with the volatile performer.
In October Williams married Billie Jean Jones, the 19-year-old daughter of the Bossier City police chief. The two exchanged vows three times: once for a justice of the peace in Minden, Louisiana and twice more at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium for a combined audience of over 10,000 spectators. After a brief hiatus from the stage in order to spend the Christmas holiday with his family and new bride, Williams was scheduled to perform a New Year's show in Canton, Ohio; his flight was grounded by a blizzard, and so a driver was hired to transport him to the venue on New Year's Eve. In the midst of the trip the singer suffered a fatal heart attack. The subsequent funeral in Montgomery drew a record-breaking crowd of 20,000 people and featured tributes by a number of prominent country singers -- Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff and Red Foley amongst them.
Williams' final single prior to his death, I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, once again placed him at the top of the charts; two more singles (Kaw-Liga b/w Your Cheatin' Heart and I Won't Be Home No More b/w Take These Chains From My Heart) were posthumously issued, all of the songs except I Won't Be Home taking their own turn at the #1 slot later in the year. In order to milk as much as possible from this cash cow, MGM then took a number of existing demos and doctored them into "new" songs, as well as recycling many earlier Williams hits with overdubbed string arrangements. A legal struggle between his mother and both of his wives over control of the singer's estate ensued immediately upon his death, and continued between his wives for several years afterward (Hank's mother Lillie passing away in 1955). His son Randall (who changed his name to Hank Williams, Jr.), his daughter Cathy (now Jett Williams, the result of a brief affair with Bobbie Jett), and three of his grandchildren (Hank Williams III, Holly Williams and Hillary Williams) have all pursued their own careers in the music industry.
Father: Alonzo Huble Williams ("Lon", train conductor)
Mother: Lillian Skipper ("Lilly", d. 1955)
Sister: Irene Williams
Wife: Audrey Mae Sheppard (m. 15-Dec-1944, div. 26-May-1948)
Son: Hank Williams, Jr. ("Randall Hank Williams", musician, b. 26-May-1949)
Daughter: Lycrecia Williams (stepdaughter)
Mistress: Bobbie Jett (Nashville secretary, d. 1974)
Daughter: Jett Williams ("Cathy Yvonne WIlliams", musician, b. 6-Jan-1953)
Wife: Billie Jean Jones (m. 17-Oct-1952, until his death)
High School: Sidney Lanier High School, Montgomery, AL (dropped out 1939)
Hank Williams, Sr.
Country Music Hall of Fame 1961
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1987
Songwriters Hall of Fame 1970
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
Grammy Best Country Vocal Collaboration, for There's A Tear In My Beer (1989) (with Hank Williams, Jr.)
Grammy Hall of Fame Award, for Your Cheatin' Heart (1983)
Grammy Hall of Fame Award, for I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry (1999)
Grammy Hall of Fame Award, for Hey Good Lookin' (2001)
Grammy Hall of Fame Award, for Jambalaya (2002)
Pulitzer Prize Posthumous, Special Citation for Lifetime Achievement (2010)
Risk Factors: Alcoholism, Morphine
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