Widely considered the most influential country music artist of the 20th century, Hank Williams had a short career filled with immense critical and commercial success, but also marred with health issues and alcohol and prescription drug abuse, all of which would lead to his untimely and tragic death before his 30th birthday.
Hiram King "Hank" Williams was born on September 17, 1923 in Mount Olive, Alabama. The third child of Lon and Lillie Williams, Hank grew up in a rural setting, with very little money. His father was often away, working for the Veterans Administration Hospital, while his mother ran rooming houses, which led to the family moving to Greenville and then later Montgomery, Alabama.
At a very young age, Hank was diagnosed with spina bifida occulta, a spinal cord condition, which often left him in constant pain and feeling isolated from other children. It's very likely that this lack of childhood normalcy would attract the young Hank to his greatest passion — music.
When he was just eight years old, Hank's mother gave him his first guitar. He learned how to play it from a local blues street singer, Rufus Payne, known around town as Tee Tot, who also taught Hank how to sing the blues, a lesson that would strongly affect his unique and heartfelt songwriting style. Hank took what he learned from Tee Tot, as well as his Baptist church organist mother, and began performing around the Georgiana and Greenville areas in his early teens.
Hank and his family moved to Montgomery in 1941 when he was just 14, where his musical talent would begin to gain attention. The aspiring musician formed the first version of his legendary band the Drifting Cowboys and landed a regular spot on a local radio station, WSFA. Hank would sing various country hits during his shows, including songs by his idol Roy Acuff, so the station affectionately dubbed him "the Singing Kid." Hank would go on to play with WSFA for the rest of the decade.
In 1943, while playing a medicine show, Hank met a young Alabama farm girl by the name of Audrey Mae Sheppard. Just a few months older than Hank, Audrey was the mother of a young daughter and had recently left a bad marriage. She soon became Hank's manager, and the following year, when her divorce was finalized, his wife. Hank and Audrey moved into one of his mother's rooming houses and began to push Hank's career forward, with Audrey singing and playing the upright bass in his band.
By 1946, Hank had become somewhat of a local celebrity, but found it difficult to find fame outside of Montgomery. He and Audrey decided it was time to move to the country music capital of the world — Nashville. After a meeting with Fred Rose, one of the heads of Acuff-Rose Publishing, Hank recorded two songs with Sterling Records. Both singles ("Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'") were successful, and Hank was signed with MGM Records in early 1947, after which Rose became Hank's manager and record producer.
Hank's career trajectory was on the fast track, with his first country blues song "Move It On Over" landing in the Billboard country Top Five later that year. In April 1948, he scored a minor hit with the public release of "Honky Tonkin'," followed by the Top Ten hit "I'm a Long Gone Daddy" and the country gospel tune "I Saw the Light."
His next single "Lovesick Blues" was a massive hit in the spring of 1949, landing at number one and staying there for 16 weeks, even crossing over into the pop Top 25. He sang the popular tune during his debut at the renowned Grand Ole Opry that year, earning an impressive six encores and a spot as a regular performer.
"Lovesick Blues" was just the first of 11 platinum singles over the next four years of Hank's career, and he would also go onto the crack the Country and Western Top 10 a record 36 times. At just 25, Hank had officially reached the level of fame he had always dreamed of. But with all that acclaim and money came a long-dormant drinking problem, one Hank had managed to control in the early years of his career, but one that threatened to return with a vengeance.
On the surface, however, his life and career seemed to be flourishing, with the birth of his first child, Randall Hank, in the spring of 1949, and the successful reassembly of the Drifting Cowboys. By mid-1949, Hank and his band were earning thousands of dollars for their sold-out concerts, and released seven more hits, including the memorable Top Five hit "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It."
The following year saw even more success for the 26-year-old country superstar, with three number-one hit singles "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," Why Don't You Love Me," and "Moanin' the Blues," as well as a string of Top Ten hits. Around this time, he also recorded more gospel-style, spiritual material under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter.
This upward momentum continued well into 1951, with crooner Tony Bennett covering Hank's song "Cold Cold Heart," the release of one of his most revered songs "Hey, Good Lookin'," and a string of top Billboard-charting hits. Hank also appeared on Perry Como's television show, joined a tour of the U.S. that included Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Minny Pearl and signed a motion picture deal with MGM.
At the height of his fame, Hank's personal life was in shambles. He was completely off the wagon, partying hard while on the road and sometimes even performing while drunk. By that point, his marriage was deteriorating, having already separated from Audrey several times. It wasn't just Hank's long absences and drinking that were breaking the couple apart — it was Audrey's failed attempt at her own recording career, a dream she had long before she met Hank. Naturally, tension, jealousy and mistrust were rife in the Williams household.
Late 1951 also saw another destructive force enter Hank's life. While on a hunting trip on his Tennessee farm, Hank tripped and fell, reactivating a back injury and exasperating his spina bifida occulta. He was in constant pain and began relying on morphine and other painkillers — an addiction that would contribute to the tragic end his life less than two years later.
In January of 1952, Hank and Audrey separated for a final time and Hank moved back to Montgomery to live with his mother, Lillie. While he was no longer in Nashville, he still managed to produce six more hits, including the Top Two single "Honky Tonk Blues." Hank maintained his public persona as a country superstar, but spent most of his waking hours drunk and on prescription drugs.
Hank moved back to Nashville to live with fellow country musician Ray Price in spring of that year, and later on in May, he and Audrey were officially divorced. She was awarded the house, their son, and half of his future royalties.
Despite performing frequently, Hank was now almost always showing up to concerts drunk and was eventually fired by the Grand Ol Opry. Officially at rock bottom, Hank's health was declining (his hair began falling out, he gained 30 pounds and he was having heart problems), his friends were leaving him, including manager Fred Rose, and the Drifting Cowboys began working with Ray Price. Throughout this, Hank was still playing the country music show The Louisiana Hayride, but only with local pickup bands and at a drastically reduced wage. Hank's romantic life was just as dysfunctional. In the fall of 1952, Hank met 19-year-old Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar, whom he married within a month, all while he was expecting his second child with one of his former girlfriends, Bobbie Jett.
It was around this time that Hank's heart problems became much worse, even suffering a minor heart attack while visiting his sister in Florida a few months before. He was prescribed drugs to help ease his pain by many questionable physicians, including a Dr. Toby Marshall, who turned out to be a con man.
On December 30, 1952, while on his way from his mother's home to Charleston, West Virginia, a drunk and drugged-up Hank collapsed in his hotel room in Knoxville, Tennessee. A doctor examined him, and despite the singer's obvious ailments, he was cleared to continue travelling.
Ironically, Hank had released the single "I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive," that past June, which would be the last single of his life and an uncanny prophesy of things to come.
Still in Knoxville, Hank was scheduled to play a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year's Day. When he was unable to fly out of Tennessee due to poor weather, he hired a chauffeur to drive him to the concert in Ohio. Before they left, Hank was given two shots of B-12 and morphine by the doctor who examined him after his collapse, and immediately left for Canton with chauffeur and college student Charles Carr. While on their way, Carr was stopped for speeding, and the policeman noticed that Hank was not moving. The legendary country star was taken to a West Virginia hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7 a.m. on January 1, 1953. Hank Williams had suffered a heart attack and died in the backseat of his powder blue Cadillac. He was just 29 years old.
Hank's Montgomery, Alabama funeral drew crowds well into the thousands, including dozens of country stars, his wife Billie Jean, his ex-wife Audrey, and ex-girlfriend Bobbie Jett, who had just given birth to his child three days prior.
Hank's legacy certainly did not die with him. The year following his death, he had four number one hits, including "I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive." Alabama governor Gordon Persons named September 21 "Hank Williams Day." In 1960, he posthumously received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hank was also one of the first artists inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and is still, over 60 years later, considered to be the father of the modern country sound.
Hank Williams masterfully translated the real, raw emotion of gospel and blues into mainstream country music, forever changing the genre, and making it what it is today. ~Shelby Morton