Hank Williams was one of the America’s most influential singers and songwriters, with 11 number-one and 35 Top-10 songs on the Western Best Sellers list. In a recording career that lasted only six years, he wrote and performed classics we still hear today such as “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “I Saw the Light”, “Cold, Cold Heart”, “Jambalaya” and many more. He was inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 and in 2010, the Pulitzer Board awarded a special citation saying that he had played “a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.”
He grew up in abject poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s and suffered a severe birth defect called spina bifida that damages nerves that control lower body movements, which prevented him from playing games and being active with other children his age. His chronic back pain and a failed operation led to addiction to painkillers, alcoholism, anorexia and heart damage. In 1953, at age 29, he died from a heart attack in the back seat of his Cadillac while being driven to his next concert.
Early Years and Start in Music
Hiram King Williams was born in 1923 in Mount Olive, Alabama, a small rural suburb of Birmingham. His father worked as a logger for a lumber company that forced the family to move frequently throughout southern Georgia. In 1930, when Hank Williams was six, his father suffered a ruptured blood vessel in his brain and was hospitalized at a VA hospital for eight years, and his mother, Lillie, took over the care of the family. She worked days in a cannery and nights in the local hospital. Their house burned down and the family lost everything, so they moved into another house where she made ends meet by taking in boarders. Hiram (later nicknamed Hank) and his sister sold vegetables from their garden, shined shoes and sold peanuts on the street.
When he was eight years old, Hank was fascinated by the African-American blues musician, Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, who worked as a street performer. His mother bought Hank a guitar and persuaded Tee-Tot to give her son guitar lessons in exchange for meals. Tee-Tot taught Hank chords, chord progressions, bass turns, and the blues style of accompaniment that he would use the rest of his life. Hank got into a fight with his school gym coach so the family had to move to Montgomery and leave Tee-Tot behind. One of Hank’s first recordings was Tee-Tot’s “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and Williams told everyone that Tee-Tot was his only music teacher. In his entire life, Hank never learned to read music. Tee-Tot died in poverty in 1939.
At age 13, Hank won $15 in a talent show for a song he wrote and sang called “WPA Blues”. Producers for a local radio station, WSFA, invited him to sing and he was so popular that they offered him his own 15-minute show twice a week for $15 a week. With that money he was able to form his own band, “Drifting Cowboys.” At age 16 he dropped out of school so he could travel with his band.
His mother was tireless and incredibly supportive. She booked dates for the band in honky tonks and theaters, negotiated prices, drove them to their shows and even helped them tour as far away as western Georgia and the Florida Panhandle. Sadly, although he was just a teenager, he had already started drinking heavily,
Slowed by World War II
At the start of World War II, all of the band members except Hank were drafted. His birth defect made him ineligible and his back problems were made even worse when he fell off a bull during a rodeo. He had a hard time finding and keeping replacement band members because he was frequently drunk. He met his childhood hero, Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, who saw him drunk and told him, “You’ve got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain.” He even showed up to his radio programs drunk, so in 1942, at age 19, he was fired by WSFA. He spent the rest of World War II building ships in Mobile, Alabama.
Rise to Stardom
In 1943 Hank met singer Audrey Sheppard and a year later, they married but it was not valid because she was not yet divorced from her first husband. In 1945 at age 22, he returned to Montgomery, was rehired by WSFA and wrote songs while Audrey managed his musical career. In 1946, she got him a contract with music publisher Fred Rose. His records were so popular that MGM signed him to a recording contract. In May 1949 Audrey gave birth to their son, Hank Williams, Jr., who would grow up to be a very famous country singer himself.
That same year, Hank appeared on the Grand Ole Opry where he was asked to perform six encores. They paid him $1,000 per show. At age 27, he toured with Bob Hope, signed with MGM movie studios and sang on television on “The Perry Como Show.”
His Fall to the Bottom
In 1951 at age 27, he fell during a hunting trip which aggravated his spina bifida, the birth defect that caused him life-long back pain, and he had an ever-increasing need to take morphine and alcohol. On May 21, 1951, he was hospitalized for his dependence on alcohol, and in December 1951 he had a spinal fusion at the Vanderbilt University Hospital.
In 1951 he had a brief affair with dancer Bobbi Jett, and they conceived a daughter, Jett Williams, who was born after Hank’s death. Jett became a talented country singer. Thirty years after her father had died, the courts awarded her significant royalties from his posthumous income.
Hank’s marriage to Audrey Sheppard was always discordant as they fought all the time over his drinking and drug use, and in 1952, they divorced. On August 11, 1952, the Grand Ole Opry fired him for habitual drunkenness and missing shows. He got prescriptions for narcotics from a fraud who wasn’t even a doctor. His road performances were outstanding when he was sober, but he was often too drunk even to show up for his concerts. His record company stopped working with him because he was constantly drunk. He was short of breath from early heart failure and had two heart attacks.
In October 1952, Hank married Billie Jean Jones, but the marriage was declared void because Jones’s divorce from her previous husband had not become final until eleven days after she married Williams.
Death of a Legend
On December 31, 1952, a college student named Charles Carr was driving Hank to Canton, Ohio for a New Year’s Day concert. He had overdosed on chloral hydrate and alcohol so when they arrived in Knoxville, a doctor gave him two shots of vitamin B12 and morphine. Porters had to carry Hank from the hotel to the back seat of his Cadillac. Later on, Carr stopped for gas at a gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia and found that Hank was dead. The autopsy showed that he died of heart failure and had a large welt on his head and severe trauma in his groin.
Almost 25,000 people went to view him in his coffin and more than 2,750 attended his funeral. Three of his records released after his death were among the top sellers throughout the country.
As the spinal cord is formed inside a baby’s body in the uterus, the bones of the spine form on one side and then gradually encircle the entire spinal cord. Sometimes the spinal bones do not close to form a complete circle and this is called spina bifida. Some degree of spina bifida occurs in about ten percent of all births, but in most people it causes no symptoms. In the more serious types, failure of the spinal cord to be enclosed 360 degrees can lead to damage to the spinal cord itself, which can impair all body functions below the damaged cord, causing loss of leg muscle strength and coordination and interfering with bladder and bowel function. It can also cause loss of feeling and severe pain. Spina bifida is associated with a mother who during pregnancy:
• lacked the vitamin folic acid
• took anti-seizure medicines
• drank alcohol
• was obese or diabetic
The incidence of spina bifida dropped significantly after World War II, when the U.S. government and many others began to require that refined white flour must be enriched with folic acid (folate) and other nutrients. Whole grains are a rich source of folic acid and other B vitamins, but they are concentrated in the germ, which is removed when wheat is milled into white flour. Pregnant women today are usually encouraged to take prenatal vitamins that assure an adequate amount of folate.
Lessons from Hank Williams’s Short Life
• Birth defects that cause a person to be different from his peers can leave psychological scars that make it difficult for him to function in society.
• Alcoholism is often a genetic disease that can be treated only with complete avoidance of any exposure to alcohol. If an alcoholic drinks at all, he or she will keep on drinking. Ten percent of North Americans will become alcoholics if they drink any alcohol.
• Addiction to narcotics is a chemical disease because withdrawal from an addicting drug makes an addict feel so sick that he or she has to take additional drugs to stop withdrawal symptoms.
• Excessive alcohol and narcotics use damage the heart at any age.
• Choose your parents wisely if you want to be a musician. Hank Williams began a dynasty of musical talent: his son, Hank Williams, Jr., his daughter Jett Williams and his grandson, Hank Williams III.
September 17, 1923 – January 1, 1953