Thursday, June 16, 2005

Hank Thompson - living country music legend


from my collection, an autographed Hank Thompson songbook

Today I'm pleased to present one of country music's greatest performers, who even though he's in his late 70's is still touring and playing.

Born in 1925, Hank grew up in Waco Tx, he grew up in the depression, fascinated with a neighbor lady's Victrola, emanating sounds of Dalhart's Texas Panhandlers, The Carter Family & Jimmie Rodgers, at the movies Gene Autry was singing on the big screen, and Earnest Tubb was broadcasting out of Fort Worth, and The Grand Ol' Opry on WLS every Saturday night out of Nashville.

download a track by one of Hank's early influences

Dalhart's Texas Panhandlers - Better Get Out of My Way
From A 78 RPM Diamond Disc from 1926

He learned guitar & harmonica by age 10 and could pick tunes up by ear of the radio, or via the nickel jukes & by the time he was in high school, Hank had his own sponsored radio show on WACO.

He started writing his own material aboard ship in the Navy circa WWII, and returned to Texas and got shows on the big Mexican radio stations like XCLO & XERF known as "border boomers". The signals were so strong they could be heard as far as Hong Kong, and of course throughout the entire US.

His homespun diction, and memorable tales of love & woe , jubilation & rebel rousing soon earned him fans near & far.

His first record was written while in the Navy, 1946's Whoa Sailor b/w Swing Wide Your Gate of Love and were big on the hit pardade on KRDL in Dallas. He bounced around on indies like Globe, & Blue Bonnent, but with help from Tex Ritter, he landed a deal with Capitol in 1947, and finally struck it big with "Humpty Dumpty Heart" in 1949. He quit a regular run on the Grand Ol' Opry in 1949, and travelled the back country playing country's version of the vaudeville circuit, consisting of school houses, barn dances, saloons & grange halls.

Hank Thompson - Fool To Fool Around With You.mp3

IN 1952 after hitting a 33 week stint in the top 10 with "Wild Side of Life" (a.k.a Honky Tonk Angels), he began a string of 21 top 20 hits, many in the top 5. His road band the Brazos Valley Boys had two fiddlers , wore suave suits, and featured their own sound and lighting system ( built using expertise learned as a Navy radioman and via a brief collegiate G.I Bill stint at Princeton). With his big band, they played , and played, hitting county fairs and on into larger ballrooms like the Trianon in Chicago, Meadowbrook in New York, The Panther Hall in Fort Worth & Prom in Minneapolis, with later appearances at venues such as the Smithsonian Institute, the Hollywood Palladium, Carnegie Hall. His charming personality, hit making and sense of showmanship & style found him offered a television show in Oklahoma City, the first variety show broadcast in color.

Says Thompson of his colorful sequined studded Nudie suits and blazing stage show "The public is entitled to something that is colourful and flashy. We're in showbusiness and there's nothing colourful about a T-shirt and ragged jeans."

Hank's hits during the 1950's included "Waiting in the Lobby of Your Heart" (1952), "Rub-A-Dub-Dub" (1953), "Breakin' the Rules" (1954), "Honky Tonk Girl" (1954), "The New Green Light" (1954), "The Blackboard of My Heart" (1956).

Hank Thompson- Rub-A-Dub-Dub.mp3

Click to direct to an an mp3 of Rub-A-Dub-Dub, from a rare early 1950's radio transcription recording released by Bloodshot Records of Chicago

In 1957 he recorded the album "Songs For Rounders" ( the first stereo country LP) that featured rough hewn rowdy western swing tracks like "I'll Be A Bachelor Til I Die" and his version of "Cocaine Blues" ( years before Johnny Cash got around to releasing it). Other highpoints in the 50's included "Driving Nails In My Coffin" & "Squaws Along the Yukon" (1958) not to mention being voted #1 Country Western Band in Billboard for 14 straight years, and in that time played 14 Texas State Fairs.

track from his out of print LP

Songs for Rounders - Capitol
Play: Streaming Windows Media .asf

His 1960 release "Hank Thompson, Live at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas" showcased his groundbreaking Las Vegas country show featuring Merle Travis on guitar and Bobby Garrett on pedal steel and was the first live country album. The live album was so successful two more live albums followed within two years. His hits in the early 60's included "A Six Pack To Go" & 1961's "Oklahoma Hills."

Hank Thompson - A Six Pack To Go

As the decade wore on Hank switched allegiances from Capitol where he'd done 25 albums, and he began working with Warner Brothers in '64, charting with "Where Is the Circus" and "He's Got A Way With Women." By '68 ABC/Dot became his label where he recorded 18 albums including tributes to Nat King Cole & The Mills Bros as well as classic drinking themed tunes "On Tap, In the Can, or In the Bottle (1968), and "Smoky the Bar" (1969).

Hank Thompson - Smoky The Bar

Approximately 12 more albums followed on a smattering of labels. One was a 1997 tribute/duet album of sorts featuring Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Marty Stuart and others. The standout track for me is a medley mash-up of his breakthrough hit Wild Side of Life featuring the inclusion of the famous answer track by Kitty Wells (& in amarketing ploy, how about Tanya Tucker who is tossed in the song for her who knows what, as she definitely sounds worse for wear than either of her elders).

Click to start listening and we'll let Hank tell his own story of the song...

Play: Streaming Windows Media .asf
file The
Wild Side Of Life/It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels

Hank, Kitty & Tanya - Curb Records 1997

    Whatever meaningful contributions I may have made to this industry must pale by comparison to the profound effect of my recording of "Wild Side Of Live."
    Not so much what the song did for me, but that it spawned an answer song
    (not unusual back then), "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."
    It catapulted a relatively unknown young girl vocalist, Kitty Wells, to immortal stardom. Prior to Kitty's emergence, female singers in Country Music (and all other forms as well) had only modest success. It is now academic to
    say that she paved the road. Kitty cut the ribbon to the freeway for those to come: Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntyre, Tanya Tucker and other
    superstars. Kitty Wells came into the studio and sang her signature song as well, if not better than she did on the original recording. The clarity and charm of her voice project an exhilaration that is unmistakable! By contrast
    and compliment, Tanya Tucker added her saucy, and even sassy, retaliation. She
    put a sting to those lyrics so characteristic of her style and personality.
    And to think Kitty and I recorded those songs years before Tanya was born! Who
    would have thought that someday we would be here for this historic event. It
    makes us very proud!

Amazingly , Hank who has had 7 decades of hit making is still on the road as I started this piece in late April, playing a Knights of Columbus hall in deep in the heart of Texas with the lastest edition of The Brazos Valley Boys , featuring Hank's fiddle player since 1955, Curly Lewis. Look for them on the road , still rousing up crowds at Theaters, Fairs, Ballrooms and Casinos coast to coast...dates are posted at

Other recent efforts from Hank include an indie released retro collection of radio transcripts on Bloodshot & and his latest release Drinking Songs and 2000's "Seven Decades" on Hightone.

While yer there at his site, pick up an autographed photo from this country legend and a CD !!

Hank Thompson - last of the living legends,

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