Friday, November 05, 2010

Remembering Hank Williams


I grew up in a house filled with country music. My dad was from Clinchport, Virginia and that's about as country as you can get, (actually he was born in Rye Cove and the family later moved to Clinchport), although we lived many miles away in Flint, Michigan, about thirty miles from Saginaw, Michigan. For those of you not familiar with Saginaw, Michigan, other than hearing the song, Saginaw, Michigan by Lefty Frizzell. I can only say I used to listen to Little Jimmy Dickens and Eddy Arnold, the Tennessee Plowboy, who had a radio show that originated from Saginaw. That was pretty heavy country for Michigan.

So, in 1952 it was a natural thing for me to buy a ticket to the IMA auditorium to see Hank Williams "live." Hank headed the show filled with personalities from the Grand Ole Opry. I remember sitting in the front row watching the long line of performers who preceded Hank. There was Minnie Pearl, Hank Snow and many others, and then Hank. Prior to Hank's appearance there was another Hank...Snow, who also got a big reaction from the crowd. But, when Hank appeared the applause was deafening. Hank was wearing a baby blue suit that had rhinestone notes and music clefts sewn on the front of the suit and up the sides of the legs. He wore a large white, cowboy Stetson hat. His guitar was slung down from a cord around his neck. Actually it was a hand carved leather strap. When he walked to the microphone, there was a dead silence. Then he sang a couple of notes from one of his hit songs and the crowd roared again. Girls screamed and everyone was on their feet applauding him. Hank smiled and kept right on singing. The auditorium lights dimmed and a single spotlight was shining down on Hank. Flash-bulbs were popping all around me as he sang his hit songs, "Jambalaya," "Move it On Over," "The Love Sick Blues," "Hey, Good Looking," and "Your Cheating Heart." Hank had to sing them all. The audience wouldn't let him go until he did. I sat there "goose-bumpy" with tears in my eyes. He was the best. A real showman. I was all tensed up. I couldn't believe the power this guy had. I was fourteen years old and it was the most exciting thing I had witnessed.

After the show I was one of the group that managed to get backstage. Most of the group were girls wanting to get his autograph and to take pictures of him. A few of the performers came down the stairs that led to the dressing rooms, including Hank Snow, but he wouldn't sign any autographs. Then Hank came down. The girls screamed and I got goose-bumps all over again. I didn't have any paper for him to sign but I had a piece of cardboard from a popcorn box. When Hank saw the group of fans, he smiled and said, "Well, it looks like I'm going to be here for a while." Then he sat down on the steps and started signing his autograph. He signed everything handed to him, including my piece of cardboard from a popcorn box. After he signed it, I refused to move. I just stood there as he signed his name for other fans. My mind started working. I wanted to run away with him. How could I sneak into his car, or into the trunk of his car? Should I tell him I wanted to run away and travel with him? Could I be hired to shine his boots? What could I do for him? My heart was beating with anticipation. Would my grandparents, whom I lived with, let me run away with Hank? I was sure they would understand. My imagination ran away with me. I wanted to say something to Hank, but the words never came out. Would he laugh at me? Would he take me to see if grandpa and grandma would let me travel with him? Would he take the time to ask? I really wanted to be with him and to see the crowds every night. I recall my heart was throbbing, then suddenly everyone was gone. He had signed his name to every piece of paper. Hank got up and walked away......out the stage door into the parking area where his car and driver were waiting for him. I just stood there and watched. I wanted to run after him. He had to take me with him. He didn't. (He my mind). But, I was left alone.

Then a few months later I would read about him dying from an overdose of pills. He was on his way to a show in Canton, Ohio, but he deplaned because of bad weather in Tennessee, then hired a car and driver to take him through the snow storm. Charles Carr, the limo driver, tried to wake him at Oak Hill, Virginia, but couldn't. The inquest stated he had died from alcohol and never mentioned the drugs and pills he had taken. Just like the inquest on Elvis.

I showed the autograph to my grandfather Spivey. He said he would like to take it into the shop where he worked, at the Chevrolet Plant, to show his co-workers. I let him....and "he gave it away." He said a worker had been a fan of Hank's and he gave it to him. Then he gave me $1 for it. What could I say? I was pissed and saddened by his gesture. A dollar couldn't replace the memory of getting the autograph and having it to always remember Hank.

Hank was born in 1923, (only fifteen years older than me), in a double room log cabin near Georgiana, Alabama. Before his death, he had written 125 songs, yet he couldn't read or write a note of music. His formal education was informal to say the least. Hank started singing when he was a youngster. He started singing professionally on WSFA radio in Montgomery, Alabama, while he was still in high school. When he died at 29 he was doing 200 one-nighters a year grossing over $400,000.

He referred to his music as Folk music. "Folk music is sincere. There ain't nothing phony about it. When a folk singer sings a sad song, he's sad. He means it. The tunes are simple and easy to remember and the singers, they're sincere about them," he said.

Roy Acuff was Hank's idol and Fred Rose was his inspiration. Juke-boxes around the country, still have Hank's songs on them.

Hank's personal life was one of misery. His fights with his wife, Audrey, were mentioned in all of the papers. He was soon drinking and warned by the Grand Ole Opry people that he had better shape up. Booze, mixed up with stay awake pills and go to sleep pills, took away my idol. The pills were followed by harder drugs. We lost the country's most talented country writer and singer. Hank's songs were mostly songs of sorrow written about true life experiences. Lovers everywhere listened to the words of Hank's songs and realized how true they are. We all have had personal experiences similar to Hank's heartaches and we can tune in to the messages of the words he sings--

"Today I passed you on the street, and my heart fell at your feet,
I can't help it if I'm still, in love with you.
Somebody else was by your side, and you looked so satisfied.
I can't help it if I'm still in love with you."

Hank's songs have been recorded by numerous people. Charlie Pride, Elvis Presley, Teresa Brewer, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, and even Hank Williams, Jr. and Hank Williams, Jr., the 2nd, are but a few who have recorded his songs, Teresa Brewer used to sing, "Your Cheating Heart." in her night-club act.

Hank Williams, Jr. sang the soundtrack music for the film, "Your Cheatin' Heart," with Hank being portrayed by George Hamilton. The film was successful, and Hank, Jr.'s rendition of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," was just as good, if not better than Hank, Senior. Elvis once said it was the saddest song ever written. And we fans had hoped Hank, Jr. would carry on singing like his dad, but he didn't. He wanted to go his own way, and he did. He too hit the bottle and has written songs about it. But, he lacks the ooomph and charisma of his father. Hank walked on the stage and just seeing him made you feel good. You knew you were going to be entertained. He was a showman. He was tall and thin. Hank Jr., is heavy, heavy. He also has a beard and Hank was clean shaven. But, Hank Jr. went down the side of a mountain in an avalanche that tore off most of his nose and face. Plastic surgery could only do so much to bring back his good looks. Perhaps, Hank, Jr. fits in better today than Hank, Sr. could have. He died young, 29, yet he had began to bald. This may have been caused by the mixture of pills and booze. When I saw Hank on stage, I never thought about his age. His cowboy hat, which he always seemed to wear, covered his baldness. Perhaps, like Elvis, he had his share of success. He was at the top when he died. He had fallen and people thought he was through, but he worked hard and won the people back.

When Hank died, I cried. It was like losing a friend. When an entertainer dies, so young, it is a shock. When one idolizes an entertainer, like I idolized Hank, it's harder to take. I often wonder if I had the courage to ask him to take me with him, if he would have agreed? I had wanted to become a country singer and I used to imitate Hank. Would my life have been different and would Hank still be with us today if I had been with him? Fate chose him to die. Like another country song, he "lived fast, loved hard, and died young and left a beautiful memory." Just like Elvis did years later.

Over fifty-four years have passed since that night at the IMA auditorium in Flint. I can still visualize seeing Hank on stage with that single spotlight shining on him in that darkened auditorium. I guess that's the way I'll always remember him. Hank's gone and so is my grandfather and grandmother. But, their memories are still with me. And now the IMA auditorium is gone too. Stupid Flint people let the city demolish it. That place used to bring 5,000 people into the downtown area. It cost more for them to tear it down, than it would have cost to restore and reseat it, after if had be used for a terrible project called "Auto World."






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