Hank Thompson:
Looking Back

By camilledad58 - anglares.dominique@wanadoo.fr
Posted November 10, 2007

Howdy Country folks, I was very hurt to learn about Hank passing just few days after he had announcing his retirement. Hank played his last show October 08, 2007 and I thought he could again those Country Hicks walking the floor for many shows to come. He passed away peacefully and it was a quiet end for that fabulous entertainer who brought us the all time classic song "The Wild Side of Life". That good-looking guy, six- feet-two inches tall, 180 pounds, with a keen sense of humor and warm smile will probably bring some "swing" beyond the sunset. Maybe Porter Wagoner may have let the heaven gates open?

Henry William Thompson was born on September 2, 1925, in Waco, Texas, from immigrant parents. He grew up idolizing musicians like Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, the Carter Family, Bob Wills and Vernon Dalhart. Thompson began playing French harp, winning several amateur contests, before turning to the guitar after seeing Gene Autry's movies. He started to work hard on many local talent shows as a teenager and got his first radio program, when he was still a school student, was on WACO, the only radio station in Waco. He became a regular on matinee cast before having a regular spot and identifying himself to listeners as "Hank The Hired Hand". He had a local morning program for a grocery store and flour company. He would pick his guitar and sing on Saturday afternoons for the folks down at the store. During his high school years, Hank worked evenings and Saturdays in radio repair shops, where he became fascinated by the study of electronics and even taught himself Morse Code. Hank graduated from Waco High School on January 22, 1943 and then he joined the Navy for three years as Radio Technician and was stationed in San Diego as instructor in radio. He also became part of an entertainer unit that toured Pacific bases, West coast camps and the South Pacific. He also took advantage of training programs and studied electrical engineering in the University of Texas and Princeton University who made him one of the country music's better-educated stars. In 1946, he formed his first band The Brazos Valley Boys and "Whoa Sailor"/"Swing Wide Your Gate of Love" was released on the small Globe label followed by "Humpty Dumpty Heart". Then, working for KWTX in Waco, he recorded "A Lonely Heart Knows" for Bluebonnet records before, with the help of Hal Horton - a KRLD (Dallas) DJ - he was able to catch the attention of Tex Ritter who brought the young singer's name to the Capitol Records officials in 1947. A contract was settled in October 1947 and Hank and his Brazos Valley Boys brought them music that included sophisticated, swing-inspired arrangements but which never lost the swing and stomp favored by those who plugged dimes into honky-tonk jukeboxes. His strong emphasis on Western Swing and what we call Honky Tonk Music brought him countless fans who liked that sound because they could dance to it. Hank has been one of their leading recording artists from then to 1966. On "Capitol" was also his friend Merle Travis, a great guitar picker, who worked on several of his sessions.

Perhaps inspired by the helping hand he received from Ritter after he heard Wanda Jackson on KLPR, a local radio in Oklahoma City when she was still in high school. He brought her into his own recording studio and on stage with the Brazos Valley Boys at the legendary Trianon Ballroom and on KWTV in Oklahoma City. After "Capitol" turned her down to be too young, he helped her to have her first record for "Decca". In Hollywood, she recorded a duet with former Brazos sidemen Billy Gray on March 24, 1954 and "You Can't Have My Love" was her first single (Decca 29140). On Aug 24, 1954, she recorded at Hank Thompson studio: another duet with Billy covering the classic Jimmy Lee Fautheree and Johnny Mathis song "If You Don't, Somebody Else Will" soon issued on "Decca 29267". Billy Gray fronted Hank's band for years except for a brief period when he decided to go out on his own with Hank's blessing. Wanda said about Hank "I am forever grateful for this talented, charming, and intelligent role model that I had. Even now, each time i work with him, I realize I'm still learning things from this wonderful man". Quite a compliment by that great artist! Hank also discovered Jean Shepherd and helped set up her record deal at Capitol where she secured a big hit dueting with Ferlin Huskey on "A Dear John Letter".

Hank did not have the pleasure to see Wanda Jackson inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from Cleveland 'cause she missed, once again, the final ballot by two votes in September 07. Anyway, Hank will stay as the man who discovered the rockin' gal with the nasty voice who can't be stopped when she start erupting. He brought to "Capitol" a great rockin' female voice and even tried himself his hands to Rock'n'Roll, in 1958, with "Rockin' in the Congo". Still a favourite one in rockin' socks hop and ballroom floors worldwide.

Hank's first major hit for Capitol was the nursery rhyme influenced "Humpty Dumpty Heart" in 1949 followed by his all-time great "The Wild Side of Life", written by J.D Miller from Louisiana in 1952. That song inspired an answer song in the form of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" recorded by Kitty Wells for "Decca" records. It became the first number one song by a female in Country Music and a million seller. Hank wasn't really that excited about that song, first recorded by Jimmie Heap and the Melody masters, who came out as the B side of the single. Like it happened often, the disc jockeys turned it over and it became a smash hit. Among his great waxings are "Whoa Sailor", "Swing Wide the Gate of Love", "Give a Little, Take a Little", "A Six Pack to Go", "Wake Up Irene" (a answer song to songster Leadbelly's "Goodnite Irene"), "The New green Light", "Rub-a-Dub Dub", "Oklahoma Hills" or "Honky Tonk Girl". Hank was a great outdoor man and liked squirrel hunting and deep sea fishing. Another of his hobbies in the 50's was his large collection of beautiful authentic Western Suits and shirt - many from his own designs - that helped to establish him as one of the most colourful and best-dresses men in the Western music field before Webb Pierce or Porter Wagoner.

He recorded twenty one songs that reached the Top Twenty on the charts and sold over sixty million records during his career. Thompson became the first Country entertainer to record in seven different decades and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. He was also the first to record a live album "Live at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas" in 1960 and the first to broadcast his television show for in color. Hank also became the first entertainer to take Western Swing into the domain of fashionable ballrooms in New York or St. Paul or leading amusement parks like the New Lagoon in Salt Lake City in 1959. His band was voted No. 1 Country and Western Band for fourteen consecutive years in the 50's and 60's.

As result of his thousands dollars spending in perfecting and presenting his "Brazos Valley Boys" they were one of the greatest Country & Western aggregations since the 50's. A good band would enable him to offer the people, as well as the promoters, a double bill featuring a solo artist know by his recording plus a top western dance band. Hank had always encouraged them to be inovative and to raise a different sound from the very popular Bob Wills one. In the 90's, "The Brazos Valley Boys" used to back Tommy Horton, Johnny Horton's son, on various stage shows across Texas. They are still a Top band today.

Hank had probably sold over 60 million records and his recordings had been on "Best Seller", "Most Played On Juke Boxes" and "Most Played By Disc Jockeys" charts for decades. He won himself many awards as artist, band leader, songs writer or music publisher.

Country music world suffer here a severe lost once again and, I bet my Blue Suede Shoes, that there will be many tears in beers tonight. Hey, Mister Bartender!

Back to the "Take Note" Main Page