Hank Thompson - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


           Singer, songwriter, guitarist and bandleader Hank Thompson was one of country music's most prolific and open-minded artists, a man whose work embraced the classic 1930's Western swing tradition even as he helped pioneer the post-war rise of honky-tonk realism, yet conversely also tended to mix in uncommon influences like traditional nursery rhymes and Tin Pan Alley pop. The Country Music Hall of Famer was also a University-educated technical wizard with an intimate knowledge of electronics (he personally  constructed one of the most sophisticated home studios extant circa 1950), an unusual advantage during a period when recording facilities were often primitive and limited in their capabilities. He was also a staggeringly consistent hit-maker, steadily placing records on the country charts from the late 1940s through the early 1980s, starting with a self-penned classic, "The Wild Side of Life," that became one of country music's most abiding standards. Good humored, intelligent and a relentless ladies man, Hank Thompson was in a class all his own.


            Born Henry William Thompson in Waco, Texas on September 3, 1925, he was already proficient on the harmonica as a pre-teen, but after witnessing a performance by the iconic Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry, Thompson switched to guitar and was soon playing at local social events. By age seventeen, he scared up a sponsor and, billed as Hank the Hired Hand, was broadcasting his own radio show on WACO; following his graduation from high school, Thompson signed up with the US Navy, serving as a radio technician (which provided him invaluable experience) until the war's end. Following his discharge, Thompson took advantage of the GI Bill, attending New Jersey's Princeton University, before returning to the Lone Star State to matriculate further at Dallas' Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas in Austin. But country music was never far from the focus of Thompson's activity, and he returned to Waco, broadcasting daily over KWTX  and began recording as soon possible; his first session, for small Texas indie Globe Records in 1946, resulted  in "Whoa, Sailor," a sardonic honky-tonk tale of a beer-craving Naval rake's encounter with a woman of loose virtue that was, for the time, decidedly risqué. The bold, bawdy record got a lot of notice amongst his peers (Los Angeles based band Maddox Brothers and Rose’s rushed-out cover of the tune helped establish them as another risk-taking act) and prompted Western singing star Tex Ritter to persuade Capitol Records to take a chance on Thompson.


            A 1947 Dallas session produced his classic “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” and Capitol was gratified to see it jump to number two on the country charts. A Musician’s Union-mandated recording ban delayed Thompson’s progress until 1948, when he traveled to Hollywood and cut “Green Light,” the first of six Top Ten country hits he churned out over the next two years. But it was the dark, barroom-testimony of 1952‘s "The Wild Side of Life" that proved to be Thompson’s breakout disc--it went to number one and stayed there for the next fifteen weeks. With a melody based on eerie spiritual, “The Great Speckled Bird,” and a starkly woeful lyric of loss, the song resonated so powerfully that when the Grand Ole Opry’s Kitty Wells recorded her “answer” song, “I Didn’t Know God Made Honky Tonk Angels,” it too hit number one and established her as a national star. The following year, another of his nursery rhyme-flavored tunes “Rub-a-Dub-Dub” made number one, as did “Wake Up, Irene,” Thompson’s own exercise in the “answer” song field. While Thompson was still using Capitol’s roster of first-rate players in the studio (notably guitar genius Merle Travis), on the road he showcased his ten-man Brazos Valley Boys, a crack unit who perfected Thompson’s unique melding of hot swing and low-down honky tonk and quickly established themselves as one of the top touring country bands in the nation.


            Thompson constantly barnstormed from the Southeast, through Texas, and then onto California, for more Hollywood sessions that resulted in a steady series of country hits; based in Oklahoma, he regularly appeared at Tulsa’s fabled Cain’s Academy of Dancing Ballroom, and in 1954 began a three year small-screen run on Oklahoma City’s WKW-TV. He also discovered a talented teenaged singer, Wanda Jackson, made her a member of his road show and tried to convince Capitol to record her (although the label initially passed, when they signed her two years later, Jackson emerged as major, groundbreaking rockabilly star). Back in Hollywood, Thompson also raised more than a few eyebrows when he romanced and won over Merle Travis’ wife Betty (shortly thereafter, Travis himself took up with Thompson’s ex-; both of the newly minted couples eventually wed and remained friendly). Musically, he was just as adventurous, with 1956 rockabilly novelty “Rockin’ in the Congo” and the daft Eskimo charmer “Squaws Along the Yukon,” whose nonsensical chorus (“Ooga-ooga-mooshka”) had enough appeal to make number three on the country chart.


            Thompson weathered the rise of rock & roll hardily, became a fixture in Las Vegas and in 1960, and contributed another enduring country favorite, the sudsy, closing-time anthem, “Six Pack to Go.” Despite his impressive history, an EMI-directed roster purge of it’s new acquisition, Capitol, resulted in Thompson’s release in 1965, but the singer didn’t break his stride, and after moving to Dot Records, contributed several more unbeatable titles to the honky tonk drinking song tradition, with Top Ten singles like “Smokey the Bar” and “On Tap, in the Can or in the Bottle.” Later, his superb pop foray, Tribute to the Mills Brothers album (1974 Dot Records) demonstrated what an unfettered stylist Thompson was. He regularly dented the charts throughout the 1970s (with songs like “Mama Don’t ‘Low,” and “I Hear the South Calling Me”) and in the early 80’s, made his last visit there with a re-make of “Rockin’ in the Congo.” Thompson maintained a steady road schedule at home and abroad, and had already opened, in Oklahoma City, his own academic institution, the Hank Thompson College of Country Music in the mid-1970’s.  A gratified Thompson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, and he doggedly continued working and recording; the duet set Hank Thompson and Friends (1997 Curb Records), featured such stars as Vince Gill, Tanya Tucker, Brooks & Dunn, Lyle Lovett, followed by the swan song Seven Decades (2000 Hightone Records). Thompson was still booking dates when lung cancer sidelined him into retirement, succumbing to the disease on November 6, 2007.




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