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Hank’s Final Ride: 60 Years Ago this week Hank Williams Died
60 Years ago this week Hank Williams died on his way to a New Year's Day show in West Virginia after passing through Knoxville
On a cold wintry night on January 1, 1953, 17-year-old Charles Carr stood in front of a gas station next to his car speaking to the attendant about the passenger in his car. In the back seat lay the dead body of one of the most famous men in the United States, country music star Hank Williams, who had died at the age of 29.
The passing of Hank Williams sent shock waves across the nation as fans mourned the loss of the young star. His passing was the end of a promising career but the beginning of a legacy that transformed the troubled singer to a legend of almost mythical status. Separating the myth from the truth can be challenging. To this day there are disputes as to what happened in those final hours.
Hank Williams was born on September 17, 1923 in Mount Olive, Alabama in Butler County. He was the third child of Elonzo (Lon) and Lillie Williams. The couple’s first child, Earnest, died two days after his birth. Their daughter, Irene, was born in 1922, just 13 months before Hank.
Lon, a World War I veteran, was absent throughout much of Hank’s youth. Lon died in 1970.
Contrary to popular belief, Hank was not illiterate. He quit school in the 10th grade to help support the family. He was able to read and write and began writing poetry in the first grade, although, he never learned to read music. His family relocated to Greenville where his mother bought the aspiring musician a guitar for $3.50. He learned to play from a black street musician named Rufus Payne, also known as Tee-Tot, who tutored Hank in exchange for meals or money. Payne was a major influence on Hank's later musical style. The Williams family moved to Montgomery, Alabama in the in 1937 and eventually lost touch with Payne who died in poverty in 1939.
In 1937, Hank participated in a talent show at the Empire Theater where he won the first prize of $15,(The equivalent of $242 in 2012) singing his first original song "WPA Blues" a song he wrote.
After school and on weekends Hank sang and played his guitar on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio studios. His street performances caught the attention of WSFA producers, who occasionally invited him to perform on air. Soon, the producers hired the youth to host a 15-minute show twice a week.
Hank’s radio show fueled his entry into a music career. His salary was enough for him to start his own band, which he dubbed the Drifting Cowboys.
The band traveled throughout central and southern Alabama performing in clubs and at private parties. Lillie became the band’s manager. Hank dropped out of school in October, 1939 at the age of 16, allowing the Drifting Cowboys to work full time. Between tour schedules, Hank returned to Montgomery to host his radio show.
Sifting through a plethora of books, articles and movies about Hank’s brief life, an image of a raging alcoholic emerges. But, as Hank’s daughter, Jett Williams, points out, this is inaccurate.
“My father was not a raging alcoholic,” Jett said. “If he were a raging alcoholic, how could he have written all those songs and made all those recordings?”
In truth, Hank was a young man who was born during the great depression whose family lived in poverty. He was presented with an opportunity to lift his family from the bonds of destitution. It was a daunting challenge for a teenager suffering from debilitating health problems. Hank suffered from spina bifida, a developmental birth defect caused by the incomplete closure of the neural tube. Hank’s spina bifida frequently caused excruciating back aches. The problem became more pronounced as he grew older and his pain became more chronic often leaving Hank racked with unspeakable agony. According to Beth Petty of the Hank Williams Museum, in Montgomery, Alabama, there were incidences in which Hank’s pain became unbearable and he would lie down in a fetal position and cry. According to Petty, Hank was traveling in a cramped car with several other musicians as much as 2,000-3,000 miles a week along old country roads in the era before the interstate which inflamed his pain.
In recent years, some medical professionals visiting the museum have suggested Hank may have suffered from marfan syndrome as well. Marfan syndrome is a disorder of connective tissue, the tissue that strengthens the body's structures. These disorders of connective tissue affect the skeletal system, cardiovascular system, eyes, and skin and often weaken the heart and lungs.
Based on Hank’s medical history, it would appear he was not the drug addicted alcoholic depicted in print and movies. Rather, he emerges as a musical prodigy who wrote music that transcended the generations and spoke to the common man. While his mind was vibrant and creative, his body was sickly and dying a slow painful death. Living in an era in which little was known of marfan and spina bifida, he was administered pain killers such as morphine that proved to be addictive. Often, even the potent drugs were not enough to relieve the pain and he resorted to occasional alcohol use as well.
Hank’s star was on the rise and it all appeared to come to a halt with the outbreak of World War II when his entire band was conscripted into the service. Standing 6’1 tall and weighing 145 pounds and suffering from back problems, Hank was classified as 4-F and deemed unfit for service.
With the loss of his band, it appeared as though Hank’s dreams of musical success were dashed as well as his hopes. Hank had trouble finding their replacements and started drinking heavily, causing WSFA to dismiss him.
Hank went to work singing in bars for soldiers. In 1943, he met Audrey Sheppard on a medicine show in Banks, Alabama. The two lived and worked together in Mobile. Audrey later told Hank she wanted to move to Montgomery with him to start a band together and help him regain his radio show. The couple was married in 1944 in a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Alabama, by a justice of the peace.
Audrey became Hank’s manager for nearly a decade. In 1945, the couple moved to Montgomery. With her help, Hank started performing again for WSFA writing songs weekly to perform during the shows. As a result of the new variety of his repertoire, Hank published his first song book,” Original Songs of Hank Williams.” The book only listed lyrics, since its main purpose was to attract more audience.
On September 14, 1946, Hank auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry but was rejected. He and Audrey traveled to Nashville, to meet Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose Music who signed Hank to a six song contract.
Hank signed with MGM Records in 1947 and released "Move It on Over", which became a massive country hit. In 1948 he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and he joined the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show broadcast that propelled him into living rooms all over the southeast appearing on weekend shows. Hank eventually started to host a show on KWKH and started touring across western Louisiana and eastern Texas, always returning on Saturdays for the weekly broadcast of the Hayride.
Hank had a big year in 1949. He released "Lovesick Blues", which became a huge country hit, crossing over to mainstream audiences. On May 26, Audrey gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams Jr.). Then on June 11, Hank made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. Within the year Hank released seven hit songs including "Wedding Bells," "Mind Your Own Business," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It."
In 1950, Hank began recording as "Luke the Drifter" for his religious-themed recordings, many of which are recitations rather than singing. Fearful that disc jockeys and jukebox operators would hesitate to accept these unusual recordings, Hank used this alias to avoid hurting the marketability of his name. Most of the material was written by Hank. The songs depicted Luke the Drifter travelling around from place to place, narrating stories from different characters and philosophizing about life.
Hank’s star continued to rise and he released a string of hits including; "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy", "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me", "Why Should We Try Any More?", "Nobody's Lonesome for Me", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me?", "Moanin' the Blues", and "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'". In 1951 "Dear John" became a hit, but it was the flip side, "Cold, Cold Heart", that became one of his most-recognized songs. A pop cover version by Tony Bennett released the same year stayed on the charts for 27 weeks, peaking at number one.
In 1951, Hank fell during a hunting trip in Tennessee and suffered a back injury which caused him excruciating pain. He began using pain killers, including morphine, and alcohol to ease the pain. He continued to tour in uncomfortable conditions that aggravated his spinal problems and exacerbated his dependence on painkillers and alcohol. He underwent spinal surgery at Vanderbilt University which did little to eradicate his misery.
His drinking worsened and in 1952. In the spring of that year he met Bobbie Jett and had a brief relationship with her. Bobbie gave birth to Hank’s daughter, Jett, on January 6, 1953, five days after Hank died.
During 1952, Hank experienced a perfect storm of circumstances that contributed to his chemical dependency. He met Horace Raphol "Toby" Marshall in Oklahoma City, who claimed to be a doctor. Marshall had been previously convicted for forgery, and had been paroled from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1951. Among other fake titles he claimed to be a Doctor of Science. Marshall began treating Hank’s ailments and prescribed Williams with amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate, and morphine. Hank was unaware Toby was a fraud. Hank’s drinking began to affect his performing and his personal life. In May, he divorced Audrey and on August 11, 1952, he was given a leave of absence from the Grand Ole Opry for habitual drunkenness. Roy Acuff told him "You've got a million-dollar voice, son, but a ten-cent brain."
He returned to perform in the Louisiana Hayride where his performances were acclaimed when he was sober. His band, the Drifting Cowboys, began backing Ray Price and Hank began performing with house bands. By the end of 1952, Hank’s had started to suffer heart problems and possibly never knew how serious his condition was. Due to Hank's excesses, Fred Rose stopped working with him.
There were some high points in 1952, for Hank. He recorded "Kaw-Liga," along with "Your Cheatin' Heart" and "Take These Chains from My Heart" during his last session in September. In October 1952, he married Billie Jean Jones. Toward the end of the year, Hank had sworn off liquor and was attempting to clean up his act. Unfortunately, his heart was beginning to fail due to chemical dependency and other health related issues.
He agreed to play four shows in two days: two shows in West Virginia at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium on the evening of Wednesday, December 31, 1952; and two shows in Canton, Ohio, on the afternoon and evening of Thursday, January 1, 1953. He left his home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Tuesday, December 30, for what became his final journey.
The journey started in Montgomery, when Hank asked the owner of Liberty Cab Company, “Pitt” Carr, to drive him to Canton, Ohio. Pitt asked his 17-year-old son, Charles to make the 1,000 mile drive.
“My father always took care of Hank” Charles Carr said. “He often bought him breakfast at a local café when he saw him in town.”
Numerous books, movies and articles have been written over the years chronicling the events leading up to Hank’s death. No two accounts are in complete agreement. Today, 60 years after his death there is still much disagreement with what happened in those final hours even among witnesses and family members.
One of the worst snow storms in recent memory had slammed the southeast impeding Hank and Charles as they made their way north toward Charleston. They arrived in Knoxville, Tennessee, shortly before noon on Wednesday. Running behind schedule, they decided to catch a plane the rest of the way to Charleston. Their plane took off from Knoxville but was unable to land at the Charleston airport because of fog and had to turn around to go back to Knoxville. In Knoxville, Carr phoned A.V. Bamford, the promoter of the concerts. They determined that, due to the distance and driving conditions, Hank would be unable to make either of the Charleston shows. Bamford instructed Carr to begin making his way to Canton in time for the 2 p.m. matinee performance the following afternoon.
The two rested for a few hours at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville where Hank began to experience hiccups that contributed to his discomfort. Carr called the hotel doctor who came to attend Hank and administered a B-6 shot. Unfamiliar with Hank’s medical history, the doctor may not have realized that in rare cases, hiccups are a symptom of heart disease.
Hank and Carr left Knoxville at about 10:45 that evening. Hank was not feeling well and had to be wheeled out of the hotel in a wheelchair by a bell boy. The two continued north and east along the same route that they had plotted earlier. They drove through Blaine and into Rutledge, Tennessee. While passing through Rutledge, Carr passed another vehicle and was pulled over by the police. The officer escorted Carr to the home of the Justice of the Peace and told the judge Carr has passed illegally. The justice issued a fine. Carr asked how much the fine was and the justice responded “How much have you got?”
“I told them I had $75 and they took all of it,” Carr recalled. “They wrote $25 on the ticket and the two men divided the other $50 between them.”
Hank and Carr then continued on their journey through Bristol, Virginia then into Bluefield West Virginia where they made a stop at around 4 a.m. There they picked up relief drive Don Surface at a local taxi cab stand.
Soon after entering Bluefield, Carr pulled into an all-night diner. He turned to Hank and asked if he wanted anything. Hank responded “I think I’ll take a nap.” He got out of the car momentarily to stretch his legs and got back into the back seat to sleep. Little did Carr realize he had just heard Hank Williams’ last words.
Soon, Carr and Surface continued on their journey toward Oak Hill. Shortly before entering the sleepy little town, Carr noticed the blanket had slipped off Hank. With one hand on the wheel he reached back and attempted to pull the blanket up.
“I noticed he didn’t look right,” Carr said. “His head was opposite to me. His right arm was across his chest. I started to move his arm and noticed some resistance.”
Carr pulled into a Phillips Service Station and looked into the back seat. He went inside and found the attendant who was a man in his 50s.
“He looked into the back seat and said ‘I think you’ve got a problem’” Carr said.
The attendant gave Carr directions to the hospital and he drove cautiously to the hospital to get Hank medical attention. Moments later, two orderlies came out with a metal exam table and lifted Hank’s lifeless body from the car and laid it upon the table.
“One of them looked at me and said ‘he’s dead’,” Carr recalled.
As the attending physician had Hank’s body taken to the hospital morgue, Carr gave hospital officials all of Hank’s information then calmly called his father and Hank’s wife, Billy Jean.
“Billy Jean told me not to let anything happen to the car. It was a good thing I called my father. Later that day the Associated Press reported that both Hank and I were killed in a car accident,” Carr said.
Later that day the news service corrected the earlier report.
Hank’s body was taken to Tyree’s Funeral Home across the street from the hospital. As word of Hank’s death spread through the little town, a small crowd of people gathered at the car. Some were hoping to find souvenirs. A local mechanic, Pete Burdette, offered to let Carr store the Cadillac in a bay at his service station, Burdette Pure Oil Station. Joe Tyree, the owner of Tyree’s Funeral Home, allowed Carr to sleep on a cot in a small apartment over the funeral home.
“Joe Tyree and his family treated me like I was a member of his family. I don’t think he could have handled the situation any better,” Carr recalled. “Later that day I watched football on TV with several city councilmen at Joe’s home.”
Almost immediately questions arose about the circumstances surrounding Hank's death. There was an unexplained welt on Hank’s head and confusion about the time and cause of death. Magistrate Virgil Lyons consulted with prosecuting attorney Howard W. Carson and decided to conduct a coroner's inquest in an effort to rule out the possibility of foul play. A group of local citizens were quickly assembled to serve on the coroner's jury. The inquest began at around 1 p.m., in an upstairs room at Tyree Funeral Home. The jurors were taken upstairs to see Hank’s body.
The coroner's jury reached a verdict that there had been no foul play and that Williams had died of a "severe heart condition and hemorrhage." With this verdict, local police involvement in the case came to an end.
At about 3 p.m. that afternoon, an autopsy was performed at the funeral home by Dr. Ivan Malinin, a pathologist from the Beckley hospital. The official cause of death was listed as heart failure aggravated by acute alcoholism. No traces of drugs were said to have been listed in the autopsy report.
That afternoon, Hank’s mother, Lillian Stone, and Pitt Carr arrived from Alabama. The pair flew into Roanoke and took a taxi to Oak Hill because the Charleston airport was still fogged in. Mrs. Stone first stopped at the police station where she was briefed on the situation. She had legal papers that established her as next of kin. Stone made all the arrangements to transport her son home. She chose a Batesville casket with silver finish and white interior. Stone went to her car and chose one of his white cowboy outfits to bury him in. Joe Tyree later said she was a "nice, stately-looking woman, very pleasant and composed. She held her grief." Later that day Billie Jean and her father arrived.
Stone arranged for Tyree and his assistant Alex Childers to drive the body back to Montgomery. She and the Carrs returned in the Cadillac. The hearse left Oak Hill at about 4:30 p.m., on January 2 in a misting rain. Tyree played the radio which reminded him of the impact of Hank’s music. All along the way radio stations played Hank’s music. Each time they pulled into service stations to refuel, the attendants would wipe the dirt off the license plate and see the West Virginia tags. They would then ask Tyree if they were carrying Hank back. They pulled into White's Chapel Funeral Home in Montgomery about 7 a.m. Tyree and Childers went to a hotel to get some rest. When they asked if there were any vacancies they were told every hotel in town was booked solid because people were coming in from around the world for Hank’s funeral. The two men went back to the funeral home where they laid down on some bunks and slept until noon before returning to West Virginia.
In the pre-internet era communication traveled somewhat slower and many fans appeared at the concert in Canton unaware Hank had died. According to former Drifting Cowboy Don Helms, when the emcee announced Hank’s death to the crowd, a hushed silence fell over the crowd. The festive concert took the aura of a funeral home. Moments later, Hawkshaw Hawkins and other performers started singing "I Saw the Light," as a tribute to Hank, and the audience sang along.
Hank’s body lay in wake at his mother's boarding house for two days. His funeral was held January 4, at the Montgomery Auditorium, with his coffin placed on the flower-covered stage. It was the largest funeral in Montgomery’s history. An estimated 25,000 people passed by Hank’s casket and the auditorium was filled with 2,750 mourners. He was laid to rest at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery.
His death at the early age of 29 created as much sensation as Elvis Presley’s death in 1977 and Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. Record stores all over the nation quickly sold out of all of Hank’s records, and customers were asking for any records he ever released.
Sixty years after Hank’s death there is controversy over what happened the night he died that has created disagreement even among family members.
“It would be so easy to say he slipped away into the night,” said Jett Williams. “It would be so easy to say it happened the way they said it did. In my opinion there is still a cloud of mystery surrounding his death and a lot of unanswered questions. An autopsy report said his body was badly beaten and had many bruises on it. I am hopeful that one day the truth will come out.”
Over the years there have been many that have suggested Hank had been beaten in those final hours of his brief life and that he was on drugs or drunk. Charles Carr disputes these claims.
“There were no bruises on his head. There were no bruises at all,” Carr said. “He was never beaten.”
Supporting Carr was the coroner’s inquest which found no evidence of foul play and no traces of drugs in his system.
“Joe Tyree has said on numerous occasions that Hank was not bruised when his body was brought in,” said Beth Petty.
Hank Williams Jr. has accepted Carr’s account of what happened. He once asked Carr to write him a statement declaring his father wasn't drugged or drunk at the time he died. Carr wrote the statement which gave Hank Jr. the closure he sought.
It has been 60 years since Hank Williams died. His music has proven to be timeless attracting legions of fans that are discovering his music for the first time. His genius is that he wrote painfully personal songs that maintained a universal appeal. He probed his own soul, truthfully and deeply touching the listeners. Referred to by some as the "Hillbilly Shakespeare," he had a brief but phenomenally successful career, recording 225 songs, including 11 number-one hits and wrote an astounding 128 songs. Among the hits he wrote were "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin'," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
“He was able to write songs and create lyrics that told people he knew how they felt,” said Jett Williams. “He was an innovator who created up-beat hits that were a head of their time. He wrote ‘Move it on Over’ nine years before ‘Rock around the Clock’ and the music of the two songs sound almost alike except the lyrics are different.”
Hank’s music continues to attract new fans with each passing generation. His boyhood home, grave site and other tourist attractions related to him continue to attract tourists from around the world. The Hank Williams Museum attracts as many as 50,000 visitors annually. His cabin in Lake Martin where he wrote Kaw-Liga has been preserved and thousand s make the pilgrimage to his grave site each year. In Oak Hill a memorial that features a likeness of Hank mounted on a stone pedestal stands on the lawn in front of the local library and across the street from the now-defunct Pure Oil station.
“The simplicity of his music and the stories his songs tells continue to attract new fans,” Petty said. “We have had fans from more than 50 countries visit the museum. The songs were never translated into other languages. Many of our visitors can’t speak English but they know the lyrics to “Hey, good Lookin.’”
Charles Carr comforts Irene Williams
Hank's funeral was the largest in Montgomery's history. More than 25,000 people filed past Hank's casket.
The car Hank died in is now on display at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery.
Michael Williams is the author of a book entitled "Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse." The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said "truth is stranger than fiction."
The book is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. The book can be purchased from amazon.com for $19.95 plus shipping and handling or you can save shipping cost and save $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author. Send $17.95 to P.O. Box 6421 Sevierville, TN. 37864.
The book is available in Kindle on Amazon.com for $3.99. For more information visit the website www.strangerthanfictionnews.com.