Hank Thompson, 82; country singer created 'honky-tonk swing'|
His career spanned more than six decades, during which he charted 79 hits.
By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 8, 2007
Hank Thompson, a pioneering honky-tonk singer and songwriter with a crystalline tenor voice, whose biggest hit, "The Wild Side of Life," generated a fervent response in the early 1950s from Kitty Wells that helped open country music's doors to women, died Tuesday of lung cancer. He was 82.
Thompson died at his home in Keller, Tex., a Dallas-Ft. Worth suburb, said his spokesman, Tracy Pitcox.
"He was battling aggressive lung cancer," Pitcox said. "He remained conscious until the last couple of hours and passed away peacefully . . . surrounded by his friends and family."
His career spanned more than six decades and he charted 79 hits in five decades, from his first, "Humpty Dumpty Heart" in 1948, to his last, "Once in a Blue Moon" in 1983. But even after the hits stopped, Thompson maintained an intensive tour schedule, playing upward of 200 to 250 shows a year for most of his career. He performed as recently as Oct. 8 in his native Waco, Tex., on a day that was declared "Hank Thompson Day" by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Waco Mayor Virginia DuPuy.
"He was a stalwart of the honky-tonk and Western swing traditions," said John Rumble, senior historian for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. "He stayed right with that through all of country's various experimentations with pop sounds and rock sounds and folk or what have you."
Thompson also was a pioneer in embracing new performance opportunities, being among the first country stars to host a TV show, to perform in Las Vegas and to record a live album. He also recognized and nurtured young talent, mentoring the careers of Merle Travis and Wanda Jackson, among others.
"The Wild Side of Life," written by Arlie Carter and William Warren and one of the few hits Thompson had with a song he didn't write, held the No. 1 spot in 1952 for 15 weeks. It shocked listeners for its unvarnished portrayal of a woman who leaves her husband for a life of good times in the honky-tonks: "I didn't know God made honky-tonk angels / I might have known you'd never make a wife / You gave up the only one who ever loved you / And went back to the wild side of life."
Wells came back almost immediately with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," written by Joe Miller, singing, "It wasn't God who made honky-tonk angels / As you said in the words of your song/ Too many times married men think they're still single / That has caused many a good girl to go wrong."
Her song shot to No. 1, where it stayed for six weeks, and became the first million-selling country record by a female artist. It also laid a template for the kind of nascent female assertiveness that became a hallmark of the music of Loretta Lynn.
Thompson's hit, however, was the first of only three songs of his that would reach the top of the country singles chart. Yet 30 of his records made the Top 10. Among his last visits to the charts' upper reaches were "The Older the Violin, The Sweeter the Music," a song written by Curly Putman celebrating rather than railing at the onset of old age.
Henry William Thompson was born Sept. 3, 1925, and grew up in a time and place where '30s swing music was enlivening the more staid sound of traditional country music. After seeing cowboy star Gene Autry when he was a child, Thompson quickly gravitated toward music, starting as a harmonica prodigy and then learning the guitar at age 10 after his parents bought him one for $4.
As a youth he landed gigs playing for audiences during Saturday matinees at the local movie theater, and as a teenager he got a flour company to sponsor his show on radio station WACO as "Hank the Hired Hand." He later hosted his own TV show, which was one of the first to be broadcast in color.
He enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in 1943 and worked as a radio technician. He had planned a career in electronics and continued studying electrical engineering after his discharge, spending time at Princeton University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas.
A song he had written in the Navy titled "Whoa Sailor" became a regional hit after the war. Thompson later recalled, "When I got on the radio and could see how successful I was, I've never looked back."
With his longtime band, the Brazos Valley Boys, Thompson played what he dubbed "honky-tonk swing," which he distinguished from the music of Wills and Spade Cooley. Cowboy star Tex Ritter spotted Thompson while on tour in Dallas and helped land him a deal at Capitol Records, where he spent nearly two decades.
Songs Thompson wrote or co-wrote such as "A Six Pack To Go" and "On Tap, In the Can, Or In the Bottle" quickly became upbeat honky-tonk classics. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.
In recent years he expressed frustration with contemporary country music that emphasized feel-good messages rather than examining human frailty as it had during his heyday in songs about cheating, drinking and lying.
"I think that's the thing that made country music appealing, because it was realistic," Thompson said in 2001. "People could identify with that. Everybody has heartbreaks. If you take that out of there, you've just sterilized it and taken out the whole heart and meat of what it's all about."
Thompson is survived by his wife, Ann. They had no children. Services are pending.