Hank Thompson Is
Dead; Country Singer Was 82
By DOUGLAS MARTIN, The
New York Times
Thompson, a sequined singer and songwriter who fused jazz-inflected
Western swing and hard-edged honky-tonk to produce seven decades of
musical musings, seasoned with sly humor, on loving, drinking and dying,
died on Tuesday at his home in Keller, Tex. He was 82.
was announced on www.hankthompson.com,
which said, “There’s a new star in heaven.”
Pitcox, president of Heart of Texas Records, said the cause was lung
cancer, The Associated Press reported.
Thompson sold more than 60 million records. He scored 29 Top 10 country
hits from 1948 to 1975, and had 19 more in the Top 20, putting him in a
league with other country legends like Tex Ritter, Hank Snow and Faron
“Humpty Dumpty Heart” in 1948 to “Gotta Sell Them Chickens,” a
duet with Junior Brown in 1997, Mr. Thompson made the charts in six
consecutive decades. With characteristic offbeat wit, he said in an
interview with The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 that this was “a
lot easier than doing it in six nonconsecutive decades.”
Thompson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989, and
his band, the Brazos Valley Boys, was Billboard’s top-ranked country
band from 1953 to 1965, a record that has never been broken.
Thompson was perhaps the most prominent representative of a new sort of
country music that emerged from the juke joints favored by oil-field
roughnecks and roustabouts in the 1940s. It mixed big bands and
theatrical vocalists with fiddles and steel guitars. It was meant for
height, Stetson, silver-toed boots and rhinestone suits — and a
gravelly, booming baritone voice — Mr. Thompson symbolized the brash
new musical synthesis. Unlike Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who
strove for a unified sound in the manner of Ellington or Basie, Mr.
Thompson wanted his own voice to be the primary thing.
Hank Thompson up front and the Western swing sound behind me,” he told
The Dallas Morning News in 1997.
1950s, his biggest decade, Mr. Thompson was big indeed. He had 21 songs
that reached the Top 20 on the country charts, including five Top 10s in
1954. Some of those 1950s hits included “Rub-a-Dub-Dub,” “Waiting
in the Lobby of Your Heart” and “Squaws Along the Yukon.”
“The Wild Side of Life” was the No. 1 country song of the year and
Mr. Thompson was the No. 1 country artist.
popularity stayed strong into the 1960s, and in 1960 he recorded “A
Six-Pack to Go,” one of his biggest numbers in terms of longevity and
status as a standard. Though his record sales declined in ensuing
decades, he remained in strong demand as a performer, and his influence
is often said to be evident in stars like George Strait and Lyle
Dylan once commented, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, to Newsweek that he
had never felt all that at home with the New York folk-music crowd
because one of his own major influences had been Hank Thompson.
Thompson helped lead the development of the art and business of modern
country music. He was host of a variety show in Oklahoma City in the
1950s, said to be one of the first variety shows broadcast in color. He
was one of the first country performers to do a straight country show in
Las Vegas; earlier, performers like Eddy Arnold had simply inserted
themselves into another production. In 1961 his “At the Golden
Nugget” was the first live album by a solo country performer.
Thompson was also among the first country singers to have a corporate
sponsor, Falstaff Beer.
William Thompson was born in Waco, Tex., on Sept. 3, 1925, and as a boy
won a case of Pepsi by playing the harmonica in a contest. Like his hero
Autry, he wanted to sing at the same time he played, so he switched
to guitar. His parents bought him a secondhand one for $4. By the time
he was 16 he had his own radio show, called “Hank the Hired Hand.”
in the Navy, served in the Pacific theater in World War II and then
studied electronics at several universities, including Princeton. His
expertise meant that he was one of the first traveling country acts to
have a sophisticated light-and-sound system.
war Tex Ritter helped Mr. Thompson land a recording contract with
Capitol Records, which released “Humpty Dumpty.” He went to
Nashville to star on a weekly radio show. Ernest Tubb got him a shot at
the Grand Ole Opry, but he felt uncomfortable with Nashville’s more
bluegrass-influenced music. Not even Hank Williams could talk him out of
returning to the Texas honky-tonks. In lieu of a funeral, his memorial
celebration will be held in one of them, Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort
Mr. Thompson is survived by his wife, the former Ann Williams. In 1970 he and his first wife, Dorothy Jean Ray, divorced. Dorothy had persuaded him to record “The Wild Side of Life” despite Mr. Thompson’s reservations that the tune had already been used in two previous country hits. Mr. Thompson’s version contained the line, “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels.” The song’s immense popularity prompted one of the most famous answer songs of country music: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” by Kitty Wells. (Errant husbands did, she sang.) It made her the first woman in country music to have a million-seller.