Country Singer Hank Thompson, 82
By Adam Bernstein
Hank Thompson, 82, a singer, guitarist and songwriter who became a prolific western swing hitmaker with upbeat music about beer drinking and broken hearts, died Nov. 6 at his home in Keller, Tex., near Fort Worth. He had lung cancer.
Mr. Thompson's genial smile, virile baritone voice and crisp guitar playing -- not to mention his $40,000 rhinestone-studded Nudie Cohn outfits -- elevated him to the front rank of country music personalities from the late 1940s to 1970s.
He incorporated pop, hillbilly and honky-tonk elements into his music, which found millions of buyers. He specialized in anthems about carousing: "A Six Pack to Go," "On Tap, in the Can or in the Bottle" and "Smoky the Bar."
In a six-decade career, he had more than 100 hits, including "Whoa Sailor," "The Wild Side of Life" and "(I've Got a) Humpty Dumpty Heart." As recently as 1997, he reached the country music charts with "Gotta Sell Them Chickens," a duet with singer-guitarist Junior Brown, one of many artists whose style Mr. Thompson inspired.
At his peak, from 1948 to 1978, Mr. Thompson had 28 top-10 hits. His backup band, the Brazos Valley Boys, was Billboard magazine's top-ranked Western swing band from 1953 to 1965 -- an unbeaten record, according to the reference guide Contemporary Musicians.
The easygoing manner of singing movie cowboy Gene Autry was a crucial influence on Mr. Thompson's approach to a song.
Mr. Thompson endured with his fiddle- and steel-guitar sound despite changing tastes in country music, starting with the bass-driven "rebellious" sound popularized in the 1970s by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
Yet Mr. Thompson was long considered an innovator. He made the first live recording by a solo country artist, "Live at the Golden Nugget" (1961), from a Las Vegas performance. In his genre, he made some of the first theme-based, or concept, albums: "Cheyenne Frontier Days" (1962) and "Songs for Rounders" (1959); the latter was also one of country music's first stereo albums.
Henry William Thompson was born Sept. 3, 1925, in Waco, Tex., to German Czechs who had changed the family name from Kocek.
"Hank" Thompson learned harmonica as a child, switched to guitar at 10 and, with a buddy, began winning talent shows at the Waco Theater.
As a high school student in the early 1940s, he hosted a Waco radio show and billed himself as Hank the Hired Hand. He refined his playing in the Navy while stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. Upon his discharge, he returned to radio and had a massive regional success in Dallas with his recording of "Whoa Sailor."
Singing cowboy Tex Ritter helped him obtain a contract at Capitol Records in 1948. Mr. Thompson rose quickly to jukebox prominence with songs such as "Green Light," "Wake Up, Irene" (a response to Leadbelly's "Good Night, Irene") and "The Wild Side of Life," a No. 1 hit in 1952 about a "honky-tonk angel" who cheats on her boyfriend. The last was written by William Warren and Arlie Carter.
Although "The Wild Side of Life" had been recorded by Jimmy Heap, it was Mr. Thompson who became identified with the song. He said he initially was reluctant to record "The Wild Side of Life" because its melody owed much to the hymn "The Great Speckled Bird," which he considered out of date. He only recorded the song because his wife at the time insisted. Country music aficionados regard Mr. Thompson's version of "The Wild Side of Life" as significant because it helped launch the career of singer Kitty Wells. After Mr. Thompson's hit came out, Wells had a major success with a musical reply, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." Wells's take blamed straying husbands for promiscuous "angels."
Mr. Thompson hosted a television variety show, filmed in color, in Oklahoma City from 1954 to 1957 and made many other appearances on country television shows. But he spoke derisively about his early work on "Grand Ole Opry," complaining of abysmal pay and management demands.
"I just didn't like it," he told Texas Monthly in 2000. "I realized I'd never be able to play my style of music in Nashville. . . . They didn't allow any electric instruments. They didn't allow drums. They didn't allow horns. And where was I gonna work up there? Down in Texas I knew all these bars and honky-tonks where I could get work, because by then I was playing dance music."
After leaving Capitol in 1966 -- the label was increasingly promoting its rock bands -- Mr. Thompson had periodic hits for Warner Bros. and MCA. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.
A 1997 album, "Hank Thompson and Friends," united him in duets with Vince Gill and Lyle Lovett, among others, and he was still performing regularly until his death.Survivors include his wife of 37 years, Ann Williams Thompson of Keller. His first marriage, to Dorothy Ray Thompson, ended in divorce. She later married Mr. Thompson's one-time guitarist, Merle Travis, another member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.