Born Henry William Thompson, 3 September 1925, Waco, Texas
Few country artists can claim a longevity and track record to equal that of Hank Thompson. Between 1948 and 1974 he scored no less than 28 Top 10 hits (including three number ones), with another 19 in the Top 20, and continued to chart until 1983. Although Thompson has been dubbed the "King of Western Swing", he was ultimately a honky tonk singer whose music was wrapped in a danceable Western swing-flavoured style.
Born in 1925 of Bohemian descent, Thompson got his first guitar at age ten. Gene Autry was an early influence, along with Bob Wills, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. By the time he finished high school he was broadcasting over WACO radio as Hank the Hired Hand (until 1943). After graduating, Hank enlisted in the US Navy, where he took advantage of training programs. After his discharge in 1946 he studied electrical engineering on the GI Bill at Southern Methodist University and Princeton University, making him one of country music's better- educated stars. When his first record, "Whoa Sailor" (1946) became a regional success on the Globe label, Hank chose for a career in show business instead of electronics. After recording four sides for the small Bluebonnet label, Hank was signed by Capitol Records in 1947 (with the help of Tex Ritter) and would stay there for seventeen years. His first single for the label, "Humpty Dumpty Heart", was an immediate success, peaking at # 2 on the country charts. His first number one was a cover of Jimmy Heap's "The Wild Side Of Life" (1952), which topped the charts for no less than 15 weeks. The answer tune, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", using the identical melody, gave Kitty Wells both her debut hit and stardom. Subsequent Thompson hits of the 1950s include "Waiting In the Lobby Of Your Heart", "Rub-A Dub-Dub" (# 1), "Yesterday's Girl", "Wake Up Irene" (# 1), "Honky-Tonk Girl", "Most Of All", "The Blackboard Of My Heart" and "Squaws Along the Yukon".
During these years Thompson also made inroads into television, was one of the earliest performers to entertain in Las Vegas (he recorded the first live album by any country singer there, "Hank Thompson At the Golden Nugget", 1961), brought his engineering knowledge to bear on his stage show (with his own sound and lighting system), flew his own aeroplane to shows and was one of the first stars with corporate sponsorship, via a longterm deal with Falstaff Beer. Thanks to his musical and technical leadership, his Bravos Valley Boys were Billboard's top-ranked band from 1953 to 1965, a record that has yet to be equalled. Thompson was also instrumental in advancing the careers of two pivotal female singers : Jean Shepard and Wanda Jackson.
In 1964, the year of the Beatles, Hank noticed that the Capitol label he had known for the past 17 years was no longer the same. Thompson, who had scored fewer big hits in recent years, left the label for Warner Bros (1965-67), followed by a longer affiliation with Dot (later ABC/Dot, 1968-75), recording in Nashville. (All the Capitol recordings had been made in Los Angeles and produced, from 1951 on, by Ken Nelson.) More hits followed, but he readily admitted, "It was all the difference in the world (between the Dot material) and the presence and the quality of the Capitols."
Still active on the road, Hank was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1989. In 1997 Curb Records released "Hank Thompson And Friends", a critically acclaimed collection of duets pairing Thompson with Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, George Jones, Kitty Wells and others. Hank had one more great album in him : "Seven Decades", released by High Tone in 2000. Produced by Lloyd Maines, it literally picked up the Capitol sound where Hank and Ken Nelson had left it in late 1964. The days of extended tours were ending, yet Hank persevered until the end, working a reduced schedule of shows. Hank Thompson died of lung cancer on November 6, 2007. His achievements were many and his musical legacy is vast and rich.
- Biography : Warren Kice, Hank Thompson : My Side Of Life.
Acknowledgements : - Rich Kienzle, Liner notes for the CD "Hank Thompson : A Six Pack To Go" (Bear Family BCD 16803). 33 Capitol tracks, released 2008.
CD's : Bear Family has released a 12 CD-set : Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys (BCD 15904). 323 songs from 1946-1964. But there are also several good single-CD comps, like the one mentioned above, in Bear Family's "Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight" series.
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