Hank Williams

The late Hank Williams' original country songs, delivered in a blunt,

emotional style during his heyday of the '40s and early '50s, set the

blueprint for the development of country & western music and helped

shape rock 'n' roll.

He was born Hiram Williams 76 years ago today in Mount Olive, Ala. He

was given a guitar by his mother and he learned about blues music from

a street singer named Rufe Payne, a.k.a. Tee-Tot.

Williams began performing in Alabama as a teen. In 1937 he moved with

his mother to Montgomery, Ala., where she opened a boarding house. Williams

formed the Drifting Cowboys and got a local radio gig, during which he

sang songs made famous by his musical hero, Roy Acuff.

Following his marriage, his first wife, Audrey, became his manager. In

1946, frustrated with his inability to attract a following beyond Alabama,

Williams and his wife went to Nashville to meet Fred Rose of the Acuff-Rose

music publishing company. Rose was impressed with Williams' candid

songwriting and singing and arranged for him to record two singles:

"Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'." After the songs' success, Rose signed

Williams to MGM Records and became his manager.

"Move It On Over" (RealAudio

excerpt), released by MGM in 1947, was a top-five country hit.

The following year, Williams joined the Louisiana Hayride tour and radio

programs. "Lovesick Blues," a tune originally made popular by Rex Griffin,

became a 1949 smash for Williams, staying at #1 on the country chart for

16 weeks and going top-40 on the Billboard Hot 100. That same year,

Randall Hank, later known as Hank Williams Jr., was born.

Many smash country hits followed in the next few years, including the

1950 #1 singles "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me" and

"Moanin' the Blues." Williams also recorded spiritual records using the

name Luke the Drifter.

Williams' superstar status was confirmed in 1951 with the chart-topping

"Hey, Good Lookin' " (RealAudio

excerpt) and "Cold Cold Heart," which Tony Bennett also turned

into a pop hit. Soon, other pop singers such as Frankie Laine and Teresa

Brewer recorded Williams' songs and he toured with comedians Bob Hope

and Jack Benny.

But as his popularity was growing, the heavy-drinking Williams became a

morphine user because of pain from a back injury. In 1952 Williams and

Audrey divorced. He spent most of the year (including his live performances)

stoned; at times he destroyed property and played recklessly with guns.

As he was losing gigs due to his behavior, Williams married again and

agreed to support the baby of another girlfriend. He also began treatment

for heart problems with a quack doctor who prescribed various drugs for

pain relief.

On New Year's Day of 1953, Williams was in Tennessee, scheduled to fly

to Ohio for a gig. Because of inclement weather, Williams hired a chauffeur

to drive him to the show and had his doctor inject him with Vitamin B-12

and morphine. En route, the chauffeur was stopped for speeding by a cop,

who noticed an alarmingly ill-looking Williams. The driver took Williams

to a West Virginia hospital where he was pronounced dead from a heart

attack.

Williams' last hit single released during his lifetime was "I'll Never

Get out of This World Alive." He had many posthumous smashes, including

"Your Cheatin' Heart." Williams' legacy grew with the passing decades,

despite ill-advised attempts to overdub some of his records with strings.

Last year, Mercury Nashville released a 10-disc Williams collection

Complete Hank Williams Sr., including 14 unreleased tracks such

as "I'm So Tired of It All." Comments on Williams were provided in the

liner notes by the likes of Lucinda Williams and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills.

Also in '98, Hank Williams Jr. re-released Hank Williams Jr. Sings

Hank Williams Sr., a 1964 tribute LP the then-teenager recorded for

his father.

Earlier this year, the Hank Williams Museum was opened in Montgomery. In

June, an Alabama judge denied a $12 million claim by Williams' illegitimate

daughter against his estate.

Williams was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early

influence in 1987.

Other birthdays: LaMonte McLemore (5th Dimension), 59; Fee Waybill

(Tubes), 49; Lord Jamar, a.k.a. Lorenzo DeChalus (Brand Nubian), 31; and

Vinnie, a.k.a. Vincent Brown, (Naughty by Nature), 29.