(1923 – 1953)
In many ways, Hank Williams was Country music's first Rock star — not just for the fast lifestyle that killed him at the age of 29, but also for the uncompromising, personally charged edge he brought to his music. In addition to being a charismatic performer and a compelling, inventive songwriter, Williams was one of Country's most beloved superstars, scoring 35 Top 10 Country singles, eleven of which reached No. 1, and he was instrumental in expanding Country and Western's popularity beyond its traditional regional audience. Williams' performing style and musical sensibility inspired not only countless Country artists, but many Rock and Roll musicians as well, and his songs have been rerecorded by multiple generations of Pop, Rock, Country, and Blues artists.
Born Hiram King Williams, he began his professional career in the late 1930s while still in high school, hosting a regular show on radio station WSFA in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. The show's success allowed Williams to form his band the Drifting Cowboys, who became a popular live attraction throughout the Southeast, and Williams dropped out of school to pursue music fulltime. He was eventually fired from his radio show for his alcoholism, setting a pattern that would repeat for the rest of his career.
In 1946, Williams won a contract with the powerful Nashville song publisher Acuff-Rose Music, leading to a deal with MGM Records two years later. He received some key exposure after joining the popular Louisiana Hayride radio show. Williams scored a pair of early hits with "Move It On Over" and "Lovesick Blues," which won him membership in the Grand Ole Opry, which had previously rejected him. His success continued with such self-penned hits as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin'" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Beginning in 1950, Williams also released a series of religious-themed spoken-word recitations under the pseudonym Luke the Drifter.
Williams continued turning out hits into the early 50s, among them "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me," "Long Gone Lonesome Blues," "Why Don't You Love Me?," "Dear John," "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "Settin' the Woods on Fire," "You Win Again" and "Cold, Cold Heart." The latter, although originally released as a B-side, became one of Williams' most popular songs; a cover version by Tony Bennett became a No. 1 Pop hit later that year.
Despite his ongoing popularity, Williams' alcoholism and prescription drug abuse (partially a result of a painful spinal disorder he'd endured since birth) began to take a serious toll on his health. His final recording session, on September 23, 1952, produced three of Williams' best-known songs: "Kaw-Liga," "Take These Chains from My Heart," and "Your Cheatin' Heart," the latter of which would top the Country chart for six weeks when it was released posthumously in 1953.
Williams died of heart failure in the early morning hours of New Years Day 1953, in the back of a car traveling to a scheduled performance in Canton, Ohio.