Hank Thompson Biography

Henry William Thompson, 3 September 1925, Waco, Texas, USA, d. 6 November 2007, Keller, Fort Worth, Texas, USA. Thompson, as a young boy, was fond of records by Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. He first learned the harmonica and then his parents gave him a guitar for his tenth birthday. He also played Hawaiian guitar, learned conjuring tricks and had a ventriloquist’s doll. With his range of talents, he was a popular performer at Saturday morning stage shows in Waco. In 1942, he began his own local radio series, Hank - The Hired Hand. From 1943 Thompson served three years in the US Navy. He worked as an electrical engineer and, in his spare time, entertained his shipmates. He later claimed, ‘The navy enhanced my career as it gave the opportunity to perform all the time. When I was overseas, I knew the guys were getting tired of hearing the same songs and so I started writing.’

In 1946, Thompson returned to Waco, formed the Brazos Valley Boys (named after the river running through Waco), and began performing at dances throughout Texas. His own song, ‘Whoa Sailor’, was a regional hit on Globe Records. It was followed by ‘A Lonely Heart Knows’ on Bluebonnet. Country star Tex Ritter heard Thompson and recommended him to his label, Capitol Records. Almost immediately, Thompson had a number 2 country hit with ‘(I’ve Got A) Humpty Dumpty Heart’. In 1949 he had another country hit with a re-recorded ‘Whoa Sailor’. Thompson was a tall, upright performer with a resonant voice not unlike Ritter’s, who dressed himself and his band in expensive Nudie suits. Applying his engineering knowledge, he gave the band a powerful live sound and lighting, and soon had the most successful western swing band in the USA.

In 1951 Thompson began a 13-year partnership with the Hollywood record producer Ken Nelson and recorded his most successful single, ‘The Wild Side Of Life’, in one take (ironically ‘Crying In The Deep Blue Sea’ was the original a-side). ‘The Wild Side Of Life’ stayed at the top of the US country charts for 15 weeks and won Thompson a gold record. Kitty Wells recorded an answer version, ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’, while Thompson himself answered ‘Goodnight, Irene’ with ‘Wake Up, Irene’. Defying convention, Thompson was permitted to repeat its snare drum sound on the Grand Ole Opry. Thompson had further country hits with ‘Waiting In The Lobby Of Your Heart’, ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub’, ‘Breakin’ The Rules’, ‘Honky Tonk Girl’, ‘The Blackboard Of My Heart’, and ‘Breakin’ In Another Heart’, which was co-written with his wife Dorothy. In 1957 Thompson parodied rock ‘n’ roll in ‘Rockin’ In The Congo’ and became a successful performer in Las Vegas. He heard ‘Squaws Along The Yukon’ on a hunting trip in Alaska with Merle Travis and together they arranged and updated the song. In 1959 he became the first country artist to record in stereo via the bestselling (and fairly risque) Songs For Rounders, and the first to record an ‘in concert’ album, At The Golden Nugget (1961). He heard a band in a club in Holbrook, Arizona, and was most impressed with their original song, ‘A Six Pack To Go’. Thompson turned the song into a country standard, later reviving it in duet with George Strait, and had further country hits with ‘She’s Just A Whole Lot Like You’ and ‘Oklahoma Hills’.

After Thompson left Capitol in 1964, he recorded for several labels with his country hits including ‘Smokey The Bar’, ‘Where Is The Circus?’, ‘The Older The Violin, The Sweeter The Music’ and, appropriately, ‘Mr. Honky Tonk, The King Of Western Swing’. He recorded tribute albums to the Mills Brothers (Cab Driver) and Nat ‘King’ Cole. In 1973 Thompson opened a school of country music in Claremore, Oklahoma, where he taught. He was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1989, and continued touring throughout the world almost until his death in 2007, always wearing his sequinned jackets: ‘The public is entitled to something that is colourful and flashy. We’re in showbusiness and there’s nothing colourful about a T-shirt and ragged jeans.’ Of his later recordings, his excellent 1997 album included duets with Tanya Tucker, Kitty Wells and Junior Brown.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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