Born Hiram King Williams, in Mount Olive, Butler County, Alabama, Williams moved to Georgiana, where he met Rufus Payne, a black street performer who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for meals or money. Payne had a major influence on Williams' later musical style. During this time, Williams informally changed his name to Hank, believing it to be a better name for country music. After moving to Montgomery, Williams began his career in 1937 when WSFA radio station producers hired him to perform and host a 15-minute program. He formed as backup the Drifting Cowboys band, which was managed by his mother, and dropped out of school to devote all of his time to his career.
When several of his band members were conscripted to military service during World War II, Williams had trouble with their replacements and started drinking heavily, causing WSFA to dismiss him. Williams eventually married Audrey Sheppard, who became his manager for nearly a decade. After recording "Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'" with Sterling Records, he signed a contract with MGM Records. In 1948 he released "Move it on Over," which became a hit, and also joined the Louisiana Hayride radio program. In 1949, he released a cover of "Lovesick Blues," which carried him into the mainstream of music. After an initial rejection, Williams joined the Grand Ole Opry. He had 11 number one songs between 1948 and 1953, though he was unable to read or notate music to any significant degree. Among the hits he wrote were "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Hey, Good Lookin'," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
The abuse of alcohol and morphine severely deteriorated his health. He divorced his wife and was dismissed by the Grand Ole Opry due to frequent drunkenness. Williams died suddenly in the early morning hours of New Years Day in 1953 at the age of 29 from heart failure brought on by pills and alcohol. Despite his short life, Williams has had a major influence on country music. The songs he wrote and recorded have been covered by numerous artists, many of whom have also had hits with the tunes, in a range of pop, gospel, blues and musical styles.
Williams' parents, Elonzo Huble "Lon" Williams and Jessie Lillybelle "Lillie" Skipper married on November 12, 1916. Hank Williams was of English-American ancestry. Elonzo Williams worked as an engineer for the railroads of the W.T. Smith lumber company. He was drafted during World War I, serving from July 1918 until June 1919. He was severely injured after falling from a truck, breaking his collarbone and sustaining a severe hit to the head. After his return, the family's first child, Irene, was born on August 8, 1922. Another son of theirs died shortly after birth. Their third child, Hiram, was born on September 17, 1923, in Mount Olive. Since Elonzo Williams was a Mason, and his wife was a member of Order of the Eastern Star the child was named after Hiram I of Tyre (one of the three founders of the Masons, according to Masonic legend), but his name was misspelled as "Hiriam" on his birth certificate.
As a child, he was nicknamed "Harm" by his family and "Herky" or "Poots" by his friends. He was born with a mild undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, a disorder of the spinal column, which gave him lifelong pain—a factor in his later abuse of alcohol and drugs. Williams' father was frequently relocated by the lumber company railway for which he worked, and the family lived in many southern Alabama towns. In 1930, when Williams was seven years old, his father began suffering from facial paralysis. At a Veterans Affairs (VA) clinic in Pensacola, Florida, doctors determined that the cause was a brain aneurysm, and Elonzo was sent to the VA Medical Center in Alexandria, Louisiana. He remained hospitalized for eight years, rendering him mostly absent throughout Hiram's childhood. From that time on, Lillie Williams assumed responsibility for the family. In the fall of 1934 the Williams family moved to Greenville, Alabama, where Lillie opened a boarding house next to the Butler County courthouse. In 1935 the Williams family settled in Garland, Alabama, where Lillie Williams opened a new boarding house. After a while they moved with his cousin Opal McNeil to Georgiana, Alabama where Lillie managed to find several side jobs to support her children, despite the bleak economic climate of the Great Depression. She worked in a cannery and served as a night-shift nurse in the local hospital.
Their first house burned and the family lost all of its possessions. They moved to a new house on the other side of town on Rose Street, which Williams' mother soon turned into a boarding house. The house had a small garden, on which they grew diverse crops that Williams and his sister Irene sold around Georgiana. At a chance meeting in Georgiana, Hank Williams met U.S. Representative J. Lister Hill while he was campaigning across Alabama. Williams told Hill that his mother was interested to talk with him about his problems and her need to collect Elonzo Williams' disability pension. With Hill's help, the family began collecting the money. Despite his medical condition, the family managed fairly well financially throughout the Great Depression.
There are several versions of how Williams got his first guitar. His mother stated that she bought it with money from selling peanuts, but many other prominent residents of the town claimed to have been the one who purchased the guitar for him. While living in Georgiana, Williams met Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, a street performer. Payne gave Williams guitar lessons in exchange for meals prepared by Lillie Williams or money. Payne's base musical style was blues. He taught Williams chords, chord progressions, bass turns, and the musical style of accompaniment that he would use in most of his future songwriting. Later on, Williams recorded one of the songs that Payne taught him, "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It."Williams musical style contained influences from Payne along with several other country influences, among them "the Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers, Moon Mullican, andRoy Acuff. In 1937 Williams got into a fight with his physical education coach about exercises the coach wanted him to do. His mother subsequently demanded that the school board terminate the coach; when they refused, the family moved to Montgomery, Alabama. Payne and Williams lost touch, though eventually, Payne also moved to Montgomery, where he died in poverty in 1939. Williams later credited him as his only teacher.
In July 1937 the Williams and McNeil families opened a boarding house on South Perry Street in downtown Montgomery. It was at this time that Williams decided to change his name informally from Hiram to Hank, a name he said was better suited to his desired career in country music. During the same year, he participated of a talent show at the Empire Theater. He won the first prize of $15, singing his first original song "WPA Blues". Williams wrote the lyrics and used the tune of Riley Puckett's "Dissatisfied". He never learned to read music, and for the rest of his career, he based his compositions in storytelling. After school and on weekends Williams sang and played his Silvertone guitar on the sidewalk in front of the WSFA radio studios. His recent win at The Empire Theater and the street performances caught the attention of WSFA producers, who occasionally invited him to perform on air. So many listeners contacted the radio station asking for more of "the singing kid" that the producers hired him to host his own 15-minute show twice a week for a weekly salary of US$15 (equivalent to US$239.50 in 2013). In August 1938 Elonzo Williams was temporarily released from the hospital. He showed up unannounced at the family's home in Montgomery. Lillie was unwilling to let him reclaim his position at the head of the household, so he stayed only long enough to celebrate Williams' birthday in September before he returned to the medical center in Louisiana.
Williams' successful radio show fueled his entry into a music career. His salary was enough for him to start his own band, which he dubbed theDrifting Cowboys. The original members were guitarist Braxton Schuffert, fiddler Freddie Beach, and comedian Smith "Hezzy" Adair. James E. (Jimmy) Porter was the youngest, being only 13 when he started playing steel guitar for Williams. Arthor Whiting was also a guitarist for The Drifting Cowboys. The band traveled throughout central and southern Alabama performing in clubs and at private parties. James Ellis Garner later played fiddle for him. Lillie Williams became the Drifting Cowboys' manager. Williams dropped out of school in October 1939 so that the Drifting Cowboys could work full-time. Lillie Williams began booking show dates, negotiating prices and driving them to some of their shows. Now free to travel without Williams' schooling taking precedence, the band could tour as far away as western Georgia and the Florida Panhandle. The band started to play in theaters before the start of the movies and later in honky-tonks. Williams' alcohol problem started during the tours, on occasion spending an important part of the show revenues. Meanwhile, between tour schedules, Williams returned to Montgomery to host his radio show.
The American entry into World War II in 1941 marked the beginning of hard times for Williams. All his band members were drafted to serve in the military, while he got a 4-F deferment from the military draft after falling from a bull during a rodeo in Texas. Many of their replacements refused to continue playing in the band because of Williams' worsening alcoholism. He continued to show up for his radio show intoxicated, so in August 1942 WSFA fired him for "habitual drunkenness". During one of his concerts Williams met backstage his idol, Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, who later warned him of the dangers of alcohol, saying: "You've got a million-dollar talent, son, but a ten-cent brain."
He worked for the rest of the war in a shipbuilding company in Mobile, Alabama, as well as singing in bars for soldiers. In 1943 Williams met Audrey Sheppard on a medicine showin Banks, Alabama. Williams and Sheppard lived and worked together in Mobile, Sheppard later told Williams that she wanted to move to Montgomery with him and start a band together and help him regain his radio show. The couple were married in 1944 in a Texaco Station in Andalusia, Alabama, by a justice of the peace. The marriage was declared illegal, since Sheppard's divorce from her previous husband did not comply with the legally required sixty-day trial reconciliation.
In 1945, when he was back in Montgomery, Williams started to perform again for WSFA. He wrote songs weekly to perform during the shows. As a result of the new variety of his repertoire, Williams published his first song book, Original Songs of Hank Williams. The book only listed lyrics, since its main purpose was to attract more audience. It included ten songs: "Mother Is Gone", "Won't You Please Come Back", "My Darling Baby Girl" (with Audrey Sheppard), "Grandad's Musket", "I Just Wish I Could Forget", "Let's Turn Back The Years", "Honkey-Tonkey", "I Loved No One But You", "A Tramp On The Street", and "You'll Love Me Again". Williams became recognized as a songwriter, Sheppard became his manager and occasionally accompanied him on duets in some of his live concerts.
On September 14, 1946, Williams auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry but was rejected. After the failure of his audition, Williams and Audrey Sheppard traveled to Nashville, to intend to interest the recently formed music publishing firm Acuff-Rose Music. Williams and his wife approached Fred Rose, the president of the company, during one of his habitual ping-pong games at WSM radio studios. Audrey Williams asked Rose if her husband could sing a song for him on that moment, Rose agreed, and he liked Williams' musical style. Rose signed Williams to a six song contract, and leveraged this deal to sign Williams with Sterling Records. On December 11, 1946, in his first recording session, he recorded "Wealth Won't Save Your Soul", "Calling You", "Never Again", and "When God Comes and Gathers His Jewels." The recordings "Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'" became successful, and earned Williams the attention of MGM Records.
Williams signed with MGM Records in 1947 and released "Move It On Over", which became a massive country hit. In 1948 he moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, and he joined Louisiana Hayride, a radio show broadcast that propelled him into living rooms all over the southeast appearing on weekend shows. Williams eventually started to host a show on KWKH and started touring across western Louisiana and eastern Texas, always returning on Saturdays for the weekly broadcast of theHayride. After a few more moderate hits, in 1949 he released his version of the 1922 Clifford Friend & Irving Mills song "Lovesick Blues", made popular by Rex Griffin. Williams' version became a huge country hit, crossing over to mainstreamaudiences and gaining Williams a place in the Grand Ole Opry. On June 11, 1949, Williams made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. He brought together Bob McNett (guitar), Hillous Butrum (bass), Jerry Rivers (fiddle) and Don Helms(steel guitar) to form the most famous version of the Drifting Cowboys, earning an estimated US$1,000 per show (equivalent to US$9,6490 in 2013). That year Audrey Williams gave birth to Randall Hank Williams (Hank Williams, Jr.). During 1949, he joined the first european tour of the Grand Ole Opry, performing in military bases in England, Germanyand Azores. Williams released seven hit songs after "Lovesick Blues," including "Wedding Bells," "Mind Your Own Business," "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," and "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It."
In 1950, Williams began recording as "Luke the Drifter" for his religious-themed recordings, many of which are recitations rather than singing. Fearful that disc jockeys and jukebox operators would hesitate to accept these unusual recordings, Williams used this alias to avoid hurting the marketability of his name. Despite that the real identity of Luke the Drifter was supposed to be anonymous, Williams often performed part of the material of the recordings on stage. Most of the material was written by Williams, in cases with the help of Fred Rose and his son Wesley. The songs depicted Luke the Drifter traveling around from place to place, narrating stories from different characters and philosophizing about life.Some of the compositions were accompanied by a pipe organ.
Around this time Williams released more hit songs, such as "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy", "They'll Never Take Her Love from Me", "Why Should We Try Any More?", "Nobody's Lonesome for Me", "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me?", "Moanin' the Blues", and "I Just Don't Like This Kind of Livin'". In 1951 "Dear John" became a hit, but it was the flip side, "Cold, Cold Heart", that became one of his most-recognized songs. A pop cover version by Tony Bennett released the same year stayed on the charts for 27 weeks, peaking at number one.
On December 15, 1944, Williams married Audrey Sheppard. It was her
second marriage and his first. Their son, Randall Hank Williams, who
would achieve fame in his own right as Hank Williams, Jr., was born on
May 26, 1949. The marriage, always turbulent, rapidly disintegrated, and
he developed a serious problem with alcohol, morphine, and other
painkillers prescribed for him to ease the severe back pain caused by
his spina bifida. The couple divorced on May 29, 1952. In June 1952,
Williams moved in with his mother, even as he released numerous hit
songs, such as "Half as Much," "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "Settin' the
Woods on Fire," "You Win Again," and "I'll Never Get Out of This World
Alive." His drug problems continued to spiral out of control as he moved
to Nashville and officially divorced his wife. A relationship with
Bobbie Jett during this period resulted in a daughter, Jett, who would
be born five days after his death.
On October 18, 1952, Williams and Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar were
married in Minden, Louisiana by a justice of the peace. It was the
second marriage for both (both having been divorced with children). The
next day two public ceremonies were also held at the New Orleans Civic
Auditorium, where 14,000 seats were sold for each. After Williams'
death, a judge ruled that the wedding was not legal because Jones
Eshlimar's divorce had not become final until eleven days after she
married Williams. Williams' first wife, Audrey, and his mother, Lillie
Williams, were the driving forces behind having the marriage declared
invalid and pursued the matter for years. Williams also married Audrey
Sheppard before her divorce was final, on the tenth day of a required
sixty-day reconciliation period.
On December 31, 1952, Williams was scheduled to perform at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, West Virginia. Advance ticket sales totaled US$3,500 (equivalent to $30,300 in 2013). Because of an ice storm in the Nashville area, Williams could not fly, so he hired a college student, Charles Carr, to drive him to the concerts. Carr called the Charleston auditorium from Knoxville to say that Williams would not arrive on time owing to the ice storm and was ordered to drive Williams to Canton, Ohio, for the New Year's Day concert there.
They arrived at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Carr requested a doctor for Williams, as he was feeling the combination of the chloral hydrate and alcohol he had drunk on the way from Montgomery to Knoxville. Dr. P.H. Cardwell injected Williams with two shots of vitamin B12 that also contained a quarter-grain of morphine. Carr and Williams checked out of the hotel, the porters had to carry Williams to the car, as he was coughing and hiccuping. At around midnight on January 1, 1953, when they crossed the Tennessee state line and arrived in Bristol, Virginia, Carr stopped at a small all-night restaurant and asked Williams if he wanted to eat. Williams said he did not, and those are believed to be his last words. Carr later drove on until he stopped for fuel at a gas station in Oak Hill, West Virginia, where he realized that Williams was dead. The filling station's owner called the chief of the local police. In Williams' Cadillac the police found some empty beer cans and unfinished handwritten lyrics.
Dr. Ivan Malinin performed the autopsy at the Tyree Funeral House. Malinin found hemorrhages in the heart and neck and pronounced the cause of death as "insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart." That evening, when the announcer at Canton announced Williams' death to the gathered crowd, they started laughing, thinking that it was just another excuse. After Hawkshaw Hawkins and other performers started singing "I Saw the Light" as a tribute to Williams, the crowd, now realizing that he was indeed dead, sang along. Dr. Malinin also wrote that Williams had been severely beaten and kicked in the groin recently. Also local magistrate Virgil F. Lyons ordered an inquest into Williams' death concerning the welt that was visible on his head. His body was transported to Montgomery, Alabama, on January 2 and placed in a silver coffin that was first shown at his mother's boarding house for two days. His funeral took place on January 4 at the Montgomery Auditorium, with his coffin placed on the flower-covered stage. An estimated 15,000 to 25,000 people passed by the silver coffin, and the auditorium was filled with 2,750 mourners. His funeral was said to have been far larger than any ever held for any other citizen of Alabama and the largest event ever held in Montgomery. Williams' remains are interred at the Oakwood Annex in Montgomery. The president of MGM told Billboard magazine that the company got only about five requests for pictures of Williams during the weeks prior to his death, but over three hundred afterwards. The local record shops sold out of all of their records, and customers were asking for all records ever released by Williams. His final single released during his lifetime was titled "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive." "Your Cheatin' Heart" was written and recorded in 1952 but released in 1953 after Williams' death. The song was number one on the country charts for six weeks. It provided the title for the 1964 biographical film of the same name, which starred George Hamilton.