“The King of Western Swing,” the “living root of country music.” Henry William “Hank” Thompson became a western swing and country music star right from his hometown of Waco. Hank was born in Waco on September 3, 1925 to German-Czech immigrant parents Jule Thomas Thompson and Zexia Ilda Wells Thompson. Though not musical themselves, Hank’s parents recognized their son’s innate talent when he mastered the harmonica by age ten, so they purchased for him a four-dollar used guitar. It quickly became Hank’s instrument of choice.
Hank’s musical talents gained recognition when he joined the Kiddies Matinee at the local theater, almost always winning the Saturday morning talent competition on the show. From there he was picked up by local radio station WACO and had his own morning show, “Hank the Hired Hand,” where he played popular tunes before going to class at Waco High School (pinned on map below). Among his favorite artists to play were Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, and Jimmie Rodgers.
As for many young men in the 1940s, childhood ended with high school graduation. For Hank it was no different; with his parent’s approval he enlisted in the US Navy in January of 1943 at the ripe young age of seventeen. Though trained as a radio operator and technician, he also dabbled in songwriting while enlisted, and that would prove to be his true calling. After continuing his technical education briefly at Princeton University, University of Texas, and Southern Methodist University, in 1946 he moved back to Waco to pursue a career in radio. Local station KWTX gave him a fifteen-minute slot at 12:15 p.m. each day to perform with his guitar. Also during this time, he set about to form an accompanying band, what would later become the Brazos Valley Boys.
His radio exposure plus his songwriting days in the navy proved to be his path to fame. A Waco businessman connected Hank to his first record label, Globe Records, and he recorded a few of his navy songs in Dallas in August 1946. Among these first recordings was “Whoa Sailor,” which soon became a regional sensation and one of Hank’s greatest hits. This led Dallas DJ Hal Horton to introduce Hank to the famous Tex Ritter. Ritter immediately signed Hank to Capitol Records and cut his next big hit, “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” which would reach No. 2 on the Billboards Country Music Singles chart and stay there for thirty-eight weeks.
After marrying Dorothy Jean Ray in April 1948, the young couple moved to Nashville, home of country music. After a few short radio stints, Hank joined the Grand Ole Opry, the pinnacle of country music performance. But unfortunately, on top of poor pay, the Opry did not look approvingly on Hank’s style of music. Hank wanted to go with a more western swing sound, a combination of jazz, country, and blues known for the incorporation of amplified string instruments like the steel guitar. The Opry disliked this kind of branching out, so Hank left Nashville and headed back to Texas.
Hank then set about to refine his sound and form an official band of his own. Biographer Ronnie Pugh called Hank’s established style, “less jazzy than Bob Wills, less orchestral than Spade Cooley, and different and distinctive from Leon McAuliffe and Merl Lindsay.” The more dance halls Hank played, the more he saw a need for a great western swing accompanying band, and that is exactly what he formed. One of the first additions was guitarist Billy Grey, who helped Hank recruit the rest of the Brazos Valley Boys. He and the Brazos Valley Boys soon moved to Oklahoma, where their audience was bigger and more receptive. Hank thought of himself as the main singer of the band, but the band developed a reputation on its own as well, sometimes even recording instrumental tracks without Hank.
The year 1951 brought further nationwide acclaim for Hank with the release of “The Wild Side of Life,” which stayed at No. 1 on the country music charts for fourteen weeks. The song contained the famous line: “I didn’t know God made honky-tonk angels.” This song would turn out to be one of thirty top ten songs and seventy-nine charted hits Hank would boast by the end of his career, along with selling 60 million albums. He was also the first country star to appear on national television, have his own color TV show, travel extensively abroad, and record the first live country music album in 1961, “Live at the Golden Nugget from Las Vegas.“ He was also known for advancing music and lighting technology to enhance his shows on the road. Additionally, the Brazos Valley Boys alone would be named the best western swing band fourteen years in a row.
As his career progressed, Hank moved away from the western swing sound, as he chose to travel with a smaller band and let the Brazos Valley Boys do their own thing. He also experienced a change in his personal life, divorcing Dorothy Thompson in 1970 and marrying Dallas local Ann Williams. Hank and Ann were married for almost forty years until Hank’s death in 2007. At the age of eighty-two, he was still performing. In fact, he was on stage less than a month before his death in his hometown of Waco. He sang at the Heart O’ Texas Fair as part of his Sunset Tour on October 8, and was then diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer on November first. He canceled the rest of his tour and passed away just five days later on November 6, 2007.
Hank lives on in the Country Music Hall of Fame (1989) and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1997). In 2005 he released a record called “Seven Decades,” and he was one of few who could boast a career of that length. He was known for making music that “pleased him first, crowds second.” Fortunately, the crowds were never ones to complain about his honky-tonk hits, and Thompson is credited with bringing country music to life and inspiring the sounds of later legends like George Strait. But he never forgot his roots, saying, “Waco gave me my start. I cut my first record while I was still living there. It was my launching pad. I had to leave eventually, but everybody does, no matter if you are from Los Angeles or New York or Waco. If you’ve got the music, you’ve got to get out among the people and travel and play it.”