On January 1, 1953, Hank Williams, Sr. was found dead in the back of his Cadillac. He is regarded as one of the most prolific country music singers of all time, known for hit songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.”
Born Hiram King Williams in Alabama in 1923, he began playing guitar after learning from a black street performer named Rufus Payne, who would trade him guitar lessons for meals. Thinking his name was unfit for a career in country music, he soon changed it to “Hank.” He started to pursue his career in 1937 when he moved to Montgomery. Here he scored a gig performing on and hosting his own 15-minute radio show for WSFA radio station. While he was here, he formed the Drifting Cowboy band and dropped out of school to further pursue his musical career.
Williams was born with an undiagnosed case of spina bifida occulta, which caused him lifelong pain in his spinal column. This led Williams to the abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol to ease his pain. Williams’ alcoholism and his inability to replace several of his band members who left to serve in World War II caused him to be fired by the radio station. In 1944, Williams married Audrey Sheppard, who managed his career and helped him get back on track to success. He again started working for WSFA and auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry, but was rejected. After his first recording session with Sterling Records, his songs “Never Again” and “Honky Tonkin’” became popular and he was signed by MGM in 1947. He eventually joined the Grand Ole Opry and recorded 11 Billboard number one songs between 1948 and 1953.
In 1951, after falling during a hunting trip in Tennessee, Williams old back pains worsened, and his abuse of drugs and alcohol grew. Because of his unstable state and frequent drunkeness, Williams was eventually dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry and divorced from Audrey. Physically, Williams began to look older and more tired, and his performances began to suffer as well.
Williams was scheduled to perform in Charleston, West Virginia, but had to skip the performance due to a severe ice storm. His next performance was scheduled in Canton, Ohio for New Year’s, and he hired a college student named Charles Carr to drive him to this appearance. The two stopped at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee on their way to Canton from Montgomery. While at the hotel, Carr called a doctor for Williams who was not feeling well after the combination of chloral hydrate and alcohol he had consumed along the way. The doctor gave Williams two shots of B12 which also contained morphine.
Carr again stopped in Bristol, Virginia at a restaurant where he asked Williams if he was hungry. Williams replied that he was not hungry – words that would be his last. Carr’s last stop was in Oak Hill, Virginia, where he stopped at a gas station for fuel. The young driver soon discovered that Williams’ unresponsiveness was not due to him being asleep in the backseat, but dead. The police were called to the scene where they found several empty beer cans and unfinished song lyrics in the backseat. An autopsy concluded that Williams had died due to ”insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart.” At the place where Williams was to perform in Canton, the audience at first did not believe the news of his death and began to laugh, thinking it was just another excuse for his recent poor performances. It wasn’t until other performers started singing “I Saw The Light” in his memory that the news sunk in, and the crowd joined in singing.
Though he only lived for a very short 29 years, Williams recorded 35 Top 10 hits, 11 of which went to number one. A legend in the world of country music, perhaps more so because of his young untimely death, Williams has been inducted into several hall of fames and his songs are covered often by other artists who were inspired by the music he created.