Born Hiram King Williams in Mount Olive, Alabama, Williams grew up smaller and weaker than most, having been afflicted with spina bifida at birth. His unconventional childhood friend was a black street musician named Rufus Payne and called “Tee-Tot,” someone Williams says taught him everything he needed to know about music, especially the blues.
As a teenager in Montgomery, Alabama, Williams began performing on the radio and playing in local and regional bars. It was during this time that he also started a radio show, and formed his own band, the Drifting Cowboys. He became popular in the region, but with his popularity started his burgeoning drinking problem that would follow him the rest of his career.
Williams met Audrey Sheppard in Alabama in 1943, and the couple was married the next year. She managed the Drifting Cowboys and even played stand-up bass with them.
It was in 1946 that Williams was introduced to Nashville, where he met with Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose publishing, who was interested in Williams’ writing skills but eventually contracted him for a few recordings. These recordings later led to a deal with MGM, and his first chart hit, “Move It On Over.”
He returned to Montgomery and continued to perform, as well as drink, a problem that led to his divorce from Audrey in 1948. They reconciled, however, and their son Hank, Jr. was born in 1949. Their divorce was later finalized in 1952.
Professionally, he continued to succeed. During the 1940s and 1950s, Williams’ songs charted in the top ten of the country charts 36 times, including “Lovesick Blues,” that spent an impressive ten months in the Top 15 of the charts.
He made his debut and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1949. During his Opry debut, Williams received six encores. He also toured overseas the same year with the European Grand Ole Opry tour, visiting military bases overseas.
However, his professional successes were marred by his personal struggles with addiction. Back problems exacerbated his drug and alcohol dependencies, which he briefly sought treatment for in 1951. He married Billie Jean Jones in 1952, and she became pregnant, giving birth days after his death.
On New Year’s Eve, Williams was headed to Ohio for a show but suffered heart issues and died sometime in the early morning of January 1, 1953 in West Virginia. He was buried in Alabama and his popularity exploded after his untimely death.
Williams’ legacy is lauded in the music community. He was the first artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, named one of the Greatest Men of Country Music by CMT, and even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His children and grandchildren have continued his musical tradition and are country musicians.
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