“A Six Pack to Go”

By Robert F. Darden

When Hank Thompson and His Brazos Valley Boys Ruled the Airwaves (and Honky-Tonks of Central Texas)

Few musicians — in any genre — sold more records, traveled more miles and played more gigs than Waco-born Hank Thompson. During Thompson’s storied career, he had hits in seven decades, beginning with “Humpty Dumpty Heart” in 1948, and including country #1 songs “The Wild Side of Life,” “Rub-a-Dub-Dub” and “Wake Up, Irene.” He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and continued to perform until just weeks of his passing on November 6, 2007. It’s fitting that his final live performance was in Waco.

Fortunately for fans and scholars, Thompson was the subject of a short biography (“My Side of Life: The Hank Thompson Biography” by Warren Kice, 2007, and now long out of print) and a long interview with Baylor University’s Institute of Oral History by musicologist Jean Boyd.

Thompson, who was born on September 3, 1925, begins his memoir with a story about watching Waco police bust Mrs. Whitaker, a well-known bootlegger who lived on 17th Street during Prohibition. Whitaker, whose not-so-private business selling liquor was the subject of regular raids by Waco police, promptly paid her fine and resumed her deliveries that evening.

This event mattered to the 5-year-old son of Jule Thomas Thompson and Zexia Ilda Wells Thompson, who lived just a few houses away on Brook Avenue, because the Whitaker family had a state-of-the-art wind-up Victrola record player. And in those pre-air conditioning days, young Hank said he daily stood outside the window and listened to Mrs. Whitaker play her extensive collection of 78 recordings. He was such a faithful listener that she eventually invited him inside where Thompson was given a box of recording needles (which needed to be replaced every 10-15 plays) and full access to the collection, especially the songs of “The Singing Brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers.

Hank’s first instrument, a small harmonica, made him the star of Brook Avenue Elementary. In 1935, he won his first talent show, playing “Oh! Susanna”. First prize? Twenty-four bottles of the new soft drink, Pepsi Cola.

Like many Central Texans, the Thompsons, who had only recently changed their name from Kocek, had deep Czech and German roots. Hank’s father’s oldest brother played Czech folk songs on the accordion and sometimes accompanied his musically minded nephew to live performances, including Harley Sadler’s tent shows, which would set up for the weekend on the edge of Waco.

Young Hank was a big fan of the five cent Saturday morning matinees at the Waco Theater, especially the westerns with Gene Autry. It was Autry’s singing cowboy films that prompted Hank to ask for his first guitar at age 10.

The theater’s weekly Kiddie Matinee talent show was broadcast each Saturday morning on WACO radio. The talent show was open for ages 10–15. Playing guitar and singing songs like “Wabash Cannonball”, “The Great Speckled Bird” and “Blue Yodel No. 1,” Hank won so often that he was eventually asked to quit entering the competition.

The talent show was sponsored by the independent bakery, Jones Fine Bread. Thompson said he mustered up his nerve to see Mr. Jones and spontaneously rewrote the hit “When Pa Was Courting Ma” as a commercial jingle: The line “There were no airplanes or streamlined trains, when Pa was courting Ma” became “There was no Jones Fine Bread when Pa was courting Ma.” Jones was so impressed that he wrote Hank a check for $5 on the spot and asked him to sing the ditty as his bakery’s new radio commercial.

Hank told Boyd that he then formed his first band, all composed of friends from junior high. It was at a dance at a fair in nearby Perry — where the musicians were paid $1 apiece for their work — that he began calling the group the Brazos Valley Boys. The Kiddie Matinee’s director, Mrs. Holiday, also helped book Hank and the Boys for school socials, PTA meetings and other local events.

After the U.S. entered World War II, Thompson (now in 10th grade) replaced the local radio repairman who had enlisted in 1942. His time in the shop expanded his already considerable electrical skills, which would come in handy later. Whenever he wasn’t at school or the repair shop, Hank recalled that he’d hop the crosstown bus to see his friend Jimmy Gilliland, another aspiring guitarist.

Eventually, the manager of WACO asked Thompson to host his own live radio show, “Hank the Hired Hand”. Three times a week at 6:30 a.m., Thompson sang three or four songs and finished in time for school at 8 a.m. For his efforts, he was paid $5 per show and used his earnings to buy a top-of-the-line Gibson J-200 guitar. On Saturday mornings, Thompson said he’d take the trolley to the bustling Waco downtown square where he’d busk amid the throngs of shoppers and promote his radio show. Drummer Louis Miller often performed with Hank during those days. “We used to play on the street for nickels and dimes,” Miller told “Waco Tribune-Herald” reporters Carl Hoover and Teri Jo Ryan. “We were poor as snakes, but we had lots of fun.”

“Hank the Hired Hand” stayed on the air until January 1943, when Thompson graduated from Waco High School. The Monday morning after graduation, Thompson, then 17, took the Interurban streetcar to Dallas to enlist in the U.S. Navy for “duration of the war” plus six months. In the Navy, he sang wherever he could, honing his skills for his fellow sailors. “They didn’t have much choice,” he said later, “unless they wanted to jump overboard.” Hank continued writing songs and the romantic misadventures of another swabbie led to what would become his first hit song, “Whoa Sailor”, composed while stationed at Bremerton, Washington.

As the war wound down, Radioman Second Class Thompson used the GI Bill to take classes in electrical engineering at Princeton, Southern Methodist University and finally the University of Texas. When his tour was up in February 1946, he hitchhiked to Waco from Austin and resumed his musical career. His performances around town in time earned a slot on new radio station KWTX at $15 per week for the coveted 12:15-12:30 p.m. slot between network staples “Cedric Foster’s Mutual News” and “Queen for the Day.” Soon, he said, he was inundated with mailed-in requests for songs from throughout Central Texas.

From there, as told in his biography, things began to happen at a rapid clip. The increasing demand for gigs meant that Thompson finally bought his first car, a 1939 Oldsmobile with a trailer, a small PA and reformed the Brazos Valley Boys (with Gilliland on steel guitar, Charlie Adams on bass and Bobby Murrell on guitar) and hit the road.

Many of the gigs were at small rural high schools, often found at the end of badly marked (or even unmarked) country roads. Other engagements had more profitable outcomes. When his father ran for constable, Hank and his band played a benefit in Waco’s venerable Syrian Club and it was that night that he met his first wife, Dorothy Jean Ray.

According to Boyd’s book “The Jazz of the Southwest”, the main roads into Waco in those days were “choked” with the honky that sprang up following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. “In many respects,” she writes, “Waco was similar to New Orleans at the turn of the century—a magnet for musicians because of ample job opportunities in the house bands of numerous local clubs. There was also the busy Texas dance hall scene to keep bands occupied, especially on weekends.”

Through a series of friends and their connections, Thompson signed his first recording contract with the small Globe Records in California. Since he was still not 21, his mother signed the contract on his behalf. The recording of “Swing Wide Your Gate of Love” and “Whoa Sailor” took place at Pappy Seller’s studio in Dallas in August 1946 with a handful of Waco musicians.

“Woah Sailor” was such an immediate success that it led to a three-day slot opening for the Tex Ritter Show in a Waco Theater. Ritter’s long-time emcee, Joe Allison, said that when he first saw him, Hank didn’t appear particularly impressive: “Picture, if you will, a tall, gangling youth wearing a homemade cowboy shirt, a 9 1/2-gallon hat falling around his ears, and braces on his teeth. I remained duly unimpressed until we did our first show.”

Writing the liner notes for Thompson’s “Most of All” album in 1960, Allison said he watched his opening act from the wings. “Well, my friends, when he sang his first song you could have decked me with a zephyr,” Allison writes. “I heard the smoothest, most sincere delivery of a song that had ever been my pleasure to encounter. At that moment, if you had been selling Hank Thompson stock, I would have willingly invested my life’s savings.”

Ritter was equally impressed and urged industry powerhouse Capitol Records to sign Thompson in 1947. With the new contract in hand, a hit song and a smokin’ band, Hank Thompson was ready to fly — literally. He had used his GI Bill to take flying lessons and soon obtained his commercial pilot’s license.

From 1947 to 1949, the Brazos Valley Boys ruled Central Texas. The group, which still included Gilliland and Murrell, Adams (who played bass and contributed comic routines with Hank as the straight man) and Curly Lewis on fiddle, would experience frequent turn-over throughout Thompson’s long career.

Famed Waco guitarist Kenny Frazier told reporters Hoover and Ryan that Thompson was his “idol” and in later years — when he was back in town — Hank would sit on the porch of Frazier’s home on Parrott Avenue and sing for the neighborhood kids.

Thompson left Waco in ‘49, moved first to Nashville, then to Dallas (where he still had a regular radio shift on KRLD) and eventually to Oklahoma and rarely returned to Central Texas, save to perform at area venues and honkytonks and the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo, where he was a perennial favorite. At an appearance at the 1978 fair, Thompson was the headliner in a lineup that included Johnny Rodriquez and Dave & Sugar.

Drummer Tommy Perkins performed with Thompson from 1950 to 1952. “That was an experience,” he told Boyd. “First band I ever worked with that had two steel guitar players. It was a big band. He had three fiddles. That was a high intensity band. It was a show band; lots of show stuff went on—antics, that kind of thing. That was a loud band, the loudest band I ever worked on. I cracked the top of my high hat the first night on the band, I played it so hard.”

The Brazos Valley Boys packed Waco’s Terrace Club playing six-night weeks and Sunday afternoons — for $40–$50 per week each. Other gigs took them to country fairs, honkytonks or school auditoriums in nearby small towns, including Penelope and Birome. The group also toured U.S. military bases abroad regularly, both in Europe and the Far East, and as far afield as South Africa. Long after his records quit selling in the U.S., his European fans continued to snap them up.

Thompson kept touring and visited his hometown occasionally. In 1988, he returned for a reunion of Waco High School graduates from 1943–44 at the Waco Hippodrome. He reminisced with old friends, told jokes, and performed some of his big hits for 30 minutes for 250 delighted classmates.

In May 2007, bassist and McLennan Community College music teacher Dick Gimble joined his father, the legendary fiddler Johnny Gimble, and Thompson for a concert on the MCC stage. Both men were 81 at the time. Gimble said he knew from the first notes that the evening was magical. “I remember thinking,” Gimble told Hoover, “Everyone here should remember this night for the rest of their lives because it was happening once in a blue moon.”

In his career, Hank Thompson sold 60 million records and had 29 Top 10 country hits. The Brazos Valley Boys were voted the top-rated country band every year between 1953-1965. During his last public appearance, which happened to be in Waco on October 8, 2007, Mayor Virginia DuPuy and Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued proclamations calling it “Hank Thompson Day.” Hoover, who interviewed Thompson on several occasions, told me that Hank privately was disappointed that his hometown never had a marker of some kind commemorating his life and career.

Thompson returned to his home in Keller and died of lung cancer on November 6, 2007.

While writing “My Side of Life”, Kice said that earlier that year he had asked Hank if he ever considered retiring from performing.

“Oh no,” Thompson said. “In fact, when I die, I hope it’s on the stage.”