Country music singer, songwriter, and guitarist Henry William Thompson was born on September 3, 1925, in Waco, Texas. As a boy, Thompson took up first the harmonica and then the guitar. When he was a teenager, he began broadcasting as “Hank the Hired Hand” on local radio in Waco. He graduated from high school in 1943 and enlisted in the United States Navy. While at sea, he continued performing music and even was broadcast over a network of stations in the South Pacific. He also studied electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University, the University of Texas, and Princeton University.
Western swing was a major influence on Thompson’s early musical career. He borrowed from the style of Bob Wills, Milton Brown, and others to help forge the new honky-tonk sound that emerged during the post-World War II era. After naval service, Thompson returned to Texas and put together his band, the Brazos Valley Boys. Thompson’s recording career began around this time when he recorded several songs, including “Whoa Sailor,” an engaging tune that recalled his navy days. Soon afterward, friend and fellow musician Tex Ritter helped Thompson land a contract with Capitol Records. During 1948 and 1949 Thompson recorded a number of songs for Capitol, including “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” which became his first hit.
He moved to Oklahoma City in 1952. That year he scored a huge hit with “The Wild Side of Life,” which exemplified the prominent honky-tonk themes of drinking and infidelity. Thompson continued to record a string of hits throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, including “A Six Pack to Go,” a honky-tonk anthem. He also hosted The Hank Thompson Show, a television variety show, the first to be broadcast in color, in Oklahoma from 1953 to 1957.
Thompson, often dubbed the “King of Western Swing,” remained an influential force in country music throughout his more than sixty-year musical career and sold more than sixty million records. Not only did he release hit records, but he also introduced important innovations into country music. For instance, Thompson was the first country artist to tour with a sound and lighting system, the first to receive corporate tour sponsorship, the first to record a live album (the 1960 Capitol Records release Hank Thompson, Live At The Golden Nugget In Las Vegas), the first to perform a regular country music show in Las Vegas, and the first to record in Hi-Fi stereo. Thompson’s million-selling song, “The Wild Side of Life,” also helped lead to the first Number 1 hit for a female country artist, when Kitty Wells recorded “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” a proto-feminist response to “The Wild Side of Life.”
The 1950s and 1960s were Thompson’s most commercially successful years, and his backup band, the Brazos Valley Boys, were named Billboard magazine’s highest rated country group from 1953 to 1965. However, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was struggling to stay atop the music charts. He left Capitol in 1965 and signed with Warner Brothers for a couple of years before moving on to Dot Records. He did reach the Top 10, however, twice in 1968 with “On Tap, in the Can, or in the Bottle” and “Smoky the Bar.” From the 1970s through the 1990s Thompson continued to tour throughout the world. He also recorded several successful albums, such as the 1997 critically-acclaimed Hank Thompson and Friends.
He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997. In 1999 he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, and his song “The Wild Side of Life” won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award. He is also honored in the Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame. Thompson married Dorothy Jean Ray in the 1940s. They later divorced. Thompson died of lung cancer on November 6, 2007, in Keller, Texas. He was survived by his second wife Ann (Williams) Thompson. His ashes were buried in Waco Memorial Park. He remains one of the most important figures in country music, having helped shape the modern honky-tonk sound and influence a number of younger honky-tonk artists.