Contrasting Lives, Enduring Legacies
Saluting Hank Thompson and Jeff Healey
One played hard, honky tonk-influenced western swing, the other crunching blues-rock. One hailed from Waco, in the heart of Texas, the other from a blue-collar town just outside Toronto, Canada. One came of age when the music business demanded artists be unique, the other fought against music business machinery that tried to duplicate the latest big thing in spades and finally turned his back on it altogether. One had a long, healthy, happy and productive life, and when he died in Keller, TX, at age 82 this past November, he could look back on seven decades (as he titled one of his finest albums, released in 2000) of often brilliant, occasionally daring, always solid artistry; the other, born under a bad sign, blinded by cancer as a baby and battling the disease throughout his life, lived only half as long, 41 years, but attacked his art with ferocity, fearlessness, intelligence, and great heart, was a devoted family man, and left a legacy of solid artistry and inspiring commitment to following his inner muse. One played his final concert on October 8, 2007, only a month before his death, in his Texas home town on day declared in his honor, offering no hint of the lung cancer that would claim his life in November; the other’s final album, set for April 22 release, finds him returning on record for the first time in eight years to the blues-rock with which he made his name in the ‘80s, and fashioning one of the most memorable musical statements of his career in a selection of 10 cover songs that he renders with an abundance of life-affirming energy, searing guitar work and deeply felt vocals, offering no hint of the lung cancer that would claim his life on March 2.
Born September 3, 1925, Hank Thompson was drawn to music as a child, after hearing the recordings of Gene Autry. Given a guitar for Christmas when he was 10, Thompson was performing on a local Waco radio station by the time he was in high school; returning to Waco following service in the Navy, he assembled the Brazos Valley Boys, which in time would become one of country music’s legendary bands. He cut his first records in Dallas in 1946 and 1947, was spotted by Capitol recording star Tex Ritter (a friend of a friend of Thompson’s) and, at Ritter’s urging, was signed by Capitol in 1947, an association that endured for 18 years and produced some of the most important honky tonk and western swing recordings in country music history. In 1949 alone he notched six charting singles, including the classic “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” but it was in 1951, when he was teamed with the great producer Ken Nelson, that Thompson’s career skyrocketed. The enduring monuments of this pairing include 1952’s mega-hit “The Wild Side of Life” (not a Thompson original, it had a three-month run atop the country chart), which inspired Kitty Wells’s famous answer record, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”; “Wake Up, Irene” (Thompson’s own answer record to Lead Belly’ “Good Night, Irene”); and an illustrious catalogue of wacky beer drinking songs that mated Thompson’s gift for inspired, punning wordplay with the Brazos Valley Boys’ thundering rhythmic attack. Among these gems: “A Six Pack To Go,” “On Tap, In the Can, Or In the Bottle,” and “Smoky the Bar.” In the ‘50s, 21 of Thompson’s songs ascended into the Top 20. During his Capitol years Thompson also made an art of the album as statement, cutting groundbreaking concept albums in the 1950s, the most notable being 1959’s Songs For Rounders, widely acknowledged as a honky tonk/western swing masterpiece, and introducing the live concert album to the genre with his 1961 LP, Live At the Golden Nugget, recorded in Las Vegas; he was also the first country artist to record in high-fidelity stereo. Not the least of the elements bolstering Thompson’s memorable Capitol recordings from 1953 on was the imaginative guitar work and arrangements of Merle Travis. The achievements don’t end with the music, though. In the early ‘50s he hosted a television show out of Oklahoma City that lays claim to being the first variety show broadcast in color, and he was always proud of his achievements in sound as the first country artist to tour with a dedicated sound and lighting system (for which he used his Navy experience to lend a hand in the design).
“I came up in an era quite unlike today's climate,” Thompson told this reporter in 2000 in discussing his Seven Decades album. “It was almost a necessity that you were different, that you had a style. Of course nowadays nobody's got a style; they all sound the same. They don't want anybody to have a style. But back then you had to be yourself; you wouldn't get anywhere trying to play and sing like somebody else. So I wasn't trying to copy anybody. My voice was in the same range as Ernest Tubb's and I was a big fan of his. I had to really work at not sounding like Ernest. I was inadvertently singing like he did, and realized what I was doing and conscientiously worked at changing my style so I didn't do things the way Ernest did them. In the same way, I wanted western swing music as a background, but I didn't want to sound like Bob Wills. So I had to work at not using that same type of thing that Bob Wills did; but at the same time I wanted that good swing sound with the good rhythm, twin fiddles, the steel, the piano. Boy, that was a big hurdle to overcome, because all the musicians I was getting had all been brought up on Bob Wills music. There was a period there when I had to tell the band, ‘Look, don't play any Bob Wills songs except 'Steel Guitar Rag' and 'San Antonio Rose.' There's already a Bob Wills, and we're not trying to be a Bob Wills band. We're gonna develop different endings, different intros, different voicings on the instruments, different styling on the instruments; we're not gonna all play at once like they do in Bob's band, we're gonna have the fills alternated, the steel comes in, the fiddles come in.’ As we went along I'd tell them, ‘Now you've learned that, think of something else; come up with something, but not something you've heard before.’"
Thompson not only knew he couldn’t sound like anyone else and have a chance at making it, he had a clear idea of exactly what he needed to do to stand out; and in doing so, he broke new ground again. “Actually, I wanted it to be a little more country than Bob Wills and Spade Cooley,” he explained in the 2000 interview. “I wanted that good sound like they had, but I wanted it to be country. I wanted country songs and my voice to be up front and the band to be in the background, and not vice versa. In the orchestras of that time, the orchestra leader was the focal point. The orchestra was the main thing, the vocalist was virtually another instrument in the band, like Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey, Bing Crosby with Paul Whiteman. They all were just singers in the band. I changed that. I put it up there, I am the singer, this band is a background to me; I'm not in the background and a part of it. It is a part of me. So I switched roles, and that then became the trend in the business.”
By the time he left Capitol in 1964, Thompson had racked up 79 chart hits. Following a year with Warner Brothers (from 1966 to 1967), he signed with Dot/MCA for what became a 12-year run, during which time he attempted, without much success, to adapt his style to the smoother commercial mainstream sound of the day. Thereafter his recording career was spotty—he was signed to the Churchill label out of Tulsa briefly and recorded for Curb in the early ‘90s (which produced another concept album, Hank Thompson and Friends)—but he came back strong in 2000 with one of the strongest albums of his career, Seven Decades, released on the Hightone label.
Right to the end Thompson maintained an active schedule and expressed undiminished enthusiasm for music. His career had taken him to seven continents as a performer, and he was still going global in 2000, performing some 100 dates a year Stateside and abroad. Along the way, he was reaping the rewards of the affection his music had engendered through the years, and by his account, having the time of his life.
“Recently I was in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a film festival,” he said in 2000. “I signed a lot of autographs and we sold a lot of our product there. I did a little performance that evening for the dinner, and they presented me with the Ernest Tubb Achievement Award. Then we're playing at an Indian reservation casino in Iowa. We work quite a few of those things in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, North Dakota, Michigan. Then we'll be going to Norway and Sweden in late July for a couple of festivals over there. We work some of the old Texas dance halls—down in Bandera we work the old Cabaret Club that I've been playing ever since I've been in the business. I do all kinds of things. I'm very fortunate. I enjoy doing this as much now as I did when I started. Getting paid for it is a bonus.”
Hank Thompson is survived by his wife, the former Ann Williams.
March 25, 1966 – March 2, 2008
Born and raised near Toronto, and blinded at age one by a rare form of cancer, Jeff Healey was given his first guitar at age three and took lessons at a school for the blind, but found he was more comfortable holding the instrument in his lap than having it strapped across his chest. Although he played guitar and trumpet in school bands, he was much the autodidact, learning from records by great guitarists ranging from Chet Atkins to B.B. King to Eric Clapton, and teaching himself music theory.
His Jeff Healey Band (which included drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman), was signed by Arista Records in 1985. His 1988 album, See the Light, went platinum here and produced Healey’s only Top 40 hit, the John Hiatt song “Angel Eyes,” which peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Also in ’88, Healey and band also performed—and even had speaking parts—in the Patrick Swayze-starring film Road House, a bit of good fortune that propelled the group into stadium concerts. Weary of the road and disenchanted with the trappings of stardom, Healey scaled back his touring schedule as the years went on and increasingly devoted himself to studying and playing the old-time music that was close to his heart, a legacy from his father. In 2002, however, he opened a club named after himself (Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse) in Toronto, and later moved it to a larger space, where he and his Jeff Healey’s Blues Band would hold forth every Thursday night.
In 2003 Healey formed a new band, The Jazz Wizards, expressly to play vintage jazz and classic American pop. He played trumpet in the group, which recorded three well received albums, including 2002’s Among Friends, 2004’s Adventures in Jazzland, and 2006’s It’s Tight Like That, the latter featuring as a guest trombonist Chris Barber, a dominant figure in the British trad jazz scene since the late 1950s.
Healey’s last recorded statement was the forthcoming Mess of Blues album, his first blues-rock exercise in eight years. Comprised of 10 tracks of blues, country and rock evergreens (including “The Weight,” Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya,” B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get,” Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” and the Doc Pomus-penned title track originally recorded by Elvis Presley), Mess of Blues is a solid triumph of inspired musicianship and deep feeling mated to meaningful material. The Blues Band—Alec Fraser, bass; Dan Noordermeer, guitar/vocals; Dave Murphy, keyboards, vocals; Al Webster, drums—plays with fire and ice, as required, perfectly in sync with Healey’s performance, which in and of itself is remarkable, especially the deeply nuanced vocals on the moodier numbers. Six of the tracks were recorded live in a studio, four were recorded live at two different sites, The Islington Academy in London and at Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse in Toronto. More than any other quality, though, what jumps out of the album is its abundant, life-affirming energy. With the band unrelenting behind him, Healey delivers some of the most electrifying performances of his career, fully invested emotionally in his material and fashioning guitar solos of gripping intensity. In his liner notes, Healey says he and his musical mates “were unapologetically formed as a ‘bar band,’ (and) we’ve simply attempted to be the very best bar band one could possibly ask for.” A modest man with modest goals, in the end amply fulfilled—on and off the stage.
Jeff Healey is survived by his wife Cristie; a daughter, Rachel; and a son, Derek.