Hank Williams Rare Live Recordings to Be Released
Many performances by great artists have been lost over the years, but thanks to a Grand Ole Opry photographer, the world can hear the legendary Hank Williams performing on live radio shows from the 1950s.
Les Leverett, who was the Grand Ole Opry photographer working for the National Life & Accident Insurance Company (owners of WSM radio and the Opry at the time), happened to notice a box of Hank’s acetate recordings in a trash box outside the National Life offices one day. It seems there was a major spring cleaning going on, and the company was throwing away things it no longer felt it needed. Leverett asked if he could have them and was told he could take them home.
The music Leverett saved was from numerous ‘Mother’s Best’ radio shows from 1951. Mother’s Best Flour was the sponsor of the show which originally aired on Nashville’s WSM. The discs made for the show were meant to be played only once. The material on them includes not just songs, many of which are not on other Hank recordings, but also includes Hank, his band and the crew at the show talking back and forth, joking and carrying on in a way fans have never heard from this gifted songwriter and singer. Additionally there are commercials and commercial jingles performed or played throughout the shows.
Some of the material has already been released, but now a new collection, ‘The Hank Williams Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!,’ is planned, including everything from those original acetates. The box set will feature 15 audio discs of Hank and one DVD featuring his daughter, Jett Williams, interviewing Hank’s Drifting Cowboy band members Don Helms and Big Bill Lister, both of whom were present when the shows were put down on acetate. There is also a 100-page booklet with never-before-seen photos and stories, an introduction by Hank Williams Jr. and an afterword by Jett.
Among the tunes on the set are the first recordings of Hank Sr. classics, ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)’ and ‘Cold, Cold Heart,’ which he performed just a few day after writing those songs. There are also tunes that Hank never recorded anywhere else, including ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,’ ‘Cool Water’ and ‘On Top of Old Smokey.’ There are also recordings of Hank and his wife, Audrey, on songs like the old gospel tune ‘Where the Soul of Man Never Dies.’
“When I heard about the Mother’s Best shows, I couldn’t believe there was more,” Hank Jr. admits. “Hearing him sing songs like ‘The Blind Child’s Prayer’ and ‘On Top Of Old Smoky,’ you realize he was listening to country music, soaking it up, back in the 1930’s. But the most special songs to me are where Daddy sings with Mother on those old gospel songs … there’s something special about those recordings.”
“It is really a collector’s collectible,” Jett tells The Boot. “The entire package will be encased in an antique radio with a working knob. When you turn the knob, you will hear a WSM jingle and a snippet of my dad’s voice.”
Jett goes on to explain why the entire collection from the acetates had not been released. “We put out part of the ‘Mother’s Best’ shows in a CD package with just dad singing. We thought that if we had all those jingles and commercials on it, people would skip over them. So we picked selections of him singing, allowing the listener to hear how wonderful those live performances were. Now in this collection, we have included everything from the acetates, so people can sit down and appreciate the 1951 bantering and the talking and the actual live songs. It will be as if you were there when they were doing the show.”
The previously released package, ‘Revealed: The Unreleased Recordings,” has already been a major factor in Hank Williams receiving a Pulitzer Prize for his work as a songwriter. Jett, who attended the luncheon in New York when they presented the honor, found out exactly how the committee came to hear the Hank project.
“I was invited to Columbia University where they award the Pulitzer, and I was sitting by one of the people who was on the committee to choose the Pulitzer Prizes in music. He told me that he bought one of the box sets and after listening to it, he was so blown away by it and by the lyrics and by my dad that he got copies and brought it to the attention of the Pulitzer board.”
Apparently the rest of the committee thought so too, because they gave a posthumous Special Citation to Hank Williams for lifetime achievement as a musician. The citation praises Hank for “his craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life.” The board, chaired by Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of the Miami Herald, made the award after a confidential survey of experts in popular music.
“The citation, above all, recognizes the lasting impact of Williams as a creative force that influenced a wide range of other musicians and performers,” according to Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes.
“Getting to go to the luncheon was great,” says Jett. “And they were playing ‘Hey Good Lookin’ in the rotunda at Columbia University while they were taking pictures after the lunch. I just thought that was so cool.”
“It’s a miracle that the acetates survived over the years,” Jett adds of the historically-significant music collection. “That just goes to show that the live recordings are unbelievable. When it was transferred over from the acetate, little or nothing was done to enhance it with today’s technology, so the integrity was transferred from 1951 to today. These recordings are as good if not better than the MGM masters. For most part the fidelity is unbelievable.”
It was not an easy journey from the trash can to the hands of music fans, however, Jett admits. “I met Les and he told me about the boxes of acetates and told me I could have them. But unfortunately Hillous Butrum (another member of the Drifting Cowboys) had sold a copy to a company in Texas who was trying to exploit them. Then my dad’s record company tried to say that they owned them because he was recording for them at the time. So Hank Jr. and I had to sue them and the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the artist owned those recordings, and they did not fall under the recording contract he had with them at the time. It was a landmark case for artists because the ruling pertains to all music and all artists, not just ‘Mother’s Best’ and Hank Williams Sr.
“Back then I don’t think anyone had any idea how technology would evolve and the lawyers had gotten that savvy in writing contracts. Today the recording contract would include every breath you utter, because today to do something live you have to get clearance and do all other kinds of legalities when you perform. During that period of time, however, if an artist did a radio show, it belonged to the artist to do with what he chose to do. He had fulfilled his obligation to ‘Mother’s Best’ when he did the show and they aired it the one time.”
The new box set will be released by Time Life on September 28, 11 days after what would have been the iconic entertainer’s 87th birthday (he died on New Year’s Day 1953 at age 29).
Jett says that she is well aware of the importance of these particular recordings. “You get to meet the man Hank Williams, and not just hear the hits … you get to visit with him. I think because there’s very little footage and actual audio of interviews with him, this is so important to have for his fans to hear.”