King of Western Swing Hank Thompson dies at 82

U.S. country singer Hank Thompson has died of lung cancer, just days after cancelling a tour and announcing his retirement. He was 82.

Thompson died late Tuesday at his home in Fort Worth, Tex., according his spokesman, Tracy Pitcox, who is also president of Heart of Texas Records.

Country music singer Hank Thompson, shown in 1989, had 29 songs reach the Top 10 between 1948 and 1974. Country music singer Hank Thompson, shown in 1989, had 29 songs reach the Top 10 between 1948 and 1974.
(Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

“He was battling aggressive lung cancer,” Pitcox said Wednesday in a statement. “He remained conscious until the last couple of hours and passed away peacefully at about 10:45 p.m. on Tuesday night, surrounded by his friends and family.”

He announced his retirement just last weekend, ending a U.S. tour.

Thompson’s Brazos Valley Boys were voted Billboard magazine’s touring band of the year 14 straight times in the 1950s and 1960s.

He developed a style of music known as Western Swing, that combined a big band sound with fiddle and steel guitar and he became known as the King of Western Swing.

Thompson had 29 hits reach the Top 10 on country music charts between 1948 and 1974 and sold more than 60 million albums in a six-decade career.

Born Sept. 3, 1925 in Waco, Texas, Thompson took an early interest in music, winning several amateur contests on the harmonica.

He learned to play guitar and by the time he was in high school, he was broadcasting over radio station WACO as Hank the Hired Hand.

After serving in the U.S. Navy as a radio technician during the Second World War, Thompson entered Princeton University to pursue electrical engineering. He soon decided to give that up to chase his musical dream.

In 1946, he started the Brazos Valley Boys, which made its first recording, Whoa, Sailor that same year.

They started out in small clubs and Texas honky-tonks and moved on to play Carnegie Hall, the Hollywood Palladium, the Smithsonian Institution and Las Vegas.

In 1952, his album The Wild Side of Life reached No. 1. Some of his best-known songs include Humpty Dumpty Heart, The Wild Side of Life and A Six Pack to Go.

Thompson, with his background in electronics was a bit of an innovator and racked up a number of firsts according to his website including:

  • First act to tour with a sound and lighting system.
  • First to receive corporate tour sponsorship.
  • First to record a live album, Hank Thompson, Live At The Golden Nugget In Las Vegas, released in 1960.
  • First country music show to play in Las Vegas.
  • First to record in hi-fi stereo.

The Hank Thompson Show, telecast over WKY in Oklahoma City in the early ’50s, was the first colour broadcast of a variety show.

Thompson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989 and then the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997.

Thompson’s last show was Oct. 8 in his hometown of Waco. That day was declared “Hank Thompson Day” by Gov. Rick Perry and Waco Mayor Virginia DuPuy.

A celebration of his life and music is planned for Nov. 17 in Fort Worth and donations in his name are requested for The Heart of Texas country Music Museum in Brady, Texas.

With files from the Associated Press

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