Hank Williams Sr. is definitely one of the most iconic figures in all of American music history. He was a prolific songwriter and a talented singer who became the face of Country music just as WWII was ending and the post-war boom was beginning. Williams was also a raging alcoholic who suffered from chronic back pain his whole life. (I wrote a previous post about Hank Williams Sr. and his song “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in which his life story is chronicled in detail. You can read that post here). For the sake of this post, the most important thing to know about Hank Williams Sr. has to do with the state of his marriage. For many years, Williams was married to a woman named Audrey. Their union was tumultuous to say the least. There are many stories about both parties being unfaithful to the other and about how mean a drunk Williams could be at times. The story of the song “Cold, Cold Heart” revolves around a time when Hank Williams Sr. returned from performing on the road, only to find Audrey in the hospital. Apparently, Audrey had become pregnant and was certain that the father of the baby was not her husband, so she attempted to abort the baby in their family home. Complications arose from such an attempt (as they often do in situations such as that), and Audrey ended up in the hospital with a severe infection. When Hank WIlliams Sr. came to visit his wife and give her a kiss, she brushed him off and called him names. To those in attendance, there was no doubt as to the icy nature of their marriage. Like many songwriters, Williams used the emotions of the moment to fuel his songwriting, and as a result, he came up with the lyrics to one of his biggest hits, “Cold, Cold Heart”. The song went all the way to #1 on the charts and was one of the biggest selling songs of his career. However, in addition to this song being such a huge hit, it was important for a reason that no one, including Hank Williams Sr., saw coming.
Starting in the 1920s with the crossover success in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that integrated the worlds of Jazz and Classical music (You can read more about that here), music executives were always on the lookout for fresh ways to expand music markets. However, Gershwin’s success proved to be relatively rare and didn’t really apply to other genres of music. Back in 1951 when “Cold, Cold Heart” was released, Blues songs had their own chart. Pop songs had their own chart. Country and Western songs had their own charts as well. Most genres of music were still restricted to their own niche marketplaces. That changed with the release of “Cold, Cold Heart”. As that song was climbing the Country and Western charts, the lyrics of the song left an impression on Marvin Miller, the manager of crooner Tony Bennett. Miller felt as though the story that Williams Sr. was telling in this song was one that had universal appeal and that it could be told in other genres by other performers such as his client, Tony Bennett. Initially, Bennett was reluctant to record the song because Pop crooners didn’t sing Country “tears in my beer” style songs. It just wasn’t done. But eventually the music for the song was re-arranged by Percy Faith. Once Bennett sang the lyrics to Percy Faith’s arrangement, he knew the song could work for him, too. So, Tony Bennett recorded and released “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1952. It went all the way to #1 on the Pop charts. Thus, “Cold, Cold Heart” became the very first crossover hit between the genres of Country and Pop. This helped introduce Hank Williams Sr. to an entirely new audience. As music executives had hoped, sales of Williams records increased, and when he released his final big hit before his death, “Hey, Good Lookin’”, both Pop and Country audiences lapped it up and sales went through the roof. In the time since that first crossover hit, there are now numerous examples of singers such as Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, etc…, who are equally as comfortable and successful in either genre.
To further broaden the appeal of “Cold, Cold Heart”, forty years later, singer Norah Jones covered the song but did so from a Jazz perspective. Her torch-style take on this classic tune was so dramatically different as to make the original Hank Williams version almost unrecognizable. It was this Norah Jones version of the song that was nominated for today’s Reader’s Choice tune. Thank you, Jan Fluke, for having such great taste in music. Norah Jones is a wonderfully talented singer. If breathy, silky smooth Jazz singing is your style, then Norah Jones is someone who comes highly recommended.
I completely understand the appeal of crossover artists and songs for music executives. The broader an artist’s audience reach, the greater the potential that exists for sales of music and merchandise. I get that. Music is a business. Having music that agrees with the musical sensibilities of multiple types of audiences is a good thing for everyone’s bottom line. But, for me, I also like the idea of being able to re-imagine material in ways that honour the original version but, at the same time, create something new and vibrant out of something that previously existed in another form. That a twangy Country classic torn from the lives of Hank Williams Sr. and his wife can exist as a Pop song and as a Jazz standard speaks to the craftsmanship of the writing that Williams Sr. employed way back in 1951. That man lived hard while he was alive and died way too soon. But, in his wake, he left a legacy of songwriting that continues to inspire new musicians to this very day. Hank Williams Sr. is one of the most revered Country singer/songwriters of all time for a reason. I believe the actual term is legend.
The link to the video for the song “Cold, Cold Heart” by Hank Wiliams Sr. can be found here. This video is introduced by Country superstar Roy Acuff and is one of the few recordings of Williams singing live on TV. ***The lyrics version is here.
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