Great Cars of Death: Hank Williams' 1952 Cadillac.
The names read like a litany of tragedy: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Winehouse. . .promising musicians who drugged and/or drank themselves to the grave before they even turned 30. Open up the age bracket a bit and you'll find Hutchence, Bonham, Moon, and Scott; all cut short at or near their prime creative years. And that's just a few of the more famous ones, an exhaustive list makes for rather depressing reading.
But before them all was Hiram King Williams, better known as Hank Williams. Perhaps the first country music superstar, Williams died from drug and alcohol related causes in the early hours of 1953. . .before his 30th birthday as well. And because this is Car Lust (and Halloween), I've chosen to highlight this particular celebrity's untimely demise because the unhappy event occurred in the back seat of his car, a 1952 Cadillac convertible. No haunting. No bizarre coincidences. No stories of the car being cursed and causing death and destruction long after the initial event. Just an unfortunate end to a short but spectacular career of an artist perhaps many people these days don't even know about, and if they do they may regard him as some kind of goofy hillbilly.
Such is far from the case (well, okay, there was something of the hillbilly about him), and many artists of the present and recent past were influenced by his music. . .and not all of them are or were country artists. So before you click away, sit back and have a short read about one of the most influential but underappreciated artists of the 20th century, his tragic end, and his way cool car.
I'm going to start off with one of the few videos available of an actual live performance of Williams, this time of his 1951 hit Cold, Cold Heart. Try to look past the rhinestones and leather fringed jackets and the prominent twang and really give a good listen to the words and music:
This particular song is such a staple of American music that it was entered in the Great American Songbook, topped the Billboard charts at #1, and has subsequently been recorded by dozens of artists, including Tony Bennett and, more recently, Norah Jones. For those who came of age in the late 1970s and 1980s George Thorogood's Move It On Over is a Williams cover. Williams' lyrics were often very deceptively simple, expressing a range of complex emotions in a few well-turned phrases.
Williams' rise to super stardom (for the time) started in the late 1940s when Hank was in his mid-20s. He had a string of hits including the aforementioned Cold Cold Heart, Your Cheatin' Heart, and Hey, Good Lookin' (What 'cha got cookin?). His debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1949 is the stuff of legend -- he came back on stage for six encores -- and he appeared there regularly over the next three years.
Sadly, some of Hank's substance abusing ways, notably alcohol but also morphine, started to catch up with him. He often showed up to performances drunk and the Opry eventually let him go in 1952. By that time his health had begun to markedly deteriorate. He suffered from spina bifida and the pain from that condition was definitely a factor in his use of alcohol and drugs. This wasn't all: he also suffered a fall in 1951 while out hunting that caused more back problems resulting in still more alcohol and morphine. While he had surgery for his back and underwent treatment for his alcohol abuse in 1951, his condition worsened going into 1952. To make matters worse, he had developed heart problems and got hooked up with a quack doctor who prescribed a handful of drugs including various amphetamines and barbiturates in addition to the morphine.
He'd recorded a trio of what would become more hit songs in September of 1952 and arranged a short tour that he hoped would kick-start a comeback. A gig was scheduled in Charleston, WV on December 31 (1952) and a second concert the next day in Canton, OH. He never made it to either show.
The plan was to drive from the Nashville area on Dec. 30 to Charleston and thence to Canton the next day. Williams was in too frail of a condition to drive himself, so he hired the son of a friend to drive him. Charles Carr was only 17 at the time (that's him in the photo in 2002; he died this past year at the age of 77). Imagine being a 17-year-old and asked to drive a major music star to a couple of gigs in the middle of the night. On top of that, the southern states were experiencing a cold and snowy winter storm at the end of 1952 and they were slowed considerably by icy roads, freezing rain, and snow. They'd started out from Montgomery, AL in Williams' 1952 Cadillac convertible (more on that later) around 1 pm, but because of the weather had only reached Knoxville, TN by 7 pm. Because of the weather, flying was out of the question and, after checking in to the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville to wait out the storm, Carr was forced to call the Charleston venue to cancel due to the weather.
Carr ordered dinner at the hotel, but Williams didn't appear to be very hungry. Williams also wasn't feeling well, so Carr called a local doctor who gave the singer two injections of vitamin B12, at least one of which also contained morphine. At 10:30 that night, the concert promoter ordered to proceed to Canton overnight for the concert the next day (January 1st). So they loaded up the Caddy and headed out for Canton around 10:45.
Now, some have argued that by the time they loaded him into the car at the hotel, Williams was already dead, but Carr insists that Williams, while very weak and in need of a wheelchair and assistance getting into the back seat of the car, was still very much alive. Carr got a ticket sometime before midnight in Blaine, TN for almost hitting a police car and, after paying the fine on the spot, continued on. Around Bristol, TN Carr stopped for gas and food and says that Williams got out for a stretch and then went back into the back seat to sleep the rest of the way, wearing his overcoat and covering himself with a blanket. Before setting out again, Carr picked up a relief driver (apparently one Donald Surface) from a nearby cab stand who helped out for a while but who got out again somewhere in West Virginia.
After driving on for a while, Carr started to get concerned because he'd heard nothing from the back seat for some time. He parked by the side of the road to check on Williams and found that the blanket had fallen off. When he tried to pull the blanket back up over Williams he "felt a little unnatural resistance from his arm" that was across his chest. Apparently he then drove on until he reached the next gas station and asked the attendant where the nearest hospital was because Williams was unresponsive, cold, and Carr couldn't detect a pulse. The hospital was about six miles away in Oak Hill, WV. By this time it was early morning, and Williams was pronounced dead at the hospital. He was only 29.
There is some controversy -- if you can call it that, it doesn't really matter at this point -- over whether Carr discovered that his charge had passed away when he reached Oak Hill or some point before that. Either way, the poor teenager was left driving a corpse around for several miles and perhaps several hours. The time of death is unclear, but it occurred at some point between Oak Hill and the last place they had stopped for gas. The apparent rigor mortis that may have caused Williams' left arm to be somewhat stiffened suggests that he had been dead for at least three hours already.
The autopsy, probably poorly done, attributed his death to "insufficiency of the right ventricle of the heart." The physician noted that alcohol was in his system but no drugs, although there is doubt as to whether drugs were even tested for. Again, there is some confusion about those last hours and whether Williams had been drinking heavily or not; Carr denies that he drank much of anything that night. Amphetamines can commonly cause what is generally referred to as a "heart attack" usually by causing a spasm or arrythmia which can be fatal to a weakened heart. At any rate, the combination of long term alcohol and drug abuse was the ultimate, if not the proximate, cause of death.
As for the car, I wasn't really able to find out all that much about it. It was a '52 powder blue convertible coupe, apparently a Series 62 as that was the only Caddy with a convertible top that year. The Series 62 replaced the Series 61 in 1940 as Cadillac's entry level model. It was significantly redesigned for 1949 and that year it came with a new 5.4L (331 cubic inch) overhead valve V8 which cranked out a respectable 160 bhp. The coupes were pillarless hardtops, some of the earliest ever sold en masse. Between 1949 and 1953 the changes were largely stylistic, though the '52s were jazzed up some to take advantage of Cadillac's 50th anniversary. By that time engine output had also increased to 190 bhp. Hank Williams had a nice car, even if it wasn't a top of the line Caddy.
The car stayed in the family for years until Hank Williams Jr. restored it and put it in his museum in Nashville. But in 1999 it was moved to the 'official' Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, AL, where it is a centerpiece of the collection. . . .along, somewhat morbidly in my view, with the suit Hank died in.
It's difficult to get photos of the car itself, as the Museum is apparently very protective of the exhibits and refuses to allow photographs, so the few here are ones that are reproduced in various nooks and crannies of the Interwebs.
I wouldn't say Hank Williams is one of those "largely forgotten" musicians, but he's certainly not as popular in the larger culture as many others from that era, even fellow country artists such as Patsy Cline. Part of it is the 'hillbilly' nature of the music from that period; even the Grand Ole Opry was trying to get away from its hillbilly roots at the time. Heck, my dad -- a product of the backwoods of Alabama -- was even kind of dismissive of his music, referring to my WIsconsin-native Williams-listening uncle as "a big ol' hillbilly". Oddly, dad preferred big band music and Louis Jordan and the like, although he did have at least one of his records that we used to play on the old Magnavox console stereo. I remember being both tickled and perplexed as a kid with the lyrics to My Bucket's Got a Hole In It. Beer in a bucket? Huh?
At any rate, Williams also didn't try to hide his southern accent and his songs are filled with 'fellers' and 'yellers' and what have you, and his singing voice often tended toward the nasal. But he wrote some good lyrics and had a significant impact on American music and musicians down to the present day. In his short five years of music production he had eleven number one hits and some 40 that charted. While he hasn't gone without plaudits in the music community and elsewhere, I think he deserves to be more widely known -- and respected -- out in the wider popular culture.
Credits: The top photo (reproduced in many places) is from the American Roads Travel Magazine site. The front view of the car and the photo of Williams lying in state is from, well, this site whose full name modesty (and Car Lust blog policy) prevents me from typing out, which also has a nice YouTube video of a beautiful duet by Hank and Anita Carter. The photo of Charles Carr and the (probably stock) head shot photo is from the Saving County Music site although I believe the photo originated in an Access Atlanta story. I used this latter article for the basic narrative of the Last Ride, but the former link has a slightly different set of personnel and events.
I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry
Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
That means he's lost the will to live
I'm so lonesome, I could cry