Those rumors along with the speculation and innuendo swirling around his death are nearly as numerous as the snowflakes that eddied around his car on that fateful night. But according to Charles Carr, the majority of what has circulated all these years is bunk, and he should know, since he was the one driving the car in which Williams died.
Carr, a 17-year-old college freshman home on Christmas break from Auburn University, kept the story mostly to himself for nearly 50 years. He never quite got over the hurt he felt at being implicated in the death of Williams, a close family friend. He finally decided to set the record straight a few years ago and through a series of interviews with various publications, he began to tell his side of the story.
“I’m certainly not an authority on Hank Williams,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “but I’m the only authority on Hank Williams’ death.”
The first day of the year 1953 would be the last day of Hank Williams’ life and ironically, he had just his released what would be his last single “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive.” But the journey to the end started two days before.
The birth of a legend
Born in rural Alabama in 1923, Hiram “Hank” King Williams was the product of the union of Jessie Lillybelle “Lillie” Skipper, a literally larger-than-life and militantly domineering mother and a mostly absent ghost of a father, Elonzo “Lon” Williams. The latter of which spent much of the younger Williams’ impressionable childhood confined in a sanitarium courtesy of his wife. Lillie eventually had Lon declared dead so she could collect death benefits even though he was still very much alive and would eventually remarry.
Lillie operated a boarding house to support herself, Williams and his sister Irene. The cast of characters that moved in and out must have made some sort of impact on the impressionable young boy although he never really bonded with any of them long-term. Instead, when he was not out hawking newspapers or selling sandwiches to help feed the family coffers, the boy hung out with a black street musician named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne. Their meeting was nothing short of divine providence.
Tee-Tot gave Williams impromptu guitar lessons and as we all now know, the kid was a natural. Lillie jumped on the opportunity and by the time he was 12, Williams was performing regularly for a local radio station. As he grew older, his audience grew bigger. He graduated from being the “Singing Kid” to a new musical persona as “Luke the Drifter.”
He eventually hooked up with others and formed a band called the “Drifting Cowboys” and together they traveled around Alabama playing in honky-tonk bars and backwater clubs. Drinking, brawling and hightailing it out of town with his pay was a way of life for Williams and his buddies. He seemed to thrive on the chaos or at least his career did.
It all came to screeching (albeit temporary) halt when Williams’ band mates were drafted in World War I. Williams himself suffered from spina bifida and was deemed unfit for service. In 1943, he met Audrey Shepherd, who became not only his wife, but his manager. A controlling and domineering woman much like his mother, Williams’ career took off under Miss Audrey’s direction.
Williams began recording songs on vinyl and appeared on the Louisiana Hayride and other country music venues. From there it was a short hop to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry where he was the first performer to perform six encores. It was all downhill from there.
The beginning of the end
Already a full-blown alcoholic, Williams was also addicted to painkillers and sleeping pills. His tumultuous marriage to Audrey was coming apart at the seams and the two divorced in 1952. Never one to be lacking in female companionship, he immediately married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar at the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium in front of a crowd of 14,000 paying guests. However, the none-too-faithful groom managed to get girlfriend Bobby Jett pregnant about the same time.
Erratic and unpredictable, Williams was fired from the Grand Ole Opry for his drunkenness and his band, the Drifting Cowboys, called it quits as well. This series of events was (almost) sobering and Williams decided that maybe it was time to pull himself together.
After performing at some local venues in his hometown of Montgomery, Williams booked a couple of New Years gigs in Charleston W.Va. and Canton, Ohio. It was here he hooked up with Charles Carr for that last fateful ride.
Carr was the son of Daniel Pitts Car, the owner of a Montgomery cab company, and a longtime friend of Williams. The boy and the singer climbed into Williams’ baby-blue Cadillac, picked up a six-pack of Fallstaff beer and set off on their journey north on December 30, 1952.
They made it as far as Birmingham where they found a motel and crashed out for the night, but by the time they got back on the road in the morning, the weather was deteriorating rapidly. They stopped in Fort Payne, Ala., where Williams picked up a bottle of bonded bourbon and made one restaurant server’s day by leaving a $50 tip.
By the time they reached Chattanooga, snow was falling, but the men pushed on to Knoxville where they hoped to catch a flight to Charleston. Although they boarded the plane at 3:30 with high hopes, the flight was turned back and there was nothing they could do but stay in Knoxville and hope things got better.
They officially gave up on the Charleston gig and checked into the 17-story Andrew Johnson Hotel in downtown Knoxville at 7 p.m. with the intention of starting out again in the morning. They were hopeful they’d reach the Canton venue in time.
The extended car trip wore on the 6’2” 130 pound country singer. Feeling decidedly unwell and battling a violent case of the hiccups, Williams declined the steak Carr had ordered him from room service. (An older and certainly more experienced Carr conjectured in retrospect that the hiccups may have been an indication that Williams was already starting to have a heart attack.) As the pain in his back worsened due to all the travel and hiccups, Williams made arrangements for a local doctor to make a house call and give him two injections of morphine and B-12 after which he fell asleep around 10:30 p.m.
At about that same time, Carr took a call from the Canton concert promoter saying if Williams didn’t make it, he’d have to pay a $1,000 “no-show” fee.
“There was some kind of penalty clause in his contract,” said Carr, “so we had to be there for the New Year’s Day concert or else.”
Some have claimed that Williams was already dead when two porters aided Carr in getting him downstairs and into the Cadillac, but Carr says that’s not true.
“When we left the room, they sent a wheelchair,” Carr said, “They rolled him down to the car and Hank got in on his own. I clearly remember that.”
Williams entered the car fully dressed wearing boots, a light blue overcoat and white fedora, not a bathrobe and slippers as some allege. The reported bottle of booze may have been the bourbon purchased much earlier in the day. There is no record of half-finished song lyrics that were reported to have been in his pocket, but that wouldn’t be all that unusual since Williams wrote the song “Hey Good Looking” during a five hour trip on the way to a show in 1951.
Carr drove through the nearly empty streets of Knoxville and headed out of town, but was stopped in Blaine, Tenn. for what amounted to reckless driving as he nearly hit a patrolman head on when attempting to pass another car. He stopped in town and quickly paid a fine before moving on.
Carr reports that somewhere around either Bristol, Tenn. or Bluefield, W.Va., he stopped for gas. Despite the fact that some claim the patrolman thought Williams was already dead, Carr claims he wasn’t.
“I remember Hank got out to stretch his legs and I asked him if he wanted a sandwich or something,” Carr said, “And he said, ‘No, I just want to get some sleep.”
“I don’t know if that’s the last thing he said,” Carr continued, “But that’s the last thing I remember him telling me.”
So it appears Williams was still alive for at least a couple of hours during the trip, but I’m betting it was at Bristol and not Bluefield when Williams last spoke and here’s why.
By the time Carr pulled over near Oak Hill W.Va. to check on Williams’ in the backseat, he claimed the singer’s arm had some unusual “stiffness” to it as he repositioned a fallen blanket. If the singer had died at Bluefield, it’s doubtful he would be in noticeable rigor in less than an hour. It’s more likely that he died back in Bristol and two or three hours later, when Carr touched his arm, he had been dead for awhile. But we’ll never really know.
Although Carr sped his way to the nearest hospital, there was nothing to be done for Williams.
“I asked them ‘Can’t you do something to revive him?’” said Carr, “One of them looked at me and said, ‘No, he’s just dead.”
At the hospital, a rudimentary autopsy was performed and indicated there was at least a little alcohol in Williams’ system, but no mention of drugs despite the morphine administered earlier that night. Williams was also taking chloral hydrate regularly for the pain he suffered in his back due to his spina bifida. So either a drug test wasn’t done at all, or those who did it had no idea how to read it. They may have even conspired to make the report disappear so as not to further tarnish Williams’ reputation.
There is one thing about that night we know for sure though, in the wee hours of the morning on January 1, 1953, Hank Williams, country music singer/songwriter legend, was pronounced dead of a heart attack at the age of 29 by Dr. Diego Nunnari.
Old Hank was right. He didn’t get out of this world alive.
It’s not the least bit surprising that the events of his death would be as turbulent as those of his life and his story has inspired more than 700 songs and even an off-Broadway play, “Hank Williams: Lost Highway.” Williams’ remains are interred at the Oakwood Annex in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. His son Hank Williams, Jr., daughter Jett Williams, grandson Hank Williams III, and granddaughters Hilary Williams and Holly Williams continue to follow in his musical footsteps.