I hope somebody comes here and does a great biography of the king of country swing Henry William Thompson. He was a fine man, a great conversation, and a true friend. He played with all of the legends: Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. He played his last show on Hank Thompson Day here in the state of Texas, and despite the cancer and the tiredness and the pain, his voice sounded as strong as it ever did. He was my grandfather's best friend and best man, and he died yesterday. But this is a story about a young boy from Waco, Texas.
When this boy was about 6 years old, he was handed a harmonica and quickly picked up the basics. The local movie marquee was not allowed to play movies on Sunday, and so instead in the summertime they held a talent contest. Hank, feeling that his newfound talent was sure to win the whole shebang, signed up and performed for the crowd. He played "Mary Had A Little Lamb", did not place, and went home to minor applause.
Most children, when subjected to indifference or criticism, will simply move on to their next hare-brained scheme, but Hank, through either stubbornness (a trait that propelled him throughout his career) or a deep desire to please, decided that he would add to his musical repertoire. By next week's contest, he had mastered four songs, including that old Baptist standby "How Great Thou Art" - complete with a sung verse - and he finished 4th, taking home fifty cents for his trouble.
All summer long, week after week, young Hank would bring his harmonica to that contest, and week after week, Hank would come in fourth place, take his fifty cents, and live like a king. As he recollected, "I was up to my ears in ice cream, until my mother noticed I wasn't finishing my dinner. Then I had to save it in a piggy bank." And was that a good thing? "Well, I learned real quick pretty girls weren't impressed by a piggy bank."
Then one Christmas, when Hank was 9, his parents surprised him with the greatest gift a young Texan could ask for: some boots. The only problem being that Hank didn't want boots. So he took the shoes back to the general store, complained they were a size too small (they weren't), and asked for his money back. He took the proceeds, walked down Franklin Street to the music store, and picked himself up a guitar.
As many of the parents reading this can no doubt guess, this bold move was quickly kiboshed, the guitar returned and the boots reacquired ("that was quite a whuppin'", Hank noted with an air of detachment.) But I guess Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were fans of their son after all - the guitar came on his 10th birthday. He spent all spring practicing, learning every country and gospel song he could, and then in the summer of '35, he headed to the talent show with a full arsenal of music. He promptly won first place, beating out a number of prominent local acts, and he held on to it all summer long. Tex Ritter, Bob Wills, and Floyd Tillman all came to see the show and hear the 10 year old boy who knew all their hits. For three summers after that, Hank became a Sunday institution in Waco, until he was 14, when he moved to the old WACO radio station ("and became a Tuesday institution instead.")
Later, after Hank came out of the Navy, and was attending Southern Methodist University (before "Whoa Sailor" gave him an excuse to quit), he ran into one of the old floor managers for that movie marquee. They reminisced about those early days of playing, all the heavyweights who had swung through, all the backstage antics, and so on, and finally Hank said to the floor manager, "You know, if I hadn't been good enough for fourth place back when I was a kid, I don't know if I ever would've stuck it out."
The floor manager scanned Hank up and down for a moment with incredulousness, then exclaimed: "Why, Hank Thomspon, you never knew? There never was a fourth place!"