When he left his Alabama home on December 30, 1952, Hank Williams had his sights set on West Virginia. He was billed as the headline act for a gala “Western Style Revue” at Charleston’s Municipal Auditorium and was scheduled to perform two shows here on New Year’s Eve night. Sadly, he never arrived.
Little has been written about this Charleston engagement. Most authors, researchers, and fans have shifted their attention instead to Canton, Ohio, where Hank was expected to perform the following day. On January 1, 1953, in Canton, the first public announcement was made about the passing of this beloved star, and a heartfelt tribute concert was performed in his honor.
Most of these same musicians, however, had been in Charleston the previous evening and had traveled from West Virginia to Canton after the New Year’s Eve shows were apparently cancelled. Like nearly everything else related to the death of Hank Williams, the lost Charleston shows remain shrouded in mystery and contradiction. The shows were booked in November 1952 by concert promoter A.V. Bamford. “Bam,” as he is known, is now 93 years old and lives in California. He had booked Hank Williams many times over the years, and in November 1952 had just finished what he felt was a successful six-day swing through Florida with Williams. According to Bam, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day looked like “two great dates for shows,” in his words, and he got to work putting them together. On such short notice, however, he had trouble finding large auditoriums that were not already booked. When he got word that the Charleston and Canton halls were available, he grabbed them.
Hank Williams had been unceremoniously fired from the “Grand Ole Opry” in August and was struggling to redeem himself. Bam was certain that Hank would make every effort to appear at the Charleston and Canton shows, and he promoted the events vigorously.
Sharing the bill were comedians Homer & Jethro, Huntington native Harold “Hawkshaw” Hawkins, Alabama singer and guitarist Autry Inman, bluegrass and country fiddler Merle “Red” Taylor, and two obscure duet acts – the Webb Sisters, and Jack & Daniel. Also to perform were bass player Buddy Killen and now-legendary steel guitarist Don Helms.
Don Helms was the only member of Hank’s regular Drifting Cowboys band scheduled to appear that night. Don lives today in Henderson, Tennessee. As he recalls, he drove to Charleston on the day of the show, but there was an ice storm in the Nashville area, and it took him all day to complete the drive. He pulled up to the auditorium in time to see the other musicians packing up their equipment. “‘You missed a good one,’” he recalls one of the musicians saying, indicating to him that a performance had already taken place. Don then got back in his car and continued driving to Canton, where he learned that his friend had passed away. “It capsized me when I heard that Hank had died,” Don says.
Buddy Killen was scheduled to play bass. An Alabama native living in Nashville, Buddy was on his way to a very successful career in country music – first as a musician and later as a music publisher. In 1952, Buddy was 19 years old; he had already played bass with Hank Williams many times, as well as with other artists. In September of that year, he had married 17-year-old country singer June Webb. June and her 15-year-old sister Shirley performed as the Webb Sisters, and A.V. Bamford had booked the sisters as part of the Charleston-Canton package. Bam asked Buddy to drive June and Shirley to the shows, and to play the bass. To help sweeten the deal, Buddy says, Bam even bought a new set of tires for Killen’s 1951 Pontiac. En route, Buddy and the Webb Sisters encountered icy conditions and freezing rain. “We slid off the road several times,” Buddy recalls of that drive. Arriving at the auditorium at around show time, Buddy recalls seeing the musicians milling around on the sidewalk. He and the girls were told that the show had been cancelled due to bad weather, so they drove on the Canton. “The weather was so bad, only a few people showed up,” Buddy says.
Another musician scheduled to play at Charleston was guitarist and singer Floyd Robinson. Along with partner Autry Inman, Floyd was half of the Jack & Daniel duo. Seasoned musicians individually, Robinson and Inman were in the early stages of their efforts together. The pair had cut a few sides for Decca records in October 1952, billed as Jack & Daniel and the Sourwood Mountain Boys, named after the famed whiskey. Floyd is a multi-talented individual, and he had a long and successful musical career. He was on the Charleston bill, in part, to serve as lead guitarist, filling out the back-up band for the show along with Helms, Killen, and fiddler Red Taylor. A Nashville native, Floyd is now 70 years old and lives in Florida. He was in Minneapolis on New Year’s Eve 1952 and did not make the trip to Charleston because, as he recalls, the show had been cancelled.
One individual who apparently did make it to Charleston was controversial doctor Horace Raphol “Toby” Marshall. Reportedly at the request of Hank Williams’ mother, Toby Marshall had flown to Charleston to look after Hank and to accompany him back to Montgomery following the Canton show. Marshall had been supplying Williams with the powerful sedative chloral hydrate, and appeared to have gained the trust of both Hank and his mother.
Also waiting for Hank in Charleston was A.V. Bamford. Having driven up from Nashville that day with singer Autry Inman, Bam went directly to the auditorium. As he recalls, the roads had been slick during the early part of their trip, but the weather was milder by about 5:00 p.m., when they reached Charleston. “It was a little foggy, not bad weather,” Bam recalls. “Not bad enough to hurt ticket sales.” The Municipal Auditorium holds 3,500 people, and Bam had hoped to sell out the first show and get at least half-a-house for the late show. His guarantee to Williams was in the neighborhood of $1,500, and he estimates that he had sold about $3,000 in advance tickets.
At around 6:00 p.m., Bam received the phone call from driver Charles Carr, informing him that Hank was still in Knoxville, about 300 miles away. Recognizing that it was impossible for Hank to make either of the Charleston shows, Bam told Charles Carr to make sure that he got Hank to Canton in time for the 2:00 matinee the next day. On most other occasions, if Hank or another artist was unable to make a date, Bam would simply book a replacement act, and the show would go on as planned. In this case, however, Bam felt that he did not have enough time to find a replacement for Williams, and he decided to cancel. He instructed the ticket office to issue refunds, told the musicians to get to Canton, forfeited his deposit on the auditorium, and left for Ohio.
It is likely, considering Hank’s immense popularity, that Williams’ fans in West Virginia were eagerly looking forward to this New Year’s Eve engagement in Charleston, and would have been sorely disappointed at its cancellation. GOLDENSEAL would like to hear from any readers who held tickets for this lost show, and we welcome comments from any local residents who recall details of this fateful night.
John Lilly is a musician/songwriter in Charleston, West Virginia. He has served as editor of Goldenseal, the state’s quarterly folklife journal, since 1997. This article first appeared in Goldenseal magazine and is used by permission, all rights reserved. www.johnlillymusic.com and www.wvculture.org/goldenseal