Forgotten Artists: Hank Penny (1918-1992)
Even those of us who love Western Swing are forced to acknowledge that for that form, Bob Wills, much like Bob Marley for Reggae and Bill Monroe for Bluegrass, is the colossus against whom all other artists are compared. While others may occasionally break out of the shadow of the colossus, still the colossus remains.
In this subgenre, only Asleep at The Wheel can be said to have truly emerged from the shadow of Bob Wills. This is not to say there haven’t been other talented practitioners of the art. One of the best, although not necessarily the most successful, was Herbert Clayton “Hank” Penny.
Hank Penny was born on September 18, 1918, in Birmingham, AL. His father was a disabled coal miner who enjoyed music and poetry, and although he passed away in 1928, it was not before sparking similar interests in his son. By the time Penny was 15, he was appearing on local radio.
In 1936, Penny relocated to New Orleans, where he performed on WWL as a solo performer and became familiar with Cajun music and such Western Swing pioneers as Bob Wills, Milton Brown and Cliff Bruner. Two years later Penny returned to Birmingham where he formed the Radio Cowboys. Penny’s first recordings occurred during this time, with Hall of Famer Art Satherly serving as producer on numbers like “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” and Penny’s own composition “Flamin’ Mamie.”
Eventually, Penny and his group joined the cast of an Atlanta-based program titled Crossroad Follies. While none of his original band members achieved any lasting fame, two of his newer members would become quite famous: steel guitarist Noel Boggs and fiddle player Boudleaux Bryant. (Bryant did not achieve great fame as a fiddle player; however, as the songwriter who penned such songs as “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Hey Joe,” and “Rocky Top” he may be eternally remembered.)
Penny moved his group to Nashville in 1939, reuniting with Art Satherley to record some more songs. He kept his group going until the mid-1940 when the loss of too many musicians to the WW2 draft forced him to dissolve the band. Penny remained in Chicago, working as a disc jockey before assembling a new group for a 1941 recording session in North Carolina, in which “Why Did I Cry” and “Lonesome Train Blues” were recorded.
Moving on to Cincinnati and radio station WLW, Penny formed a new band called the Plantation Boys, which worked with such King Records stars as Alton & Raban Delmore, Bradley Kincaid, Merle Travis and Marshall Louis “Grandpa” Jones, as well as WLW’s house pop singer Doris Day.
In 1944 Penny relocated to California where he met Spade Cooley’s former manager, Foreman Phillips, with whom he had a brief business relationship. After splitting with Phillips, Penny briefly fronted an all-girl band at a Los Angeles club before being approached by Bobbie Bennett, Spade Cooley’s manager, to lead one of several groups (one led by Maurice W. “Tex” Ritter and the other led by Merle Travis) formed to play at the bookings Spade and his group were themselves too busy to fulfill. Penny’s group was known as the Painted Post Rangers. This group scored a pair of chart hits with “Steel Guitar Stomp” and “Get Yourself a Redhead.”
Hank tended to move around quite a bit during his career, seemingly never staying anywhere for very long. In 1946 he joined Slim Duncan’s ABC network show Roundup Time, as a comedian. After stints in Cincinnati and Arlington (VA), he returned to California and worked as a disc jockey and formed another band, the Penny Serenaders, which featured guitarist Speedy West. He also opened his own nightclub.
By June 1948, Penny had joined Spade Cooley’s television program, where he performed as a comedian best known for his backwoods character “That Plain Ol’ Country Boy.” Soon he again entered the studio to record some songs, including “Hillbilly Bebop,” the first known bop effort cut by a country act, and his 1950 hit “Bloodshot Eyes.”
Shortly thereafter, he opened another nightclub, the legendary Palomino and reformed his Penny Serenaders. This version of the group featured singer Mary Morgan, shortly to become known as Jaye P. Morgan (Ms. Morgan became a very popular pop vocalist in 1954-1957 and eventually appeared on the television smash The Gong Show). The group issued “Remington Ride” and “Wham Bam! Thank You, Ma’am” before dissolving and then reforming again, with guitarist Billy Strange and steel guitar ace Joaquin Murphy as featured musicians.
In 1952, Penny left Spade to join the cast of another television program. Shortly thereafter he hosted his own show The Hank Penny Show, which was canceled after seven weeks.
Penny came as close to settling down as he ever would when he moved to Las Vegas in 1954, where he began a seven-year run as a performer at the Golden Nugget Casino, fronting a band which briefly included Roy Clark. He also continued to record, even cutting a jazz record in 1961 and later a comedy album.
Penny moved to Carson City, NV in 1970 to begin performing with his protégé, Thom Bresh, the illegitimate son of Merle Travis. Eventually he turned his band over to Bresh, moving to Nashville, where he was rumored to be in the running for the slot of Buck Owens’ co-host on Hee Haw (he lost out to his former sideman Roy Clark). After a tenure on radio in Wichita, KS, he returned to California in the mid-’70s, and went into semi-retirement. Hank Penny died of a heart attack on April 17, 1992 a the age of 73.
If Hank Penny is remembered at all today, it often is as the one-time husband of pop singer Sue Thompson (the fourth of his five wives) who had major pop hits in the early 1960s with “Norman” and “Sad Movies.” Too bad, as Hank Penny was a multi-talented, multi-faceted performer.
Hank Penny: King of Hillbilly Bebop – this two CD set, issued on the British label Proper in 2003, is probably the best set issued on Hank Penny in the CD era. Containing 50 tracks, it is a representative sample of Penny’s work from 1938 to 1952 and includes all three of his Billboard charting singles (all of which reached #4): “Steel Guitar Stomp,” “Get Yourself A Redhead,” and “Bloodshot Eyes.”
Crazy Rhythm: The Standard Transcriptions (Bloodshot/Soundies) – a generous 30 track CD comprised of radio transcriptions from 1951.
Buy: Amazon | Amazon MP3 | Bloodshot Records | Collector’s Choice Music
Other CDs have been in and out of print and may be available online.
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