Seventy years ago today (May 7), an eager young Alabaman named Hank Williams scored his first Billboard No. 1 with “Lovesick Blues.”
It was Williams’ fifth single to chart since he signed with MGM Records in 1947. Two others — “Move It on Over” and “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” had come tantalizingly close to the top, peaking at No. 4 and No. 6, respectively. But the prime real estate still eluded him.
“Lovesick Blues” had been kicking around for more than a quarter of a century by the time Williams recorded it just before Christmas 1948 at a studio in Cincinnati. In fact, it was a year older than Williams himself. Written in 1922 by Cliff Friend and Irving Mills, it became a modestly popular record for minstrel singer Emmett Miller in 1925 and for country crooner Rex Griffin in 1939.
Williams, who modeled his yodel-powered version on Griffin’s, first performed the song while a member of the Louisiana Hayride. The crowd’s euphoric reaction convinced him he should put it on record. MGM released the single in February 1949 to considerable critical praise. According to music historian Michael Kosser, it sold 50,000 copies within its first two weeks of availability. It also netted Williams a guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and became the crowd-pleaser with which he closed most of his shows.
Before he died in the back of his Cadillac on Jan. 1, 1953 at the age of 29, Williams saw six more of his songs reach the top — “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” “Moanin’ the Blues,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Jambalaya (on the Bayou).”
Four more went to No. 1in the year following his death — “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,” “Kaw-Liga,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Take These Chains from My Heart.” Of his 11 chart-toppers, Williams wrote or co-wrote nine.
In 2004, Willliams’ version of “Lovesick Blues” was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.