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Historical Western Swing - Hank Penny

By Leocthasme

Continuing with my several articles (see Links below) on the history of Western Swing. Many, many, comments have been received directly by me and many more have appeared below the several articles I have written since the October Issue of 2000. There are still comments being made on the original article because it is referenced any time someone just looks for Western Swing by typing just those two words into a search engine. Well, let’s face It, I love the referrals, and now just thinking of that, I feel I should continue to add all the information I can find on an interesting subject, from all sources beside all the information I have accumulated over the years from clippings and the backs of old record covers.

So every month or so I will find and report on some interesting fact, history, or an individual who helped make this genre very special in the history of American Music.

Here is another article on a very interesting person who did so much for

Western Swing

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Hank Penny

Born: Sept. 18, 1918, Birmingham, AL
Died April 17, 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. Some may occasionally break out of the shadow of it, still the colossus remains. 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 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, who as a songwriter penned such songs as “Wake Up Little Susie”. “Bye Bye Love”, “Hey Joe”, and “Rocky Top”.

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, Marshall Louis, “Grandpa” Jones, and 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 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, 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 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 Cooley 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.

He moved to Carson City, NV in 1970 to begin performing with his protégé, Thom Bresh, the 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, a multi-talented, multi-faceted performer, is remembered at all, it often is as the 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.”.

Researched by: Leo C. Helmer, 2010 for Pencilstubs.

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