In his lifetime, Hank Williams released just over 30 "sides"on 78 RPM discs in the days before long playing records, extended play mini albums, cassettes, reel-to-reels, 8-tracks, compact discs, downloads and endless music streams. From the wiki, this entry more or less sums up his importance: "Regarded as one of the most significant and influential American singers and songwriters of the 20th century, Williams recorded 35 singles (five released posthumously) that reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Country & Western Best Sellers chart, including 11 that ranked number one (three posthumously)."
His songs have lived on into the 21st Century, recorded and still performed live by a multitude of great artists covering his classics like "Move It On Over," "Your Cheatin' Heart", "Hey, Good Lookin'", and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
Curiously, Mr. Williams only saw two formal collections of his songs -- "albums," if you will -- released in his lifetime as he died in 1953 at age 29. And while there are many, many posthumous collections of his recordings available, I've been surprised over the years at how erratic the sound quality can be. Some sets put out by once-major record label MGM include songs clearly recorded off of somewhat scratchy 78 RPM discs. I'm ok with that, but it is still curious to me that an artist of this stature didn't receive better treatment posthumously and that more effort wasn't made to put out the best quality recordings possible (in the early 50s I would imagine that the 78 RPM disc pressing masters still existed somewhere so they could have captured a less scratchy recording... one would hope anyhow!).
Hold on to that thought for a moment...
What is the significance of the music on this set, you ask? Well, consider that in 1949 Mr. Willliams was at a crossroads, headlining events like the widely heard and influential Louisiana Hayride radio show while scoring a few hits. Superstardom eluded him... but by the end of that year he'd had a bunch of big hits, wow'd the Grand Ole Opry with his debut performance there and began to firmly establish his position as a significant musical talent. One of the keys to his 1949 ascension was his popular, short-lived, radio program, The Health & Happiness Show.
From the official press release for The Complete Health & Happiness Shows we learn about the roots of this program: The show's sponsor was Hadocol, an elixir created by a Louisiana state senator named Dylan LeBlanc who aggressively touted for its curative power. While the tonic had some vitamins and minerals, its main ingredient was alcohol. To increase his product's popularity, LeBlanc staged massive publicity campaigns. These stunts included the Hadocol Caravan, a traveling roadshow whose wildly eccentric bills included Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, and Hank Williams. The Hadacol craze imploded spectacularly in 1951 due to huge debts and federal investigations. Thankfully one positive byproduct of Hadacol PR blitz was The Health & Happiness Show.
The press release also explains that the recordings on this new 49-track, three-LP set or two-CD set "were recorded directly to acetate, which were then duplicated onto 16-inch vinyl discs for distribution to radio stations. For The Complete Health & Happiness Shows, this material has been freshly transferred, restored and mastered from these original 16" transcription discs."
Indeed, this album sounds pretty amazing given the time period and the nature of transcription discs. For the record I collect radio transcription discs and have a turntable that can play them, so I especially appreciate this nuance and what the producers of The Complete Health & Happiness Shows have achieved here. Co-producer Colin Escott is quoted in the press release saying "the audio quality of his transcriptions equaled, if not surpassed, his commercial recordings." I have to agree.
The Complete Health & Happiness Shows album sounds quite wonderful and is pressed on dark, well centered quiet black vinyl. You can find the album streaming on Tidal in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz CD quality (click here to jump to it if you have a subscription). The stream sounds real good but I prefer the fullness of the vinyl version better as it sounds bit more natural, full bodied and somewhat less boxy. The tri-fold deluxe packaging is exemplary and I give the producers extra kudos for reproducing the design of the original Health & Happiness transcription discs for the labels on this three disc set. Its a nice touch!
Included are performances of his breakout 1949 hits "Lovesick Blues," "Wedding Blues," "Mind Your Own Business," and "You're Gonna Change (Or I'm Gonna Leave)," along with such other iconic Williams tunes as "I Saw the Light," "I'm a Long Gone Daddy," and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
If you are a Hank Williams fan and like listening to your music on vinyl records, The Complete Health & Happiness Shows is a no brainer purchase. If you are looking for a good place to start with Hank Williams, you really can't go wrong with this either although you should look for a good compilation of his hits.
Kudos to producers Cheryl Pawelski, Colin Escott and Michael Graves who have produced, written notes and mastered this new set respectively. They worked alongside the rest of the team that was responsible for the Grammy Award winning Hank Williams Best Historical Album for 2014, The Garden Spot Programs, 1950. Fingers crossed you all win again in 2019 for this well done project!