June 11, 1949—Hank Williams, 25, making the most of what amounted to an audition at country music’s premier arena, made an electrifying debut at the Grand Ole Opry, earning an unprecedented six encores from the delighted audience. Three years later, in a significant signpost of his decline, the same scene of his first triumph would turn him away because of his alcohol-induced unreliability.
Williams had scored his first hit two years before with “Move It on Over.” Ironically, the song that earned him an invitation to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, “Lovesick Blues,” was one that the prolific songwriter did not write.
Over the years, questions would arise as to who actually introduced Williams to the audience on the 11th. A post on the blog Fayfare indicates that it was not singer Roy Acuff, nor Red Foley (who hosted the “Prince Albert Show” portion of the bill at the Opry) but rather Ernest Tubb, introducing him during the 9:30 pm Warren Paint portion of the show. (Williams would appear again a week later in a shorter, tighter program.)
In his brief career, Williams recorded 66 songs, with 37 becoming hits. Among the diverse artists who covered his songs were Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Norah Jones, Perry Como, and Dinah Washington. It would all be over on New Year’s Day 1953, by which time the 29-year-old singer, haunted by problems with booze, a bad back, and a collapsed marriage, had been forced to play beerhalls in Louisiana and Texas. One of the last songs he recorded before his untimely demise was eerily prophetic: “The Angel of Death.”