"I was hungry."
Such was Hank Locklin's comically timed yet completely accurate response about why he decided on a career in country music. Now, after 60 years in the business, 41 as a Grand Ole Opry member, the Florida-born tenor can boast not only that he clawed his way out of dire poverty, but built a musical legacy that he can share with his family.
Locklin's latest album on his own Coldwater label, "Generations In Song," mixes guest appearances from stars Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Jeannie Seely, Jett Williams and Jan Howard with solid efforts from his son, Hank Adam Locklin, and three feisty step-grandchildren.
Contacted at his Brewton, Ala. home, the 83-year-old Locklin candidly spoke about the hard scrabble road he traveled to country stardom after World War II.
"I used to fool around on the guitar, and I was pretty good at one time. So, right after I got out of the service I went to work with Jimmy Swan, and we were playing in Hattiesburg, Miss These twin boys I knew had a radio show in Hot Springs, Ark., and we became the Four Leaf Clover Boys. We were on around noontime, and we played dates around y'know, but I really liked to starve to death there."
Initially, Locklin only played guitar for the band, but that soon changed.
"We were at a show in Arkansas somewhere, and I was testing the mike for somebody, and I remember singing a line or two of ‘You Only Want Me When You're Lonely,' and I heard myself singing. I thought about it and realized that I could make more money singing then I could pickin' the guitar."
Eventually the Four Leaf Clover Boys sought more lucrative gigs in Shreveport, La. Working for KWKH's Harmie Williams, they'd stuff five men and a huge bass fiddle into a ‘41 Ford Coupe and raced from barn dances to spots on the Louisiana Hayride before relocating to Houston.
"There was a guy who wanted to start a big barn dance with me. He told me, ‘Hank, I got enough money to fill a two-story building.' He made it during the war selling cars. That was Elmer Laird. We played there and then decided to break up when Clent Holmes got an offer to work with Hank Williams. So, I ended up on KLEE, just my guitar and me – it was a five thousand watt station, and it went down all over Texas. I was on at 12:45 everyday, five days a week. I really done good there for about 10 years."
Pappy Dailey, a few years away from launching Starday Records, soon hooked Locklin up with Bill McCall's 4 Star label where he scored a national Top 10 record with his composition "The Same Sweet Girl" (number 8 in 1949), which led to appearances on radio's Big Jamboree. However, there were consequences in working for McCall, who once had such luminaries on his roster as Maddox Brothers and Rose and Patsy Cline.
"I never made no money with him. My understanding was that he liked to go to Vegas. I guess Bill was just a guy who liked to take everything. I did ‘Let Me Be The One' (number 1 for 3 weeks in 1953) while I was on the label, but he put his wife's maiden name on the song."
Wary, Locklin kept McCall from unfairly siphoning royalties from his most famous tune, "Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On," by publishing it with Acuff-Rose. The 4 Star version didn't chart nationally, but Locklin is still amused by the reaction the song got when he sang it on his radio program.
"Pillows started rolling in like you'd never seen. Big ones and small ones. After I recorded it, everywhere that thing went it got the same response, and people sent me pillows! I don't know what I did with ‘em all."
Although McCall tried to fight it, Locklin left 4 Star when his contract was up. Signed by Steve Sholes at RCA, the singer began cutting juicier, more polished sides with producer/guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins. Locklin recalls his late friend with affection.
"Well, I loved the guy. That's the way it was. He kept a guitar in his office, and we'd go and pick out songs. Then, all of a sudden he'd pick it up and hit a chord or two on something or other that floated through his head. He was so good, and he really helped me a lot with RCA. There were a few problems. New York had been the place where you'd go to record and all that stuff. So, there was some little misunderstanding with RCA because he was getting a lot of people down in Nashville making hits – and they weren't making them like they would've in New York. They had a better sound."
That new sound helped Locklin rack up hits with his version of "Why Baby Why" (number 9 in 1956) and one of the first foreign-themed country songs "Geisha Girl" (number 4 in 1957). However, one particular recording session really put his career in orbit.
Returning from a successful tour of Japan, Locklin decided to capitalize on both his newfound fame and Atkins' sure commercial instincts and re-record "Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On." It proved to be a very fruitful session.