Hungry Hank Locklin returns with "Generations in Song"

Ken Burke, December 2001

"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.

"At that time, a session was four songs, so I cut ‘It's A Little More Like Heaven' (number 3 in 1958), the flip side ‘Blue Glass Skirt' and ‘The Pillow.' Well, RCA first released ‘The Pillow (number 5 in 1958). It was June, and I had just moved from Texas down to a place in Florida called McLellan, just a little wide place in the road. And, there was a radio station in Montgomery, Ala. that was big on playing country. So, I was riding along there listening, and the disc jockey said, ‘I‘ve got 20 requests for this song. Here it is ‘Send Me The Pillow' by Hank Locklin.' Man, I liked to climb out of that car! That thing took off like a scalded rat, and it just kept on going."

The song became a standard and been played in one version or another over a million times on radio. Besides Locklin's version, which rode the charts for 35 weeks, major hit versions were recorded by Dean Martin (number 10 pop in 1965) and Johnny Tillotson (number 17 pop, number 11 country in 1962). Locklin is especially pleased with Dwight Yoakam's 1988 version on the platinum selling "Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room."

"That was really a thrill because that album he cut, it done good all over the world, and the first check I got from it was for about $20,000."

Locklin's greatest claim to fame occurred when he recorded a song rumored to have been a Jim Reeves cast-off, "Please Help Me I'm Falling" (number 1 country, Top 10 pop in 1960). Though his yearning vocal helped it stand apart from other hits of the era, Locklin is quick to give credit for the song's perennial appeal to piano great Floyd Cramer.

"You know that slip note thing on the piano? I said to Chet, ‘If we could get Floyd Cramer to do that on this song, we might just have a big hit.' So, we went through it and said where Floyd should come in on this, that and the other. Then, he kicked it off, and the Jordanaires were with me there too, and we did it in one take! We didn't have to cut it again. Son, when that sucker hit the air - it exploded. Ain't no telling how many records it sold, and it's still selling!"

Although Locklin continued to enjoy great popularity in Great Britain and Ireland, his string of U.S. hits petered out in 1969. During later years, he recorded without much success for MGM and Plantation. In recent times, Locklin's career has been stalled while he deals with a rare red blood cell disease that demands he get transfusions of fresh red cells every three or four weeks.

Locklin's 29-year-old son, Hank Adam Locklin, is responsible for getting his dad back into the studio. Hank Adam earned a degree in music law at the University of Alabama. While nurturing dreams of becoming a fulltime country music songwriter and producer. Currently he works for Loretta Lynn's organization while masterminding his father's re-emergence.

Originally, "Generations In Song" was conceived as a disc of rerecorded hits to be hawked on TV. When problems arose with backers, father and son bought out the project and refashioned it as a rootsy showcase for both the venerable legend and the up and comer.

Years of studiously listening to 33 1/3 LPs gave Locklin the younger a taste for the warm analog sound fashioned by '60's/'70's engineers Bill Porter, Tom Sparkman and the man he eventually hired, Lou Bradley. He also had the foresight to bring in talented studio veterans a la pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins and guitarist Harold Bradley to help recreate the classic sounds of an earlier era.

Locklin the elder admires his son's prowess behind the glass, but takes extra familial pride in his vocal stylings.

"He and I sound pretty much alike, and I'm glad of that because I was thinking that we're the only father and son team that even comes close to sounding alike like that."

Both Locklin's were awed by Gill's duet with daddy Hank on "Danny Boy." "I can't say enough about Vince Gill," remarks Hank Adam. "He's really just a warm person who put all his heart into this song. When he does that tenor harmony with dad, it'll just raise the hair on your neck!"

Besides frolicking with his step grandkids on the remake of "We're Gonna Goin' Fishin'" (number14 in 1962) Locklin's memories of Dolly Parton are particularly sweet. "The first time I ever heard of her, I was in London, England, and she had this thing out then called 'Dumb Blonde,' and they played it over the radio there. I said, ‘Well, she ain't no dumb blonde. I met her after I came back. Adam was about three years old then, and when we were at the old Ryman together, Dolly'd love on him and hug him and kiss him."

Believing they have a roots music winner on their hands, father and son recently bought ad time for their new disc on the Grand Ole Opry, making Hank Locklin the first Opry artist to sponsor a portion of the show with his own record. As a result, the disc has generated enough sales through Locklin's website that a distributor plans to take the disc national sometime in February.

In the meantime, Locklin hopes to reunite with his son for a country gospel LP in 2002 and might even tour behind "Generations In Song." He asks that fans worried about his illness pray for him, but not to worry about his abilities as a performer.

"My spells with the red blood cells, that's the part that's holding me back some, but it's not bothering my singing."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •