Before he was Hank

Here along the Alabama River the details of the story are as wispy as the cotton in the furrowed fields: They say in the 1930s a sickly shoeshine boy met a hunchbacked bluesman who played the street for coins. The white youngster, mesmerized, coaxed the black busker to teach him chords. The result was music history.

The boy was Hiram Williams, but the world would know him as Hank, the doomed titan of country music who died 50 years ago this week at the age of 29. The blues player was Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, and despite his pivotal role in shaping country music's greatest songwriter, he remains all but anonymous, a scruffy troubadour buried in a pauper's grave.

The hard life, haunting music and lonely death of Williams give an aura of mystery to everything around him, and Tee-Tot remains one of the least examined of those mysteries. There are no known photographs of Payne, his music was never recorded, and those who knew him firsthand are dwindling in number. Still, Hank Williams Jr. has said the bluesman was "one of the most important men in the music business" because he changed "the entire world of music" by mentoring Hank Sr.

That's not reflected in the many biographies of Williams that give the blues musician paragraphs, not chapters. At this city's Hank Williams Museum, which overflows with all things Hank, only two exhibits even mention Payne -- one is a single-sheet biography, the other a crumbling newspaper clipping that misspells his name.

The role of Tee-Tot would not be so compelling if his ragged and rail-thin pupil had not become a songwriting savant and one of the defining voices of the 20th century. "All the music training I ever had," Williams said in a 1951 interview, "was from him," referring to Tee-Tot. Williams often mentioned "that old colored gentleman" from the stage before performing classics such as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I Saw the Light."

"Every time Hank got up on stage back in the old days he would talk about my dad," said Rufus Payne's son Henderson Payne, who is now 82 and living in Kokomo, Ill. "When we were kids I used to see Hank and my father walking around and playing music.... It's nice now to have people [remembering]."

Tee-Tot died in a Montgomery charity hospital in 1939, and this week he will get his largest ovation. In Nashville, the anniversary of Williams' Jan. 1 death will be marked Saturday night by a Grand Ole Opry concert featuring Hank Jr. and his son, Shelton Williams, who performs as Hank III, performing together publicly for the first time. Hank Jr. will also perform a song called "Tee-Tot," a bluesy, finger-picked tribute that appeared on his 2002 album "Almeria Club." The plan is for Henderson Payne to stand on stage with a guitar (he does not play) during the performance.

*

No one is more responsible for excavating the memory of Tee-Tot than an Alabama librarian named Alice K. Harp, a 5-foot, 53-year-old firecracker with a passion for blues music and Crimson Tide football. Harp's day job is at the Green Pond Library, which is housed in a double-wide trailer parked out near the Bibb County line, but her life's work is interviewing aging blues musicians.

That work led Hank Jr. to approach her seven years ago and ask her to track down the site where Tee-Tot was buried so a marker could be erected. Through government files, Harp pinned down the location as Lincoln Cemetery here, where two plaques were installed last year at the entrance of the graveyard.

Of more compelling value to music history, Harp's interviews of people who knew Tee-Tot offer a very different view of the musician from the descriptions offered by noted writers such as Colin Escott, author of "Hank Williams: The Biography." Escott wrote in that acclaimed 1994 book that Payne "had a humpback and long simian arms that stretched almost to his knees" and that "no one remembers any of the songs he used to play" and that young Hank "probably already knew all the chords Payne knew."

Harp's interviews suggest that Payne was a compact, handsome man, and that only a distant observer watching him tote his guitar could think he was hunched. (Henderson Payne agrees: "I don't know where all that came from. He wasn't bent.") Instead of a penniless, dusty wanderer, Harp says Payne had a more stable life, with frequent paying gigs for Montgomery's white elite at their holiday parties and picnics. His wife was employed as a housekeeper and he dressed as sharply as he could, a nod to his performance education in New Orleans.

"Rufus Payne walked into some of the most elegant homes in Montgomery to play the piano and sing the hit songs of the day," Harp contends. "He made people adore him. He had that gift. He was not some Uncle Remus character, and he was not an afterthought in Hank's life. He was more like a father figure."

Harp says that Williams -- whose own father was absent for most of his youth -- and Payne performed together for several years at these parties and on the streets. All of this runs counter to Williams' biographers, who have characterized the relationship as less extensive and defined by lessons, not performance.

Henderson Payne says Harp's account is closer to his own recollections. "They would travel around to the houses, and Hank would knock on the doors since he was white, you know," the son said. "They would play at the parties, and my father, he wore a suit every day. He died in a poorhouse, but he wore a suit every day."

*

It was in the Alabama sawmill town of Georgiana in the early '30s that young Hiram Williams met Tee-Tot Payne. The railroad and the lumber brought laborers, and to help support his mother and sister young Hank sold them shoeshines and bags of peanuts. Payne, following the 15 miles of rail from Greenville, came to town to sell entertainment.

Harp has learned that Payne was born in 1884 on the Payne Plantation in Lowdes County, Ala. By age 6 he was living in New Orleans, where his father toiled as a "muleskinner," a worker with horse-drawn cargo. It was there that young Payne found the blues and jazz. He also learned to drink -- earning his nickname, a sarcastic twist on "teetotaler." The name followed him back to Alabama, where he lived again by 1915.

Payne was married to one woman, but his son Henderson was born in 1920 to a different lover, 17-year-old Big Bea Williamson. The circumstances of the birth made Tee-Tot unwelcome around Henderson's home.

"My grandmother thought he and the music were just evil," Henderson Payne said with a chuckle. "It was devil's music. And they wouldn't let me play that music myself. They didn't like old Tee-Tot's drinking either."

In Escott's book, the biographer writes that Hank's mother was hopeful that music would be a career for her scrawny son and bought the boy his first guitar when he was 8. She also gave food to Payne in exchange for informal music tutelage. "Exactly what passed between Hank Williams and Rufe Payne will never be known for sure," Escott wrote. "If, as has often been said, Payne gave Hank lessons, it's hard to know what he imparted."

Harp said the friendship continued in Montgomery, where both were living by the late 1930s. Williams, still in his teens, was touring and becoming a known name in Alabama. He was on the road, Harp says, when Payne died of a heart condition in March 1939. "Hank came back and looked for him, and they told him Tee-Tot was dead. And nobody knew where he was buried," Harp said.

Escott disagrees with that account, and writes that the bluesman was already out of Williams' life by 1939. He also writes that the singer was so far removed from his tutor that he was still unaware of Tee-Tot's death as late as 1951 when he performed a homecoming show in Greenville and sought out his old mentor.

Either way, two signs now sit on the edge of Lincoln Cemetery and name it as the final resting place of Payne. The exact grave is not known -- the Lincoln yard, in grisly disrepair for years, is full of unmarked and mass graves.

Harp is now sifting through thousands of photos looking for an image of Tee-Tot. Not everyone appreciates Harp for her contrary accounts of the Payne-Williams years. "A lot of people hate me," she said Sunday as she drove the Jefferson Davis Highway. "They have everything all fixed in their mind, and now the stuff I have found is a finger in their eye. But I deal in facts, not emotions."

*

Sunday afternoon, Cecil Jackson, a big, gentle man with a white beard and bad hearing, walked like a tightrope artist along the edge of Hank Williams' grave. Under his feet, the gravesite's new indoor-outdoor carpet smoothed out nicely, but Jackson has found that other wrinkles in the legacy business are not so easily tamed.

"I'm not so sure I agree with what's going on here in Montgomery," said Jackson, who runs the downtown Hank Williams Museum. He was referring to the signposts at Lincoln Cemetery. It's entirely possible it is the correct site for Tee-Tot's grave, Jackson said, but he thinks more authentication should have been done before plaques were posted. The Hank Williams story is so important, he says, that new chapters should not be hastily tacked on.

Jackson chooses his words carefully when referring to Harp, but there is no anger in his voice. "She has done more, found out more, about Tee-Tot than anyone.... Tee-Tot was a great influence on Hank. He put Hank on the right direction as a performer."

Jackson says he would like to add more of Tee-Tot to the museum, which is a labor of love for its director. He was among the 25,000 mourners at the singer's funeral in January 1953. "For the young people," he said, "it was like we lost someone in our own family."

Williams was a superstar in his day. Besides the elemental power of his lyrics, his music had an infusion of blues stylings, from the relentless rhythm guitar to a languid, leering swing, that made his music more earthy than that of country stars of the day. His 37 Top 10 hits are staggering considering they were packed into a recording career that began in earnest in 1947 and was cut short the first morning of 1953. Between March 1949 and May 1953, Williams logged 82 weeks at No. 1 with his records.

"I play his songs every night in concert, songs like 'Jambalaya' and 'Move It On Over," singer Willie Nelson says, "and the young people who don't know them go crazy."

Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan are among the hundreds of artists who have recorded Williams songs, and in just the last two years Beck, Lucinda Williams and Norah Jones have added new recordings to that deep list. In many of the best Williams songs, Nelson says, he hears an unmistakable sound: "The blues. You can't miss it."

*

One of the key moments in Williams' songwriting career was when his "Cold, Cold Heart" was recorded by Tony Bennett in 1951 and became a big pop hit. It was Jerry Wexler, the music mogul and producer, who heard the pop potential in the country song. Now, weighing the reaction to Harp's research, he thinks others are less willing to breach genre labels when it comes to a legend such as Williams. Wexler said he's confounded by the apathy toward the role of the blues and Tee-Tot in shaping Williams.

"I think some of it is leftover racism in the country music establishment," said Wexler, who met Williams several times. "Williams did a lot of straight-ahead, 12-bar blues, and there's such a blues strain in his music.... Who can measure the influence of this one individual if you weren't there? But who could deny it either?"

Still, others said Harp may be romanticizing the Tee-Tot saga. Among them is songwriter Merle Kilgore (he co-wrote hits such as "Ring of Fire"), who as a teenager knew Williams and has been the longtime manager of Hank Jr.

"Alice, she's a jewel. But some of the stuff ... that Tee-Tot played in big fancy houses on Christmas?" Kilgore said. "That he walked in the front door and all that -- I'll tell you, it was a different time. I'd like to think that happened, but I don't think so. I just can't see that happening in Alabama. But no doubt Tee-Tot was a big influence on Hank, the one who taught him to play the guitar and the crowds."

Harp hopes for a documentary to be made on the friendship of Tee-Tot and Williams, and PBS has expressed interest in the project as both music history and race study in the South. She says that for Williams, who was among the poorest kids in a poor county in a poor era, music and class trumped skin color, a theme that has been repeated in the lives of white artists from Elvis to Eminem.

"It was Hank that had to use the backdoor when he went to the fancy homes, not Tee-Tot," she said. "Their friendship is this wonderful, overlooked story of the South. They saw each other as human beings and as friends."

Hank Jr. was only 3 when his father died, and Kilgore said he has declined all interviews this week because of the anniversary of his father's death. Hank Jr. finds it too hard to separate fact from myth. "He's afraid to make a mistake," Kilgore said. "So much is exaggerated about Hank."

The younger Williams will, however, address the matter of his father's nearly forgotten friend in song on Saturday in the Grand Ole Opry performance, which will air live on the Country Music Television cable channel.

Well, he learned to play like the old man said he would,

Little Hiram's got his name in Hollywood

I wish that Tee-Tot could have stayed around,

Then maybe little Hiram would not have drowned

In all those things that does a boy who wants to sing no good

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°