Four Different Takes On A Hank Williams Standard

Thursday, 01 February 2018 12:50 PM Written by 


 The idea of "covering" hit songs, other artists quickly recording their own versions when the song was hot and popular, was nothing new from the 1920's to the 1960's. It resulted in multiple versions of some songs sitting on the pop or country charts at the same time. In other cases, the songs would be recorded by artists in other genres, Time might would pass before these versions were recorded and released. The practice eventually faded as the nature of pop music changed, unless the songs were interpreted in a completely different way (like easy listening or orchestral versions of Beatles songs).

Case in point: Hank Williams's' immortal ballad "Cold, Cold Heart." We start with his original version and follow it through four different artists and intepretations, all done in the year 1951, one white, three African-American, all legendary.

December 21, 1950 :Hank Williams (the original--# 1 country). (Some illustrations in the video are irrelevant)

May 31, 1951: Tony Bennett with Percy Faith and his Orchestra (# 1 pop). Columbia pop music A&R director/producer Mitch Miller, open to all kinds of songs (he selected what his vocalists recorded), had Bennett record it. Hank was bowled over by the fact a rising pop star recorded the song and even more so when it topped the pop charts, proving his songs appealed beyond the country music market. Bennett's successful recording inspired the three versions below.


The sheet music to the song.  Note the lower-left trademark: "Acuff-Rose Publications."  For more, read on.

September 17, 1951: Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver & His Orchestra. Armstrong's producer, Milt Gabler, had him record Hank Williams had him cover popular songs at the time, in addition to his jazz material. Bennett's was almost surely the inspiration, since the single's B-side was a cover of Bennett's "Because of You"

In a 1952 interview, jazz disc jockey Sid Gross asked Armstrong why a jazz great would bother recording "commercial" songs. Armstrong thoughtfully defended his work, criticizing what he felt was a the pejorative use of the term "commercial." He told Gross, "When they ask me, say, 'why do you play, “Cold, Cold, Heart,' why do you play this?  I play anything where I come from."

September 24, 1951: Dinah Washington with Nook Shrier and his Orchestra (# 3 R&B). Among the sidemen: saxophonist Paul Quinichette, guitarist Freddie Green and pianist Wynton Kelly.   She re-recorded the song in 1962.

November 21, 1951. Nat King Cole with (former Pittsburgher) Billy May and his Orchestra (not a hit) . Its easy swinging performance, with May's distinctive "slurping saxophones" deserved more success than it received.  Cole would make other outstanding recordings with May.

Bonus: April 23, 1952: "Cold, Cold Heart" by Hank Williams live on the Kate Smith Evening Hour. RA group of Opry stars had appeared in March of 1952 including Hank and Roy Acuff, who introduces Hank here.  I mentioned "Acuff-Rose" pertaining to the sheet music above.  Acuff-Rose, the first Nashville song publisher, was founded in 1942 by Acuff, a nationwide superstar, and songwriter Fred Rose, who became Hank's mentor and record producer.  The musicians behind Hank: Don Helms, steel guitar a key member of Hank's Drifting Cowboys),  Grady Martin (one of Nashville's top session guitarists) on fiddle,  bass player Jack Drake (older brother of pedal steel legend Pete Drake),  Billy Byrd, lead guitar (one of Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours).


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