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Hank Williams died 70 years ago today: 1953 funeral drew 20,000 people to Alabama

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Hank Williams, the 29-year-old country music king, was supposed to fly to Charleston, West Virginia, for a New Year’s concert, but an ice storm near Nashville kept him away.

The Georgiana native hired a college student, Charles Carr, to drive him to perform a planned concert in Canton, Ohio.

Instead of performing, Williams died 70 years ago today, January 1, 1953.

Long plagued by alcoholism, Williams fell ill at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville on the last night of 1952. A doctor injected Williams with B12 and morphine and porters carried the legendary singer-songwriter to the car.

Here are more vintage images and stories from Alabama’s past

Carr drove all night as Williams declined his offer to stop for food. Stopping to refuel in Oak Hill, West Virginia, Carr realized that Williams was dead.

Police found empty beer cans and unfinished song lyrics in the Cadillac where Williams died.

As people in his native Alabama picked up their newspapers that day, they were greeted by the tragic news of Williams’ death.

“He was dead on arrival at an Oak Hill hospital,” the front page of The Alabama Journal read.

Williams had married his second wife, Billie Jean Jones in October 1952, as 14,000 people watched in Louisiana where Williams hosted radio shows after being fired from the Grand Ole Opry in August of that year.

Having only recently recorded what would become some of his most beloved songs, including “Kawliga” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, Williams performed his final concert in Austin, Texas on December 19, 1952. The newlyweds spent Christmas 1952 with Williams’ mother in Montgomery.

The day after Williams died, The Montgomery Advertiser recalled Williams as a former peanut seller who learned to play guitar at age 6.

“The lanky, nasal-voiced guitarist began his musical career in Montgomery, singing on WSFA,” the newspaper reported.

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Roy Acuff leads a crowd of singing country stars at Hank Williams’ funeral.

“Alabamians mourned the death of ‘their Hank,’ speaking to newspapers, radio stations and loved ones staying at the star’s mother’s home,” the report continued.

“Reporters who answered telephone questions about Williams’ death said many callers cried when told the information was true.”

In cafes across the South, the paper added, his songs blared on the radios as news of his death spread.

That night, the singer’s body was brought back to Montgomery. At her mother’s request, the Canton concert goes ahead as planned.

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Hank Williams in his coffin. From the Montgomery Advertiser

While her son wasn’t on stage, her song “I Saw The Light” opened the show.

A rookie Tennessee Highway Patrol officer, Swann Kitts, told reporters he stopped the Cadillac and fined Carr $25 for speeding, The united press reported January 2, 1952.

“I told Carr that Williams looked dead but didn’t push it when Carr explained that Williams had been given two sedatives,” Kitts reportedly said.

“It doesn’t matter whether you like his songs, whether in your opinion he created ugliness or beauty. The important thing is that he made millions of people happy,” writes an editorial in the The advertiser declared on January 3, 1953.

(An audio recording of the funeral begins at 7:30 a.m. from the video below.)

“He was rocked by physical and emotional afflictions, and these, coupled with his gift for song, brought him close to millions.”

The newspaper that day, the WSFA received hundreds of calls and telegrams asking the station to play their songs.

About 3,000 family friends packed into her mother’s living room on North McDonough Street in Montgomery, where Williams’ body was laid in state on Saturday evening.

1954 Press Photo Family at Hank Williams Memorial Unveiling, Montgomery, Alabama

Montgomery, Alabama – Family at the Hank Williams memorial unveiling.

His funeral was held the next day, Sunday, January 4, 1953, at Montgomery’s City Auditorium.

“You only wrote what you felt boiling inside you. You only wrote about what happened to you and the people around you,” Advertiser wrote columnist Allen Rankin on the day of the funeral.

The Grand Ole Opry stars were expected along with thousands of fans to bid farewell to Williams. They began to fill the auditorium hours before the afternoon funeral.

Before it was over, some 20,000 people had filled the auditorium and the street outside for what was described as the largest funeral in Montgomery’s history.

People from 35 states reportedly made the trip to say goodbye to Hank.

Roy Acuff, along with a host of the country’s biggest stars, performed “I Saw The Light.”

Hank Williams funeral

MONTGOMERY, AL – JANUARY 4: Guitar-themed flower arrangements adorn the grave of country singer Hank Williams as he is laid to rest in the Oakwood Cemetery Annex on January 4, 1953 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)Getty Images

“He was one of the best young men we’ve ever known,” Acuff said.

Ernest Tubbs opened the funeral with “Beyond the Sunset” and Red Foley and The Statesman Quartet sang “Peace In The Valley.”

Country music legends June Carter and Bill Monroe were among those who marched past his open casket as Hank’s band The Drifting Cowboys backed up these sung tributes to the fallen star.

A woman was carried away after collapsing. She shouted, “He’s gone… gone” over and over as the firefighters helped her out. Hank’s first and second wives watched from the front pew.

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Lillie Stone, Audrey Williams and Hank Williams, Jr., seated on a bed while looking through letters and cards received after the death of Hank Williams, Sr. They are in a bedroom in Lillie’s house (the mother of Hank Williams) on North McDonough Street in Montgomery, Alabama.

“When he played his guitar, he played on the hearts of millions,” Reverend Henry Lyons of Highland Avenue Baptist Church told the crowd gathered on Perry Street.

Next to Hank’s coffin were two large wreaths shaped like guitars, another set of flowers were shaped like a Bible, two lamps glowed purple lights, and in his hands was a small Bible.

It was the Jim Crow era, the 200 black mourners were on a separate balcony.

“If this world were to last a thousand years,” Lyons said, “Hank will remain dear to millions of hearts.”

Lyons recalled how Hank went from shoe shiner to stage star.

“He had a message. It was swelling inside him like a great body of water behind a huge dam,” Lyons said.

“There was desire, burden, fear, ambition, setback after setback, bitter disappointment, joy, success, sympathy, love for people. It was all in Hank’s heart. The break had to come,” he added. “Hank Williams had something that humanity universally needs – a song with a heartfelt message.”

A line of thousands filled two-and-a-half blocks as the funeral procession took Hank to Oakwood Cemetery.

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