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CHAPTER ONE  -  A Coal Miner’s Son


Herbert Clayton “Hank” Penny was born in a small coal mining community called Ensley, in Birmingham, Alabama, on Wednesday, September 18, 1918. The tenth child of William Columbus Penny and Inez Azalea Gregory and the youngest boy, it was an unlikely and humble beginning for a man who would grow up to be one of the most influential musicians of his time.

Two months before Hank was born, his father was trapped in a mine cave-in. William Penny was pulled from the mineshaft, his body riddled with slate, a large piece lodged in his head that couldn’t be removed. William Penny was unable to labor physically after that, and instead became interested in poetry, psychology and hypnotism. He also was an inventor, devising a way of increasing productivity at a poultry farm by separating chickens that weren’t laying eggs from the rest of the flock. His emphasis on using one’s mental powers impressed young Hank, although his father’s intensity and religious fanaticism often scared him.

The Pennys were not a close family and his parents had a rough marriage. In his memoirs Hank put it this way:

As close as I could “figger”, they only stopped arguing eleven times during their entire marriage. There was Earl, Clyde, Clifton, Clarence, Paul and myself. Then there was Blanche, Mabel, and Mildred, plus one boy and one girl that died at birth. So there’s my accounting of the eleven piece – Er-r-r,ah-h-h – Peace treaties.

The Great Depression hit them hard. Everyone worked to earn money for the family, toiling in the mines, the railroad, on the family farm, or, in Hank’s case, mowing lawns, selling magazines and delivering newspapers. Hank’s father died on May 31, 1933, when Hank was fourteen, increasing the burden on Hank and his siblings at home.

Hank became fascinated with the radio and developed an insatiable desire to learn to play the guitar. His brother-in-law, Alfred Stracener, was a guitar picker and Hank admired the way “he used all six strings when he played a chord.” Hank followed him around like a puppy dog, trying to learn all he could. Finally one day, Al invited Hank to perform at one of the Stracener Brothers’ gigs. Hank did a blackface routine, his comedic debut, to uproarious applause. Hank became a regular part of their act. He dutifully returned his earnings to his mother, keeping a few cents for himself toward a guitar of his own.

Hank’s brothers chided Hank to give up the stage and “get a real job” in the mines or on the railroad. However, when an opening with ‘Happy’ Hal Burns at WAPI in Birmingham, his brothers agreed that if Hank could get a job there, it would prove he had talent. Hank had one problem; he hadn’t been able to save up enough for a guitar. Fortunately his mother was his biggest fan.

Well, having heard my brother’s statement, this became a great challenge for me. Mama said she would advance me enough money to buy that real sharp- looking Epiphone guitar I had been drooling over at E.E. Music Store. The next day I went to Forbes and bought that swell instrument. I took my new “ax” and headed to the WAPI studios.

I sat nervously through the broadcast. Afterwards I sauntered over to where ‘Happy’ Hal was busy putting his guitar away. I ventured a very weak “hello”. Hal looked over at me and his sparkling personality completely overwhelmed me. I managed to say, “You don’t need a guitar player, do you??”

Hal smiled and said, “No, but I could use a good banjo player. Can you play banjo?”

I really don’t know what caused me to answer, but I said, “Yes, sir, I shore do!” He said, “Come back tomorrow and we’ll give you an audition.”

I told him I certainly would be there. Wild horses could not have kept me away. However, I did have a slight problem. I didn’t have a banjo. But I did have a plan. Back to the music store I went and I traded them my beautiful, sharp-looking Epiphone guitar that I had bought only hours earlier for a…a…banjo?? Yes, a banjo!

Hank tuned the banjo like the first four strings of a guitar, hoping Hal wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Hank impressed ‘Happy’ Hal and joined his Tune Wranglers, and immediately began taking banjo lessons from Bill Haid, a tenor banjo picker known for an other-worldly effect he got from using a fiddle bow on his banjo. Hank eventually came clean to Hal about how he faked his way through his audition and Hal had a good laugh about it.

Hank looked up to Hal as a father figure, learning about professionalism and respect at his feet.

Hank said, “I worked hard trying to please Hal, trying to please the audience and trying to please myself. I worked on the radio show for six months before Hal ever called my name. And finally he started calling me “Hanky-dank”.

And eventually Hank proved his worth. ‘Happy’ Hal had another comedian in the group when Hank signed on who was threatened by the youngster. He told Hal it was him or the kid and asked, “What is this, amateur hour?”

I was more than pleased when he told me of the incident. Hal told him, “I think I’m gonna stick with the kid, because he seems to be less trouble. And besides, I can train him to be the comic I want.” What a boot in the pants that was for me!

Whatever I may be, or hope to be, in show business, I owe to ‘Happy’ Hal Burns. I think of the many nights that I have stood on the stage with Hal. He was my straight man. Behind his hand or during laughter he would give me stage direction: “Don’t move. Stand still. Hold it! Let ‘em laugh!” He had an uncanny control over the audience. And could he manipulate them!

When he wasn’t working with Hal, Hank and fellow Birmingham musicians, both aspiring and veteran, used to frequent the studios of WAPI, WKBC (now WSGN) and WRBC, jamming and learning new chops, waiting for a chance to go on the air.

Hank recalled:

This was during the deep Depression. Nobody had anything. There was nothing to do and learning to play a guitar was a good investment for me at the time. I would sit and watch Earl Drake play his fine,full six-string chords. I would watch Ted Brooks and all his fine work. Julian Akins was a dandy and he was always happy to share what he knew with someone who wanted to learn, like myself. Most every day was just like the last day. Just hang out at one of the radio stations. Maybe there would be a cancellation and we would get to do a show. There would be no money, but at least we would have the opportunity to hone our skills.

‘Happy’ Hal dissolved the Tune Wranglers and Hank realized it was time to move on. WWL in New Orleans was sending out some great programs over the airwaves and Hank responded to the sirens’ call. He was off to New Orleans.

Next installment:

The Crescent City gives birth to the Radio Cowboys












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