A short time ago I wrote about Pop Artist Tom Wesselmann and classic country music. That story took place in the early 1950's, when Tom and I served together in the Army. This is going to be another Wesselmann/country music story, but it takes place about forty years later, in the late 1980's and early 1990's.
Background: In 1988, when this story starts, Tom Wesselmann was already well-established as one of the pioneer artists in the "Pop Art" movement. Today his pieces regularly sell at the big auction houses for millions of dollars -- they don't command the astronomical prices of an Andy Warhol or a Roy Lichtenstein, but they do respectfully well.
Tom's art studio was in a multi-story building that he had purchased (again, for millions of dollars) in downtown Manhattan. I, on the other hand, was living and working the suburban Long Island life, which meant that by train or car we were about two hours apart. So our friendship was pretty much reduced to telephone conversations or mail.
Once a week, we would monopolize the phone line, sometimes for hours at a time. We would mostly go over our usual topics of classic country music and gag cartooning. As I mentioned many times before, Tom, like me, was a frustrated "New Yorker-cartoonist-wannabe", and he was still sporadically submitting cartoons to The New Yorker. He would do this mostly under a fake name, so as not to get his cartooning aspirations mixed up with his Pop Art celebrity. Anyway, one of the most important things we did in our long phone conversations was to analyze that week's issue of The New Yorker, page by page, with particular emphasis on the cartoons. We always had plenty to say about each cartoon, about each gag, and even about each cartoonist.
As for the country music part of our conversations, Tom, like me, took his country music fun quite seriously. But, unlike me, he had the resources to follow up on his dreams. First of all, he wrote many original country songs, some in a humorous vein, but others that were quite serious. I have the names of about 25 of his original compositions, but I'm sure there were many more. Current biographies of Tom state that he composed more than 400 country songs, but I find it hard to believe that he actually completed that many -- song titles, maybe, but not finished songs. Second of all, every week Tom hired a small band of musicians, along with a professional singer and recording equipment, so that he could have private recording sessions of his songs right there in his studio.
Okay, that's enough background, now I can get on with my story. During one of our long phone conversations, I casually mentioned to Tom that I had what I thought was a great idea for a new Hank Williams "tribute" song. Over the years since his death in 1953, there have been, literally, hundreds of Hank Williams tribute songs -- if you don't believe me, just check out Wikipedia or Google. And while you're at it you can check on the enormous influence that Hank Williams had on Bob Dylan and a host of other performers. One of my favorite tribute songs is "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?", written and recorded by Waylon Jennings.
I told Tom my song title was ". . . and Hank" (over the phone I just said "dot, dot, dot and Hank", and Tom knew immediately what I meant). And then I told him my concept for the song, which was for each verse to name a whole bunch of legendary country music stars and for each verse to conclude with ". . . and Hank". Tom expressed an interest in the idea, and I told him he could do anything he wanted with it, because I certainly wasn't going to be following it up myself.
Time passed, and I all but forgot about ". . . and Hank". Then during one phone conversation, Tom mentioned that he'd been working on it, and soon after that he sent me a copy of his first hand-written draft, words and music. By the way, all our correspondence was by old-fashioned snail mail -- no email, Twitter, Facebook or texting in those days. Once I had the song in my hands, we spent a lot of time on the phone tweaking the words, with me suggesting ever so slight changes and Tom mostly disagreeing vehemently. Mind you, I'm in no way saying that I had anything to do with the writing of the song. Aside from the title, the basic premise, and the very last line (more about that later), the lyrics and music were all Tom's.
More time passed . . . years, in fact. Then one day I received a small package in the mail from Tom. It contained a cassette tape of Tom singing ". . . and Hank", backed up by his musicians. Later on, he sent me another cassette with a version of ". . . and Hank" performed at one of his recording sessions by a hired singer, a fellow named Duane Gray, I believe (but I'm not positive -- it could very well be someone else).
Here are the two audio cassette tapes. Tom first, then "Duane". There are multiple changes in the lyrics on the "Duane" version, so it must have been recorded a considerable time after Tom's version.
And here are Tom's lyrics, pretty much as he originally wrote it:
When I'm asked what country music is,
I reply by running down the rank.
I say it's Waylon, Willie and Liz,
Emmylou. Roy, Kitty . . . and Hank.
They've been stars in countless country shows,
You just can't find better, to be frank.
Such greats as Ernest, Charlie and Rose,
Wilma Lee, Webb, Leftie . . . and Hank.
That just names a few, there's more to go,
Touching men and women we all thank.
Rosalie, Marty, Melba and Moe,
Billy Crash, Tex, Hawkshaw . . . and Hank.
It's a sparkling history that they've forged,
East and West, the Rebels and the Yanks.
Just think of Conway, Tammy and George.
Little Jimmy, Tom T. . . . and Hank.
It's so moving when their voices crack,
Touching men and women we all thank.
Norma Jean, Dolly, Faron and Mac,
Whisperin' Bill, Carl, Stonewall . . . and Hank.
They sing songs of girls down on their luck,
Songs of cheaters and poor souls who drank.
Great songs by Porter, Patsy and Buck,
Gentleman Jim, Jeannie . . . and Hank.
They helped make this place a better world,
Touching men and women we all thank.
Loretta, Ferlin, Skeeter and Merle,
Jerry Lee, Red, Wanda . . . and Hank.
Mickey, Jimmy . . . and Hank.
Bobbie, Bonnie . . . and Hank.
Boxcar, Cowboy . . . and Hank.
Jessie, Eddie . . . and Hank.
All those other Hanks . . . and Hank.
About that last line, "All those other Hanks . . . and Hank.". Tom wrote his first draft with the song just trailing off after "Jessie, Eddie . . . and Hank". In our phone conversations, I kept insisting that an additional last line was called for, mainly because of all the other Hanks that were recording classic country music (Hank Snow, Hank Thompson, Hank Locklin, etc.). I felt that the whole point of the song would be lost if it didn't include some respectful acknowledgement of them. Tom was totally against it, but I guess I was very insistent, and he finally came around to my way of thinking.
Tom tried very hard and mostly unsuccessfully to get his songs recorded professionally. I followed closely as he told me of all his contacts with the "Nashville" crowd. There were many such contacts and interviews, both with recording artists and record labels. At one point, I'm pretty sure he told me that someone had optioned a few of his songs, including ". . . and Hank", but in every case the deal fell through.
I also have a CD that Tom sent me much later, entitled "double xx posed". The blurb on the cover says, "DOUBLE XX POSED is a compilation album of original songs written and performed by nationally recognized artists living in New York, Nashville, Kansas City, Scottsdale, and Tucson. The album exposes another creative side of each artist, be it music or art". Tom sings three of his own songs on that album: "Let Someone Hurt Her Once For Me", "He Kept His Secret" and "I Love Doing Texas With You". I don't know too much about the album, or what its distribution might have been.
The photo on Tom's audio tape was taken in February 2003, a year before he passed away. The photo below is from July 1986. Me on the left, Tom on the right.
The photo of Tom Wesselmann at the very top of this posting was taken on November 1, 2000. Yes, that is Kermit the Frog hanging from Tom's shirt pocket. My wife Lila snapped the picture, and in the year 2000 every photo she shot had to have Kermit the Frog in it. But that's another story, isn't it?
All of my previous postings about Tom Wesselmann are easily available. All you have to do to find them is click on my category of "Eli's Corner".