When cowboys ranged Detroit radio — Happy Hank

Biography of Happy Hank (Marc Williams), cowboy singer and host of syndicated radio shows for children during the 1940s, who lived in Detroit for many years.

Marc Williams, 1930s cowboy singer
Marc Williams, aka The Cowboy Crooner, aka Happy Hank

In the introduction to the book, “Detroit Country Music: Mountaineers, Cowboys, and Rockabillies,” I noted that a very good singer and popular cowboy entertainer named Happy Hank broadcast over WJR radio Detroit, Michigan, during the 1940s. Other local cowboys, such as Smilin’ Red Maxedon (who also appeared on WJR) and Sagebrush Shorty, proved popular with young listeners and TV viewers after World War II, but Happy Hank’s legacy has been well-preserved (and well-deserved) in the 21st century. In this piece, you can link to a website that includes transcriptions of many of Happy Hank’s sparkling fifteen-minute radio broadcasts, originally sponsored by the Little Crow Milling Company of Warsaw, Indiana, makers of Coco-Wheats cereal.

Happy Hank began life in 1903 as Marcus Dumont Williams, born south of Dallas, Texas, in Ellis County. By the time he reached his twenties, Marc Williams had worked as a cowboy, entertained as the “Cowboy Crooner” on early Dallas-Fort Worth radio station KRLD, and attended classes at university (sources have noted University of Texas and Southern Methodist University). He entertained at public appearances across North Texas, and made dozens of records for the Brunswick and Decca labels from 1928 to 1936.

According to historian Kevin Fontenot, Williams’ most successful records included the traditional ballads “Cole Younger,” “Jesse James,” and “Sioux Warriors.” “Williams possessed a smooth singing style that contrasted sharply with the roughhewn sound of early cowboy singers … As a result he forms a bridge between those artists and later silver screen cowboys such as Gene Autry,” wrote Fontenot. Indeed, Williams’ vocals sounded as if he presented the experience of the early American cowboy with a refined vaudeville approach. [1]

Cover of Happy Hank Party Pack booklet, ca. 1948
Happy Hank sold these booklets which contained poems, jokes, riddles, pictures, songs and party games. Source: Kevin Coffey

Through the 1930s, Williams worked as a solo and led groups on radio and stage. In 1931 he appeared on the Great Northern Railway’s “Empire Builders” radio program broadcast from Chicago, Illinois. [2] It’s likely Williams developed the Happy Hank show during the World War II era. Precisely when he moved north remains a mystery, although he reportedly lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, before moving to Detroit.

According to Broadcasters magazine, the Happy Hank children’s program began Jan. 31, 1944, with an initial contract for fifty-two weeks of shows. By February, nineteen stations across the United States broadcast the production. [3] One year later, Billboard magazine mentioned Happy Hank as a “transcription personality show” on WJR radio’s early morning programming. The broadcast aired at 7:45 a.m., “aimed directly at kids getting up for school.” [4]

Happy Hank’s theme

Marc Williams, 1973 Fort Worth Times-Sentinal
Marc Williams, 1973 clipping from Fort Worth Star-Telegram, courtesy Kevin Coffey

Smile when you wake up
And start out the day
By laughing your troubles away

Don’t frown or worry
It won’t help a thing
The best way is tune right up and sing

When Old Man Trouble troubles you
Just put him in his place
I found out the thing to do
Is laugh right in his face

Just smile when you wake up
Be happy and gay
And laugh all your troubles away
[5]

Happy Hank’s productions flowed brilliantly with nonstop music, allegories, riddles, sing-alongs, cowboy story serials, commercials for Coco-Wheats, and in-home visits to listeners via “the electric eye” which he used to check the hygiene of his kiddie audience through the radio.

Detroit area disk jockey and country crooner Andy Barron remembered putting on his clothes to the “Dressing Race” song (which Happy Hank sang to encourage children to dress themselves in the morning) when he was a child. You can hear Andy sing it and reminisce about Happy Hank via the link on this page.

Listen to Andy Barron recall Happy Hank’s ‘Dressing Race’

Andy Barron in 2004. Photo by Kathleen VanTassel
Happy Hank fan, singer and former WSDS radio D.J. Andy Barron in 2004. Photo by Kathleen VanTassel

Visit www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com to hear original transcriptions of Happy Hank’s radio show (1945-48) – including Happy Hank’s version of the “Dressing Race” and many other clever tunes. A collection of Marc Williams’ 1930s cowboy records was issued by Jasmine Music on CD in 2004. Click here for details.

Marc Williams attended Wayne State University in Detroit, and graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1960. [6] Across America, most early morning programming for children had moved to television by then. In a 1973 interview for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Williams revealed he attempted moving Happy Hank to TV during the 1950s, but the transition was unsuccessful. Around 1971 Williams returned to Fort Worth, where he continued practicing law. He died suddenly in 1974, and was buried in a family cemetery plot in Midlothian, Texas.


Special thanks: Kevin Coffey, Kevin Fontenot, and Andy Barron

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Notes

  1. Kevin S. Fontenot “WILLIAMS, MARC,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwick), accessed 2016. Uploaded on March 18, 2015. Modified on November 1, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  2. ”Empire Builders Radio: 300929 – The Hill Trail” (http://empire-builders-radio.blogspot.com/2015/09/300929-hill-trail.html), accessed 2016. Uploaded September 2015.
  3. ”Radio Advertisers” Broadcasting (Feb. 21, 1944) 36.
  4. H.F. Reves “Second Look at Motor City Air – CBS Outlet, WJR, Next” Billboard (Feb. 3, 1945. Vol. 27, No. 5) 10.
  5. Words and music by Marc Williams. Copyrighted and published by Joe Davis, Inc.
  6. ”Commencement 1960” The Wayne State Law Journal (May 1960. Vol. VIII, No. 3) 26.

 

19 Comments. Leave new

  • I remember hearing Happy Hank when I was a small kid growing up

    Reply
  • I listened to Happy Hank for many years as a kid and he had a very distinctive voice. So much so that many years later, I met with an attorney and he called in his partner to ask him a question, and when I heard him speak, I knew who it was immediately. It was Marc Williams, or Happy Hank as we all knew him. What a treat.

    Reply
  • Marc Williams had some success on Detroit television. He had his own show, “Happy Hollow Hank” on WWJ-TV and was a regular on “Wixie’s Wonderland” on WXYZ-TV.

    Reply
  • Gregory A Yankey
    May 9, 2016 9:20 am

    I loved this article because my mother told me several years ago she and her twin sister would get dressed to Happy Hank in the mornings while getting ready for school. They were born in 1938, and would have started elementary school in 1943. I found recordings of the show on otrrlibary.org, and now have my own children listen to it before going to bed. I have always been a fan of Old Time Radio since I was a kid, but now the internet has made it easier to get OTR recordings. When my mom was in nursing home care I would play Happy Hank for her over my iPhone.

    Reply
  • “Smile when you wake up, be happy and gay, and laugh all your troubles away.” So started Happy Hank’s show at 7:45 each morning, and I remember it for an extra reason (I even remember the adventures of Squeaky and Sputters). In early 1942 my dad began his career as a newscaster on WJR at 8:00 a.m. just after Hank — VanDeventer and the news of the hour.

    Reply
  • Does anyone have a recording of him singing his theme song? My dad used to sing it to my children and i would love to find the original.

    Reply
  • Get your clothes together, in front of the radio, or any other handy place, hurry now don’t be slow. For this is a dressing contest, lets see who will win, and when I give the signal we’ll all begin.
    I am 76 and still remember listening to Happy Hank each morning on the radio. He would even tell you if something needed picking up off the floor. What a great radio show.

    Reply
  • MaryTrussell
    May 30, 2018 8:41 pm

    As a child my sister and I listen to him on the radio every morning we just loved him ….pick it up put it on the shelf don’t leave it for mother but pick it up yourself ….my sister and I would run around and pick everything up and listen to every word he told us to do …I still remember that and I’m in my 80s …how we loved him he was so happy made you feel so good in the morning..is it possible to get the words to that song

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your memory, Mary. I will check my Happy Hank song book for the words you asked about. If I find them, I will post them in a comment on this web page.

      Reply
  • How well I remember Happy Hank!
    And the words to his opening song.
    How well I recall them and even after seventy years plus!
    We would hide behind a chair when his
    “electric-eye” was turned on so he could not see
    our “undressed state”.
    Many thanks for these memories !!

    Reply
  • Judi Schoon Rude
    November 21, 2021 9:01 am

    I too remember listening. I was the youngest of the first 4 kids
    (3 more followed later) all girls. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my sisters. When we first found Hank, I was too young for school in Lansing-a southern suburb of Chicago. But I do remember my sisters running around doing what he told them.
    My sister says they always wondered how he knew what they were doing when he’d talk about picking up something they dropped! I would love for my great grands yo hear Happy sing!

    Reply
  • George Risk
    July 4, 2022 2:41 pm

    I lived in Tiffin, Ohio in the 1940’s. I would listen to Happy Hank from WJR – Detroit. I remember Happy Hank telling us that it was time to clean our bedrooms and that he would be watching that we picked up our clothes from the floor. In retrospect I can only say, How can he see me and my room? But he did and I was respectful to his wishes.

    In the 1980s I was in Warsaw, IN calling on a paper mill and I went right by the plant that made Coco Wheat the home of Little Crow Milling Co. After my call on the paper mill I went to Coco Wheat. I was interested in visiting childhood experiences and I did. I spent the afternoon there talking to plant personal who could tell me about the early days of Little Crow Milling Co. and Happy Hank. I had a wonderful afternoon.

    Reply

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