When cowboys ranged Detroit radio — Happy Hank

 

Marc Williams, 1930s cowboy singer

Marc Williams, aka The Cowboy Crooner, aka Happy Hank. Source: Empire Builders Radio blog

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

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

Marc Williams, 1973 Fort Worth Times-Sentinal

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

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.

 

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.

 

9 Comments to "When cowboys ranged Detroit radio — Happy Hank"

  • Lynn Best
    February 13, 2016 at 7:11 am #

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

  • March 4, 2016 at 5:34 am #

    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.

  • March 26, 2016 at 2:15 pm #

    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.

  • Gregory A Yankey
    May 9, 2016 at 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.

    • May 9, 2016 at 3:05 pm #

      Thanks! It’s evident Happy Hank touched many, many people during his broadcasting career.

    • Lynn Best
      May 10, 2016 at 6:58 am #

      1938 is the year I was born.

  • July 9, 2017 at 10:55 am #

    “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.

    • July 9, 2017 at 10:48 pm #

      That’s very interesting Bob! Thank you for sharing your memories.

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