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Before he was Hank

Bluesman who taught Hiram Williams has gotten little credit. That may change.

January 03, 2003|Geoff Boucher

Montgomery, Ala. — Here along the Alabama River the details of the story are as wispy as the cotton in the furrowed fields: They say in the 1930s a sickly shoeshine boy met a hunchbacked bluesman who played the street for coins. The white youngster, mesmerized, coaxed the black busker to teach him chords. The result was music history.

The boy was Hiram Williams, but the world would know him as Hank, the doomed titan of country music who died 50 years ago this week at the age of 29. The blues player was Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne, and despite his pivotal role in shaping country music's greatest songwriter, he remains all but anonymous, a scruffy troubadour buried in a pauper's grave.

The hard life, haunting music and lonely death of Williams give an aura of mystery to everything around him, and Tee-Tot remains one of the least examined of those mysteries. There are no known photographs of Payne, his music was never recorded, and those who knew him firsthand are dwindling in number. Still, Hank Williams Jr. has said the bluesman was "one of the most important men in the music business" because he changed "the entire world of music" by mentoring Hank Sr.

That's not reflected in the many biographies of Williams that give the blues musician paragraphs, not chapters. At this city's Hank Williams Museum, which overflows with all things Hank, only two exhibits even mention Payne -- one is a single-sheet biography, the other a crumbling newspaper clipping that misspells his name.

The role of Tee-Tot would not be so compelling if his ragged and rail-thin pupil had not become a songwriting savant and one of the defining voices of the 20th century. "All the music training I ever had," Williams said in a 1951 interview, "was from him," referring to Tee-Tot. Williams often mentioned "that old colored gentleman" from the stage before performing classics such as "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Cold, Cold Heart" and "I Saw the Light."

"Every time Hank got up on stage back in the old days he would talk about my dad," said Rufus Payne's son Henderson Payne, who is now 82 and living in Kokomo, Ill. "When we were kids I used to see Hank and my father walking around and playing music.... It's nice now to have people [remembering]."

Tee-Tot died in a Montgomery charity hospital in 1939, and this week he will get his largest ovation. In Nashville, the anniversary of Williams' Jan. 1 death will be marked Saturday night by a Grand Ole Opry concert featuring Hank Jr. and his son, Shelton Williams, who performs as Hank III, performing together publicly for the first time. Hank Jr. will also perform a song called "Tee-Tot," a bluesy, finger-picked tribute that appeared on his 2002 album "Almeria Club." The plan is for Henderson Payne to stand on stage with a guitar (he does not play) during the performance.

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No one is more responsible for excavating the memory of Tee-Tot than an Alabama librarian named Alice K. Harp, a 5-foot, 53-year-old firecracker with a passion for blues music and Crimson Tide football. Harp's day job is at the Green Pond Library, which is housed in a double-wide trailer parked out near the Bibb County line, but her life's work is interviewing aging blues musicians.

That work led Hank Jr. to approach her seven years ago and ask her to track down the site where Tee-Tot was buried so a marker could be erected. Through government files, Harp pinned down the location as Lincoln Cemetery here, where two plaques were installed last year at the entrance of the graveyard.

Of more compelling value to music history, Harp's interviews of people who knew Tee-Tot offer a very different view of the musician from the descriptions offered by noted writers such as Colin Escott, author of "Hank Williams: The Biography." Escott wrote in that acclaimed 1994 book that Payne "had a humpback and long simian arms that stretched almost to his knees" and that "no one remembers any of the songs he used to play" and that young Hank "probably already knew all the chords Payne knew."

Harp's interviews suggest that Payne was a compact, handsome man, and that only a distant observer watching him tote his guitar could think he was hunched. (Henderson Payne agrees: "I don't know where all that came from. He wasn't bent.") Instead of a penniless, dusty wanderer, Harp says Payne had a more stable life, with frequent paying gigs for Montgomery's white elite at their holiday parties and picnics. His wife was employed as a housekeeper and he dressed as sharply as he could, a nod to his performance education in New Orleans.

"Rufus Payne walked into some of the most elegant homes in Montgomery to play the piano and sing the hit songs of the day," Harp contends. "He made people adore him. He had that gift. He was not some Uncle Remus character, and he was not an afterthought in Hank's life. He was more like a father figure."

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