Joe "Penny" Pennington

by Steve A. Maze Arab, Alabama

The young musician had just walked out of the Grey Hound Bus Station in San Angelo, TX, when a tune on a nearby jukebox caught his ear. "Must be a new one out by Jack Guthrie," the musician thought to himself.

Guthrie had indeed had a hit with "Oklahoma Hills" earlier, but it would be several months before the young man found out the tune he had heard was actually by an up and coming singer from Alabama - a singer who would make the young musician a part of country music history. The song was "Move It On Over" and the singer who was soon to become the greatest country music entertainer of all-time was named Hank Williams.

That was Joe Pennington, born January 15th, the youngest of eight children (five of which died from childhood diseases) born to Gary W. Pennington and Mamie Delaney of Plant City, FL. His mother was a music lover and taught her son to play the major chords on the guitar. Pennington started playing the guitar at the age of 10. He was 16 or 17 when he played in his first band, "Suns of the South," a group Pennington met in Norfolk, VA while visiting his sister. He would play with several bands over the years but even Pennington would not now the effect that some of them would have on his life for years to come.

L. to R.: Red Todd, Hank Williams, Joe Pennington, R.D. Norred and
Audrey Williams

Hank Williams

By 1946 Pennington was performing with a swing band in San Angelo, TX, called "Dub Adams and the K-Bar Ranch Hands". He had been making $50 per week during his six-month stint with the band, and decided to ask for a raise. Adams turned down the $5 per week increase and Pennington headed back to Plant city. After a short visit with his folks, he made his way down to Tampa where his brother lived. He picked up a job with Heavy Hammonds who booked out bands around the Tampa area. One day a former band member of Hammonds' named Clyde Chriswell stopped by the club.

"All the fellows called him Chris, and he was a talkative little guy," Pennington says. "He was telling everybody how great it had been playing up in Montgomery, AL, with a new fellow called Hank Williams. He had spent the last few months playing with Hank's band and had a couple of Hank's records in his satchel. He proceeded to show us how he played the chorus and licks on the songs when I realized that one of the tunes was the one I had heard playing on the jukebox in San Angelo."

Everyone asked Chriswell why he would leave a good job to move back to Tampa. He said that he couldn't get his wife to move to Montgomery, and that he was homesick and wanted to come back to Tampa to try his luck with another band. Then he told Penny that he could probably get him his old job with Hank Williams.

"Chris said that they didn't have a replacement for him when he left. That made by ears perk up. He said that he would be glad to call Hank up and let me talk to him. Little did I know that Chris was really hoping that I would go to work with Hank so he could get his old job back with the band in Tampa.

"The next day Chris called Hank and told him that he had a good guitar man who wanted to come up and play in his band. I got on the phone with Hank and he said, "Chris tells me you play a pretty good guitar.' I responded, "Ain't there no good guitar players up there around Montgomery?' Hank answered, "Well, none I'd want to hire." Later on I found out that he'd hired most all the good ones around there and fired them, too!"

Hank said that he would pay Pennington $7 per show and furnish him a room at his mother's Montgomery boarding house if he would play in the band. Pennington agreed to the offer and told Hank that it would take about a week to get there since he didn't have a car. Pennington checked the local newspapers and found a couple who was driving to Birmingham in a 1940 Frazer. He packed his luggage, guitar, and amplifier inside the car and was dropped off at the boarding house owned by Hank's mother, Lily Stone, in November of 1947.

Shortly after his arrival Pennington met the rest of Hank's Drifting Cowboy Band members: bassist Lum York, rhythm guitarist Red Todd and steel player R.D. Norred. Except for R.D. Norred, who was married and went home to Sylacauga on Sundays, all the band members stayed at the boarding house.

The day he arrived, Pennington and the other band members went down to Montgomery radio station WSFA for Hank's four o'clock show. Penny rehearsed with the band and worked up two or three tunes before the show. Hank and his wife Audrey came in before the show started, and introduced themselves to Pennington.

"That was my first time to meet them in person. They were casually dressed for the radio show and seemed like nice folks. Hank wanted to hear me do a few of his tunes and seemed pleased with what I did. I guess I passed his test because I stayed on."

Hank Williams liked to sing a gospel song on his radio show and he and the band began rehearsing a few of the tunes. Pennington and Red Todd took over the second and third part of the trio when Audrey wasn't there to sing with Hank. They sang tunes like "Where The Soul Never Dies", "I'll Have a New Body", and a few others. Hank usually played fiddle on the gospel tunes.

Hank Williams always had a nickname for each band member, and Pennington was no exception. Due to his small stature, Hank dubbed him "Little Joe Pennington". Later, Pennington would change his stage name to Joe Penny because he thought a shortened version of his name sounded more professional and was easier to remember.

Pennington bunked with Red Todd or Lum York in one of the downstairs rooms of the boarding house that had two double beds, and quickly became accustomed to the band's daily routine. the band members would usually sleep until 11 o'clock before walking around the corner to a small cafe around noon. They would be at WSFA by three or three-thirty to prepare for the show at four o'clock. The band would load their equipment into Hank's car (sometimes he would drive his mother's car) when the radio show was over at four-thirty. They would then hit the road by five or six o'clock to perform at various schoolhouses, dance halls, or honky tonks around Montgomery.

"Hank just seemed like another regular hillbilly boy with a band. At the time, I thought he was middle of the road as far as singers go. I had heard some pretty good singers and some pretty bad ones by then. I didn't know how far he could go with only one hit ("Move It On Over") under his belt.

"Hank was popular locally, but really no big deal. We never left the state of Alabama while I performed with him. As far as I was concerned, it was no different from playing in other bands that i had played for."

L. to R.: Joe Pennington, Lefty Frizzell and two unknown band members

Keep On Hankin'

Hank Williams had cut a few releases for Sterling Records by that time ad was in contact with Nashville recording mogul Fred Rose. Pennington thinks that Hank had also made an appearance on the Prince Albert portion of the Grand Ole Opry a year or so earlier. Hank longed to be a regular performer on the Opry, and knew that the show would be his ticket to stardom. Still, it appeared that he was stuck in a small market with no where to go." "Hank never got discouraged while waiting on a call from the Opry. We just pushed harder. 'One day we'll make it, '" Hank would say. He made acetates at a local recording studio and sent some of them to Fred Rose."

Hank and the Drifting Cowboys continued to perform in juke joints, some of which were known for their rowdiness. Some were called "Bloody Buckets" since the amount of blood spilled by brawling patrons could fill a bucket. Some of the clubs they played in had chicken wire stretched across the bandstand to keep flying beer bottles from hitting band members.

Hank and his band members wore unmatched, western-styled clothing when performing that made them look like a pick up band. Rose suggested to Hank that it would be easier to sell them to the bigger markets like Nashville if they dressed more professionally.

Hank and Audrey approached the band members and told them they were going to get matching western outfits for everyone. The stage clothes, consisting of a shirt, hat and one pair of trousers, were ordered from Miller Stockman out of Denver. Hank and Audrey arranged for some photos to be taken at WSFA with everyone sporting their new attire. The photos, as well as some demo records, were then forwarded to Fred Rose.

"Hank had to pay the $30 cost per outfit up front, but he took each of the band members to Montgomery Loan & Finance Co. to borrow the money to repay him. Hank had to cosign the loans, and we paid them off in $10 per month installments."

One of the few times that Pennington and Hank crossed swords with each other was in 1948. Hank and the band had been booked at the Temple Theater in Birmingham for a two-day performance. Hank and the band were union members with the musician's local based out of Montgomery. Since the job was in Birmingham, Pennington thought that Hank had to file a contract with the Birmingham local that paid more than the $15 per show the band was currently making. Pennington called the Montgomery local and asked what the pay scale was in Birmingham. The pay scale turned out to be the same, however, and Pennington thought nothing more of it. But the secretary at the Montgomery local then called Hank to let him know that a band member was checking up on him.

"Later that afternoon Hank came into the boarding house and looked as if he were ready to bite a nail into. He said, "I want to see all you boys out on the front porch. We walked out to the porch and Hank asked, "Which one of you bright boys called the union to find out how much we were supposed to make at the Birmingham Theater?"

"Well I knew that no one else was going to own up to it, and i said, "Well I guess that's going to be me." Hank asked me what I was trying to make sure that we were going to get what was coming to us. He said, "Listen friend, you're going to get what's coming to you, alright!" Then he turned and walked away. He never said much more after that, but I have a feeling that it took Hank a while to get over someone not trusting him."

Penny's stint with Hank Williams effectively came to an end in 1948 when Hank hosted a Grand Ole Opry package show (several Opry stars performing together) in Montgomery. Hank was well known to Opry folks by that time and was invited to open up and introduce the other the other acts. Hank sent his band members to perform their regular gig at the 31 Club in Montgomery while he hosted the package show. He was to bring some of the Opry stars to the 31 Club after the package show had finished, and let the band back them.

Hank's reputation as a drinker was also well known by that time, but Pennington never saw him take a drink of alcohol while he was with him. Hank never showed up after the show was over and the band members found out later that he had gotten into one of his "drinking spells" while hosting the package show. They didn't see him for several days.

The owner of the 31 Club told the band members that it didn't look like Hank would be doing much performing for a while, and asked them if they wanted to continue playing. Since they had no other shows to do, the band accepted his offer. The band members got together and decided that one of them needed to tell Hank about their plans. They found out that he was in a sanitarium drying out, and Red Todd and Pennington were chosen to break the news to Hank.

"Hank was sitting up in the bed when we arrived. I told him about the job we had been offered and that we wanted to take it. He looked at me kind of suspiciously, and said, "Well, do whatever you want to do." We weren't abandoning him, we just wanted to keep playing."

The band members felt obligated to move out of Lily's boarding house after they left Hank. They moved to another rooming house that happen to sit caddy corner across the street from Miss Lily's.

"One time I was looking out the window and saw Hank sitting I the swing. He was dressed in his usual suit and hat, whiling away the time. That is the last time I remember seeing him before I left Montomgery."

L. to R.: Joe Pennington, Little Jimmy Dickens, Billy Stewart (fiddle),
Autry Inman (bass), and Thumbs Carlisle (lead guitar).

Life After Hank

Shortly after, an acquaintance of Pennington's by the name of Jimmy Key came into the 31 Club. Key told Pennington that he was heading up a campaign band for Alabama Governor Big Jim Folsom, who was then running for a senate position. the money was more than what Pennington was making at the time and he decided to take him up on his offer. The new band toured all sixty-seven counties in Alabama before their stint came to an abrupt halt when the campaign ended. After playing with a variety of other bands. After playing with a variety of other bands, Pennington decided to join the Navy in 1949. After "boot" training in San Diego, and a brief stay in a service squadron, word got out that Pennington played a mean guitar. The chief bandmaster at North Island Naval Air Station send for him to join their dance band, but he was also required to play a second musical instrument. It turned out that the second instrument was the cymbals.

In the meantime, Hank Williams star had risen considerably. Pennington had heard that Hank and Cowboy Copas were going to be performing at the performance and made his way back stage. "Hank came out and asked me what I was doing there. I told him that I was in the Navy and thought I'd come by to see him. He didn't show any bitterness about our parting a year earlier. Hank pulled me inside and said that he wanted to show me a really good guitar player. We went over to the wings of the stage where Copas was performing with his band, and Hank pointed to "Sugar Foot" Garland (who wrote "Sugar Foot Rag"). Garland could wear out the guitar and was one of the top session men in Nashville. I said, "Yep! That's a good guitar man, alright!" We exchanged a few other words before it was time for Hank and his band to go on. All of his new band members were top musicians, and dressed a little fancier than when I had played with him. Hank got a great reception from the audience. That was just one of the few times that our paths crossed again. He was a lot more famous by then, and I was a lot less."

Pennington left the Navy after one year and was playing with Al Rodgers in Amarillo, TX, the next time he got to see his former employer. When Pennington saw that Hank was performing at the local high school auditorium, he decided to go by and see him. He never got to speak with Hank, but watched as he did what Pennington had helped him to do so many times before. Only this time Pennington watched through the glass door entrance.

Shortly after his discharge from the Navy in early 1950, Pennington stopped off in Big Springs, TX. It was there that he met an unknown singer named Lefty Frizzell who was looking for a lead guitar player for his band. Pennington joined Frizzell's band and played a series of one-nighters around Texas and New Mexico. A promoter named Jim Beck heard Frizzell and told him that he could get him a record deal if he would bring the band to Dallas. Pennington had heard that story one too many times in the past, and did not make the trip to Dallas. Shortly after, the band returned to Big Springs. They were broke, but excited. They had copies of their demo records they had cut and Penny told Frizzell that was probably all they would ever get out of the deal. Frizzell, however, would not give up on his dream. He continued to sing tunes from his demos every time the band performed. Two of them were "If You've Got The Money" and "I Love You a Thousand Ways".

"All the time I was thinking who in the world would want to put this whinny kid of record? I thought his voice was too unsteady - it kept going up and down. Funny thing though, a lot of people did like his singing, no matter what i thought. I thought that Lefty would never get anywhere in the music business. Seems like I remember thinking the same thing about Hank Williams!"

Pennington left Frizzell after a month and played with several more bands over the next few years, including a six-week stint with Little Jimmy Dickens. He was playing with a trio in Chicago, on January 1, 1953, when someone strolled in with news that Hank Williams had died.

"I was surprised when I heard that Hank had passed away. He had so much to live for and was so young. Hank took fame right in stride after he made it. It didn't seem to change him. He didn't care that he was a big star. He enjoyed singing more than he enjoyed singing ore than he enjoyed the fame and the money. I didn't really realize how big of an impact he had on country music until years later."

Pennington began working on radio in 1954 by doing a Sunday Jamboree Show on WILD in Birmingham. He eventually started working as a disc jockey, and worked at a variety of radio stations (mostly country music stations) over the next twenty or twenty-five years. He continued to write music and released a gospel tape "Growing Old Without God" that made it made it to number 69 on the Gospel Music Billboard Chart in 1992.

Life Today'

Pennington is now retired and lives with his wife, Frankie, of 44 years in Plant City, Fla. He still provides songs and music for a number of churches, an occasional nursing home, and even stage concerts.

Pennington was inducted as a member of the Rockabilly HOF in Burns, TN, during 2001 due to some of his rockabilly records that were cut in 1958. Over forty years later, those cuts are being released for the third time in London and Europe.

"Even though it was for brief periods of time, I am very grateful that I got to play with some of the greatest artists in country music history. I enjoyed the ride. I happened to be at the right place at the right time and I got to do something that I enjoyed doing-playing music."

Posted August 2002

Rockabilly Hall of Fame