Hank Penny & His California Cowhands

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Exponent of western swing music who rarely receives the attention accorded to artists such as Bob Wills and Spade Cooley.
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b. Herbert Clayton Penny, 18 August 1918, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, d. 17 April 1992, California, USA. Penny’s father, who became a hypnotist, learned to play the guitar and wrote poetry after being disabled in a mine accident, gave him his first guitar tuition and his interest in entertaining. At the age of 15, he joined the act of Hal Burns on WAPI, playing banjo and learning comedy routines. In 1936, he moved to New Orleans where he worked with Lew Childre on WWL. He disliked the Grand Ole Opry’s hillbilly music and became somewhat obsessed by what he termed Texas fiddle music, being the western swing music of Bob Wills and Milton Brown. Penny returned to Birmingham, formed his band the Radio Cowboys and began to present his swing music, first on WAPI and WKBC Birmingham and then at WDOD Chattanooga. He made his first recordings for ARC (with Art Satherley) in 1938, recording such up-tempo swing-jazz country tunes as ‘Hesitation Blues’.

In 1939, Penny moved to WSB Atlanta and joined the Crossroads Follies. Here, Boudleaux Bryant and steel guitarist Noel Boggs joined the band. In July 1939, he recorded ‘Won’t You Ride In My Little Red Wagon’, which became his signature tune. The group disbanded in 1940 and for a time Penny worked solo on WSB but recorded with a ‘pickup’ band in 1941. In 1942, he moved to WLW Cincinnati, appeared regularly on theBoone County Jamboree andMid-Western Hayride and worked with Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones. He toured with various shows and also fronted a group called the Plantation Boys, with whom he recorded for King Records in 1944. Penny moved to Hollywood in 1945, re-formed his band and played the ballroom circuits of California. Later that year, he took over the band of Deuce Spriggins, played a residency at the famedRiverside Rancho and had his own show on KXLA and KGIL. He made further recordings for King and also appeared in four Charles Starrett B-movie Westerns. Penny registered his first US country chart hits in 1946 with ‘Steel Guitar Stomp’ and ‘Get Yourself A Redhead’ (both reaching number 4). In 1947, apart from his band work, he played on ABC’s network ’Roundup Time as a comedian. He had a further number 4 country hit in 1950 with ‘Bloodshot Eyes’, which also was a hit for R&B artist Wynonie Harris. Penny also joined his friend Spade Cooley’s network television show as a comedian, but still maintained a rigorous schedule of playing dancehalls with his band, now known as the Penny Serenaders. He recorded for RCA - Victor Records in 1950, using an enlarged band that recorded as Hank Penny And His California Cowhands. In 1951, he left Cooley and became the comedian with the Dude Martin stage and television show and he was also one of the founders of the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. He married country singer Sue Thompson in 1953, for a time hosted his own show on KHJ-TV and also moved from RCA to Decca Records.

In the late 50s, the effects of rock music saw him move to Las Vegas and begin to include pop music in his repertoire. He divorced in 1963 but married his vocalist Shari Bayne in 1966. (During the 70s, his ex-wife, Thompson, had chart successes with solo hits as well as duet hits with Don Gibson for Hickory Records.) Penny quit Las Vegas in 1968 and after a spell back in California, he moved to Nashville in 1970. Disliking the city and its music, he worked as a disc jockey on KFRM Wichita, and with his wife, he played the local club circuit. In 1976, he returned to California, where he remained active, played in a few films and organized reunion concerts of some of the television and western swing music celebrities of the 50s, including Cliffie Stone. He died of a heart attack in 1992.

Penny ranks as one of the most important exponents of western swing music, although he rarely receives the publicity given to artists such as Wills, Brown and Cooley. There are several country musicians who benefited from their experience as a member of Hank Penny’s band, including Herb Remington, Curly Chalker and Roy Clark.