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
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.
HANK WILLIAMS AND THE DRIFTING COWBOYS
L. to R.: Red Todd, Hank Williams, Joe Pennington, R.D. Norred and
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."
1951 PHOTO OF LEFTY FRIZZELL BAND IN BIG SPRINGS, TEXAS
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
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
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
"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."
LITTLE JIMMY DICKENS OPRY TOUR TOUR - 1952
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
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.
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
Posted August 2002
© Rockabilly Hall of Fame ®