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A Classic Walk on The Wild Side

by Clay Coppedge
One of the biggest selling country music songs of all time, "The Wild Side of Life," has a Milam County connection. It also has a Carter Family connection, a Hank Thompson connection and led directly to the first million selling song recorded by a female artist.

William Warren of Cameron was the lyricist for "The Wild Side of Life," which Hank Thompson recorded in 1952. The lyrics most often quoted and remembered are: "I didn't know God made honky tonk angels I might have known you'd never make a wife You gave up the only one that ever loved you And went back to the wild side of life."
The song was a monster hit for Thompson, topping the country charts for more than three months. "The Wild Side of Life" became Thompson's signature song. The song has been covered by artists as diverse as Bill Haley and His Comets, Burl Ives, Ernest Tubb, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Moe Bandy, Willie Nelson (with Leon Russell,) Bonnie Tyler and others. By any measure, it's a true country classic.
A Proper Introduction to Hank Thompson: The Wild Side of Life
To say that might be slighting the song somewhat. As the list above suggests, the song transends genre. Jerry Warren, son of the songwriter, says one of his favorite versions of the song is by Rod Stewart.

"My mother still gets royalities," he said of the song. "They'll go down for a while, then pick back up when somebody puts it on a record."

The song's roots go back to when William Warren was a boy in Cameron and A.P Carter of the Carter Family was collecting old traditional folk songs for the Carter Family to record.

One of those songs was "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," which was a hit for the Carter Family in 1929.

Eight years later Roy Acuff heard the same tune but with different lyrics from a band called The Black Shirts. Acuff recorded the song as "The Great Speckled Bird," a song inspired by the 12th chapter and 9th verse of the Book of Jeremiah.

"The Great Speckled Bird" became Acuff's biggest hit and most requested song at "The Grand Old Opry." William Warren's big step into country music history came when his eight-month old marriage was crumbling and his wife left him. He spotted his wife in a Texas honky-tonk, which inspired him to go home and write "The Wild Side of Life" to the tune of the "Great Speckled Bird."

Jimmy Heap of Taylor and his band the Melody Masters first recorded the song on the Imperial label. The band's piano player, Arlie Carter, is credited as the song's co-writer.

Heap said in a 1971 interview with Ray Campi that the Melody Masters' version sold about 10,000 copies before Hank Thompson picked it up as the "B" side of his single "Crying In The Deep Blue Sea."

The "A" side of the record didn't get much response but when disc jockeys began playing the "B" side, the response was immediate and dramatic. "The Wild Side of Life" stayed at number one on the Billboard charts for an astounding 15 weeks.
Songwriter J.D. Miller heard the song on his car radio and immediately wrote lyrics for a female response to the song. He submitted his lyrics to Decca Records, which contacted Kitty Wells about recording it. Ms. Wells, semi-retired at the time, was not all that interested in the song, but her husband convinced her to record it anyway since she would be paid a session fee for stepping into the studio.

Her song "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," also became a number one hit in 1952, and stayed there for six weeks.
It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
So there you have it: One melody, four separate lyrics, four different titles recorded by four different members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Jerry Warren, who still has his father's old guitar, said William Warren wrote other songs, but nothing to rival the popularity of "Wild Side of Life." He recorded some of his songs on small labels and played with local bands like Jerry Hisler and the Melody Masters.

Music historians and critics might label William Warren as a one-hit wonder, but it was a hit on the magnitude that few songs ever achieve. Any song that can be recorded by Roy Acuff and Rod Stewart without losing any of its universal melancholy intent, is not only a classic, but a timeless one at that.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
September 21, 2006 column

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