An email from Robert ‘Hank’ Ackerman (email@example.com) informs us of the death of Big Bill Lister who’s story and photograph are familiar to all Hank fans. His photo has been featured in biographies and record liner notes. Here’s an obituary by Tracy Pitcox President of Heart of Country Records:
Country Music Association of Texas Hall of Famer Big Bill Lister passed away Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 10:35 pm in San Antonio, TX. He was 86.
“During October, Big Bill entertained 310 people on a seven day cruise out of Galveston, Texas, for Country Cruisin’ 2009,” “He received a standing ovation every night. He became ill after the cruise and remained in ICU for thirty days with a severe lung infection. He was just too weak to overcome the illness.”
Lister was born on January 5, 1923, in Kenedy, Texas. Lister grew up listening to his idol Jimmie Rodgers. He made his radio debut over KNEL in Brady, Texas, in 1938, playing a Sears Roebuck $3.98 guitar.
Lister made some transcriptions for XEG, in Mexico, before moving to WOAI and then KMAC in San Antonio. After World War II, Lister moved to KTSA and hired Tommy Hill to accompany him on guitar. With Tommy and Kenny Hill, Lister formed Bill Lister and the Texas Hillbillies. Lister was hosting two shows each day on the powerful 50,000 watt station and sponsored by Luck Optical. At 6 foot 7 1/2 inches, Lister was tagged with “Radio’s Tallest Singing Cowboy” during this time.
Lister made his first recording for the Everstate Label based in San Antonio. His release of “This Time Sweetheart” and “Local Yokel” became regional hits in Texas.
Lister moved to Nashville in January of 1951. “I got acquainted with Tex Ritter-I opened a number of shows for down through South Texas,” Lister recalled. “And Tex suggested that if I really wanted to do anything, that I needed to either go to the West Coast or Nashville.”
Ritter told Capitol A & R leader Dee Kilpatrick to sign Lister to a recording contract. With a contract in his hand, Lister went to the Grand Ole Opry and approached Jim Denny about appearing on the historic show. Denny teamed Lister with Hank Williams as a front man. He joined the Drifting Cowboys organization in February of 1951.
“Hank and I became real good friends,” Lister said. We had an awful lot in common being born the same year and listening to the same people growing up. When I originally went out there, I wasn’t supposed to stay on the stage when Hank came out. But before the first week was over, Hank asked me if I’d mind playing second rhythm with him because he and I played almost identical rhythm.”
Lister made his first recordings for Capitol Records on March 13, 1961, at the Castle Studios at the Tulane Hotel in Nashville. Grady Martin, Ernie Newton and a young Chet Atkins back Lister on “Beer Drinkin’ Blues” and “RC Cola And A Moon Pie.”
During his time with Williams, Lister was a part of the Hadacol Caravan touring 18 states with Bob Hope, Milton Berle and Minnie Pearl. He was also featured on the Mother’s Best Radio shows from Nashville.
While preparing for another recording session, Lister told Williams that he needed a good “beer drinking song.” Williams said “Don’t worry about it big un, I got you covered. I got one that’s hotter’n a pistol”. The following morning Williams dropped by Lister’s house with an acetate of “There’s A Tear In My Beer.”
Lister recorded the song and then tossed the acetate into a trunk to be forgotten for the next thirty five years. Lister later gave the acetate to Hank Williams Jr. and it become a million selling duet between father and son.
In 1952, Williams and his wife Audrey divorced and he disbanded the Drifting Cowboys band. Lister remained in Nashville until July of 1952. He then joined the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, hosted an Sunday afternoon show on KRLD and worked Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club each Sunday night. He would then drive back to San Antonio during the week before returning to Dallas each weekend throughout 1953 and 1954.
“Elvis was coming on might strong and hillbillies wasn’t doing too good anywhere, so I just kind of drifted out of the business,” Lister recalled. He took up gun engraving and became one of the most sought after engraves man in the Texas industry. He continued to play opry shows, school houses and the occasional concert with some of his friends, but did not record again until the 1980’s. His “Sho Nuff Country Stuff” album was released on the Salt Lick label based in Ft. Worth.
The rediscovery of “There’s A Tear In My Beer” and its subsequent recording by Hank Williams and Hank Jr. brought a substantial amount of publicity for Lister. He appeared on radio stations throughout the country and even was given a gold record on Nashville Now with Ralph Emery.
Lister made his final recording for Heart of Texas Records in 1999, with “Big Bill Lister Remembering Hank Williams Through Story and Song.” It was a live project that mixed Lister’s memories of his years with Williams. It also featured him performing some of Williams’ hits and songs that Williams wrote for Lister.
Williams’ daughter Jett performed for Lister’s 86th birthday celebration in Llano, Texas, earlier this year.
In the book “Legendary Conversations With A Texas Disk Jockey”, Lister said he wanted “to be remembered as someone who stood tall for Traditional Country Music.”