History Book: Shave and a Haircut

September 9, 2013 in Fall 2013 Issue, Featured by Lookout Alabama

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Hank Williams’ final trip included stop at Fort Payne, Ala., barber shop just hours before he died

by RANDY GRIDER

Tucked in the front corner of Beason’s Barber Shop in Fort Payne, Ala., is a vintage barber chair. Not an unusual piece of décor for such an establishment until you step close enough to read the typed words on an 8 ½-by-11 piece of paper resting against the back of chair:

Hank Williams
Last haircut and shave in this chair
given by Howard Simpson
Dec. 31, 1952

Could it be that a historical artifact with direct ties to one of country music’s biggest stars and his ill-fated last ride has stood here for about a decade with so little fanfare? Locals, and especially barber shop owner Alton Benson, swear it has.

Oh, there is the occasional road-tripping individual following Williams’ death ride from Montgomery, Ala., to Oak Hill, W.VA. (where the 29-year-old star was pronounced dead in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1953) who stops to see the chair. and a few years ago, a couple of writers from Road & Track accidentally stumbled upon the chair while trekking the Williams’ trail when their car broke down near Fort Payne. The barber chair was mentioned in their published story.

But for the most part, the chair is part of local lore. Still, there is some pretty good circumstantial evidence that the Hank chair is the real thing if you follow what is known of Hank’s stop in Fort Payne and how the barber chair found its current home. First, the back story. Hank Williams and a teenage chauffeur named Charles Carr set out on Dec. 30, 1952, from Montgomery in a baby-blue, 1952 convertible Cadillac en route to two shows headlining one of Alabama’s favorite sons. The first show was scheduled for New Year’s Eve in Charleston, W. Va., to be followed by a performance in Canton, Ohio, the next day.

After spending the night of Dec. 30 in Birmingham, Carr and Williams headed north on U.S. Highway 11. according to several interviews starting about 2000 (for years, Carr rarely spoke publicly about Hank’s death) the two stopped in Fort Payne for a shave and a haircut. Carr reported the barbershop was a three-chair shop along the main route through town. Beason says the barber shop where Williams and Carr stopped was Carter’s Barber Shop, owned and operated by the late Pete Carter.

The “front chair” (as barber chairs were in a line) was manned by Howard Simpson. Although Simpson wasn’t one to brag, according to his twin sons, he politely discussed cutting Williams’ hair whenever someone broached the subject of Simpson’s brush with fame. “Sometimes we’d hear people talking about it in the shop,” says Gary Simpson. “Daddy said that Hank was really nice – calm and collected. Mainly he was real nice. He got his hair cut and then left.”

Simpson’s humble nature didn’t lend itself to exaggeration, and his description of the episode never changed, added Gary Simpson. Probably the closest the elder Simpson came to making anything resembling a “big deal” out of his accidental fame was joking that if he had saved the hair clippings that day, “he’d probably be a millionaire now,” says Larry Simpson.

Beason’s first job as a rookie barber was using the very same two-handle Reliance barber chair at the shop where Hank reportedly stopped a decade earlier. Over the years, as Benson and Simpson each operated their own barber shops (the latter had taken possession of the famous barber chair when he bought Carter’s Barber Shop), they continued as friends and cut each others’ hair. When Simpson moved his barber shop to north Fort Payne, he took the barber chair to his home, where he also cut hair.

“I told him [Simpson] that I would love to have that chair because it was my first chair to work on,” Benson says. “So when he died (in 2002), his wife called me and told me that he had written down that I got the chair. so I bought it from her.”

So what does the future hold for the famous chair? Benson, 71, is semi-retired, coming into his barber shop on Fridays to cut the hair of many longtime regulars. “I don’t know,” he says. “I would like to see if someone with the Williams family might be interested in it. But I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”

Hank’s daughter Jett Williams and researcher verify visit

Hank Williams’ daughter Jett Williams has little doubt her dad visited Fort Payne, Ala., on the last day of 1952.

Jett and her late husband Keith Atkinson – the attorney who proved she was the daughter of the legendary singer – spent a great deal of time and energy in the past couple of years investigating the Hank Williams’ final days and the circumstances of his death.

Lookout Alabama spoke with Jett by telephone just before this issue went to press. She said that according to the research she and Atkinson (who died this past June) collected, Hank Williams and driver Charles Carr stopped at 111 Gault Ave. at Carter’s Barber Shop, where he got a haircut from Howard Simpson and had his boots shined by Abe Coleman.

“Of the entire last trip of my dad, there seems to be no doubt about him stopping in Fort Payne,” Jett said. “I feel very confident to say that is 100-percent accurate.”

We also got in touch with police investigator Brian Turpen of Bedford, Ind., who has spent several years researching Hank Williams and has written two books about the legendary singer.

Turpen said that according to his interviews with Carr several years ago as well as with others from the area, Williams and Carr arrived in Fort Payne at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Dec. 31. The pair had a light breakfast (mostly coffee) at a diner near Carter’s Barber Shop. (Property records indicate the diner was probably the American Café at 209 Gault Ave.)

Carr said Hank wanted to get a shave and he walked to the barbershop about a block away while Carr moved the car to the front of the shop. After getting a shave and a trim from Howard Simpson, he had his boots shined by Abe Coleman.

Several persistent accounts of Williams’ stop in Fort Payne include Carr and a local taxi driver making a trip up Lookout Mountain, where they bought a bottle of liquor for Williams from a well-known bootlegger. (Fort Payne was in a dry county.) Carr told Turpen he got a pint of bonded whiskey at a nearby taxi stand – most likely Robertson and Lankford Cab Company at 315 Gault Ave. Whether someone else left the taxi company and retrieved the liquor from a bootlegger or it was already there is not clear, but Turpen said Carr insisted he didn’t leave Hank to go with anyone to get it.

Turpen said Hank and Carr were in Fort Payne for approximately one hour before heading north on Highway 11, where they had an early lunch. It was there, Carr said, that Williams gifted a server with a $50 tip.

“Charles Carr was always adamant they stopped in Fort Payne,” Turpen said. “From my years of research, I believe the stopover in Fort Payne is definitely true.”

Editor’s note While there is still controversy concerning exactly when and where Hank Williams passed away (sometime between 10:45 p.m. on the day he stopped in Fort Payne and 7 a.m. the next day and somewhere between Knoxville, Tenn., and Oak Hill, W. Va., in the backseat of his Cadillac), he was officially pronounced dead from a heart attack at age 29 on New Year’s day, 1953 – less than 24 hours after he visited Fort Payne. We attempted to interview driver Charles Carr for this story before he passed away on July 1 after a brief illness.[/s2If]