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|Birth name||Herbert Clayton Penny|
September 18, 1918|
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
April 17, 1992 (aged 73)|
|Genres||Western swing, country|
Herbert Clayton Penny (September 18, 1918 – April 17, 1992) was an accomplished banjo player and practitioner of Western swing. He worked as a comedian best known for his backwoods character "That Plain Ol' Country Boy" on TV with Spade Cooley. He was married to country singer Sue Thompson from 1953–63.
In the 1930s, Penny was the leader of the Radio Cowboys with guitarist Julian Akins, steel guitarist Sammy Forsmark, tenor banjoist Louis Damont, bassist Carl Stewart, and vocalist, guitarist, and fiddler Sheldon Bennett. At WLW Radio in Cincinnati during World War II, he formed the Plantation Boys, which included fiddler Carl Stewart, guitarist/bassist Louis Innis, fiddler Zed Tennis, and lead guitarist Roy Lanham. In 1944 Penny left Cincinnati for Los Angeles where he formed larger Western swing bands that played local clubs and ballrooms such as the Venice Pier in Santa Monica. Among the musicians who worked with him in his early years in California were former Texas Playboys Noel Boggs on steel guitar and guitarist Jimmy Wyble. He took over a band formerly led by ex-Spade Cooley bassist Deuce Spriggens. Penny modeled his band and repertoire of Western Swing music on Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
Penny had three hits on the Billboard Country Singles chart: "Steel Guitar Stomp" (1946), an instrumental with Noel Boggs and Merle Travis, the slightly risque "Get Yourself a Red Head" (1946), and his own composition "Bloodshot Eyes" (1950).
Penny's "Bloodshot Eyes," a country novelty number, was in 1951 by rhythm and blues singer Wynonie Harris, who recorded for King Records, Penny's label at the time. Harris recorded the song because the publishing was owned by King, whose owner Syd Nathan encouraged other artists to record songs he published. Harris's version of "Bloodshot Eyes" remained on the American R&B charts for three months. It was also popular in the Caribbean, where Wynonie Harris had a large following. Along with other Wynonie Harris records, it was being played in Jamaican dance halls as early as 1951. In 1958 Jamaican mento group Denzil Laing and the Wrigglers recorded a version of for their Arawak Hotel album with jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin. Sydney Bean recorded it, releasing it around 1955. In 1971, the song was a Top 40 regional hit in Detroit when it was recorded by the band Lucifer for Invictus Records.
A lifelong fan of jazz, Penny recorded "Hillbilly Be-Bop" for King Records in 1949. It was one of the first western swing numbers to incorporate bebop. His bands included jazz sidemen such as guitarists Jimmy Wyble and Benny Garcia. For a time in 1950 singer Jaye P. Morgan was part of his band The Penny Serenaders.
Along with Amand Gautier, Penny co-founded the Palomino Club in Hollywood in 1949. The club was open seven days a week. On Monday nights after closing time, it was "open stage" to jazz musicians
Penny was known for his unwillingness to compromise and occasionally combative attitude. He walked out on a 1945 engagement at Venice Pier when dance promoter Bert "Foreman" Phillips insisted Penny direct his musicians to quit playing improvisational jazz solos and stick to melodic instrumental passages in the style of conventional country singers like Ernest Tubb. When Phillips demanded Penny fire Wyble, Boggs and fiddler Harold Hensley for continuing to improvise, Penny dissolved the band. He was also known to stand up to promoters and to King Records president Syd Nathan, notorious for bullying and exploiting his artists.
Penny's recordings for King included some of the finest musicians in western music, such as guitarists Wyble, Roy Lanham and Benny Garcia, fiddlers Harold Hensley, Max Fidler and Billy Hill, and guitarists Noel Boggs, Joaquin Murphey, Speedy West, and Wayne Burdick. Many of Penny's sidemen also worked with Spade Cooley. For several years, starting in 1948, Penny was a member of the cast of Cooley's Saturday night TV show over KTLA in his guise as a country comedian, and seldom performed music.
In 1952, Penny began hosting his own local Los Angeles TV series, The Hank Penny Show, which was canceled after seven weeks.
By 1954, Penny moved to Las Vegas, where he began a seven-year run as a performer at the Golden Nugget casino, fronting a band that included steel guitar virtuoso Curly Chalker and at the same time, Roy Clark, whose own comedy delivery was influenced considerably by Penny's onstage comic timing. Penny's band backed Clark on his first album for Capitol Records.
Penny was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He died in 1992 of heart failure. He was the father of actress Sydney Penny and producer Greg Penny. Country music historian Rich Kienzle began researching and writing about Penny's career in the late 1970s and devoted a chapter to him in his 2003 book Southwest Shuffle.