"Tee-Tot" Payne

Rufus Payne was born in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1884.  By 1890 his father, a mule-driver, had moved the family to New Orleans.  Rufus was drawn to music, and eventually learned to play jazz and the blues.  He also learned to drink, and was given his nickname "Tee-Tot" as a sarcastic shortening of the term "teetotaler".  By 1915 he was back home in Alabama, and Tee-Tot was developing a musical following.  He would play wherever he could find a job, from Montgomery down to Greenville, and sometimes even further south.  In 1932 Tee-Tot was playing down in Georgiana when he met a 9-year-old boy named Hiram.  Hiram would sell peanuts and shine shoes for all of the workers as they passed through the railroad station.  He already had a guitar, but he couldn't play like Tee-Tot, so he convinced Tee-Tot to teach him.  

Like many Americans during the middle of the Great Depression, Hiram and his mom were always moving, but they stayed in the region so Hiram could play with Tee-Tot.  They left Georgiana for Greenville, then spent a year in Garland before moving back to Georgiana.  In 1937 Hiram and his mom moved to Montgomery, and he started singing in front of the WSFA studios downtown.  That fall he won a talent show at the Empire Theater, and a producer at WSFA invited Hiram to starting singing on the radio.  Hiram decided that Hank was a better name for a country music singer, so Hank Williams was born.  Tee-Tot moved to Montgomery and continued to play with his pupil.  Hank started a backup band, the Drifting Cowboys, and dropped out of school in 1938 to start touring full time.  Tee-Tot died the next year and was buried in an unmarked grave in Lincoln Cemetery.  There are no surviving photographs of Tee-Tot Payne, and he was never recorded playing music, but he left a lasting mark on county music through his star pupil, Hank Williams.

The next few photos show the Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne historical marker, the reverse side with general information on Lincoln Cemetery, the large stone memorial to Tee-Tot erected by Hank Williams Jr., and the front gate of the cemetery.

Rufus "Tee-Tot" Payne historical maker, Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama

Rufus Payne, 1884-1939
’Tee-Tot’, mentor of Hank Williams

Born in Lowndes County, Alabama, Rufus Payne grew up in New Orleans in the midst of jazz musicians. Young Payne learned every instrument possible. At death of his parents, he came back to Greenville where he soon had a following of both races, playing jazz and blues for all segments of society. In nearby Georgiana he met young Hank Williams, an eager student of the rhythm and beat of Tee-Tot’s music. In 1937, Williams moved to Montgomery and soon thereafter Tee-Tot came to the city where he lived until his death in 1939, a friend of Williams’ family and mentor to the singer-composer. Hank Williams stated that Payne was his only teacher. Tee-Tot died a pauper and lies here in an unmarked grave.
— Alabama Historical Association - 2001

Lincoln Cemetery historical marker, Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama

Lincoln Cemetery
1907

In 1907 the American Securities Company opened Lincoln Cemetery for African Americans and Greenwood Cemetery for whites, the first commercial cemeteries in the city. Landscape design indicates Olmstead influences with curving drives and two circular sections. Space allotted for 700 graves with first interment in 1908. Most graves are simple concrete slabs with evidences of African-American funerary art and late-Victorian motifs. Marble markers denote members of Mosaic Templars of America, black benevolent society, or graves of veterans. American Securities owned site until tax-exemption ended in 1957. Vandalism and neglect have seriously damaged graves and landscape.
— Alabama Historical Association - 2001

"Tee Tot" Rufus Payne memorial, Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama

Tee-Tot

Hank met Tee-Tot around 1933 on the street in Georgiana, Alabama. Tee-Tot helped Hank with guitar chords, rhythm, and was very instrumental in Hank’s learning sing and play the “blues”.

Hank’s mother fed Tee-Tot in exchange for Hank’s guitar lessons. They moved to Greenville, Tee-Tot’s hometown, in the summer of 1934. They continued to work together until the Williams’ moved to Montgomery in July 1937.

Tee-Tot died at a charity hospital in Montgomery March 17, 1939 at about age 55. His death certificate showed a Montgomery address.

Front of Lincoln Cemetery, Montgomery, Montgomery County, Alabama

Some of the people behind the musical Hank Williams: Lost Highway developed a playlist of the kinds of music young Hiram would have likely learned from Tee-Tot, which you can listen to here.  Hank Williams Jr. wrote a song called Tee-Tot, and you can watch him perform that song live here.