Vaudeville pianist and Tin Pan Alley songwriter Cliff Friend wrote the melody to this tune in 1922 and the words were added by Irving Mills. The song was premiered in a musical about lonesome pilots, Oh, Ernest and first recorded by Elsie Clark. "I was a fighter pilot in the First World War at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio. I was impressed by the lovesick boys who left their young wives and sweethearts for the service, blue," Friend later recalled. "I had been writing songs since I was 12. So I wrote 'Lovesick Blues.'"
In 1928 blackface minstrel Emmett Miller made the first recording of this song to feature a yodel. A decade later, country music singer Rex Griffin laid down another well-known version.
Inspired by Miller and Griffin's versions, Hank Williams performed the tune during his first appearances on the Louisiana Hayride in 1948. Receiving an enthusiastic reception from the audience, Williams decided to record his own interpretation.
The young singer could only record songs published by Acuff-Rose, so Williams told Fred Rose that he had purchased the rights to "Lovesick Blues" from his drinking companion Rex Griffin. However they weren't his to sell and Acuff-Rose had to deal with a very cross co-writer Cliff Friend who did own the rights. "Fred Rose published it, but I had the copyright," Friend recalled. "When Williams' record hit the market, I flew to Nashville and took all the money, since I was also the publisher."
Billboard magazine reviewed Williams' version at the time as follows: "Hank's razz-mah-tazz approach and ear-catching yodelling should keep this side spinning."
Williams had earned four Top 20 hits by the time the song was released, but this became his first chart-topping hit reigning for sixteen weeks. Billboard named it the top "Retail Folk Record" of the year, and Cashbox named it "Best Hillbilly Record of the Year."
The song's success earned Williams invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry. The singer performed the tune for his Opry debut on June 11, 1949. He created a sensation playing six encores to thunderous applause.
A friend of Australian pop singer Frank Ifield, Ronnie Carroll, suggested he record this as the follow up to his international hit "I Remember You." Ifield's version topped the UK singles chart in 1962 and also peaked at #44 in the US.
Frank Ifield recalled: "(Producer) Norrie Paramor said, quite correctly, 'Let's not go the American way of a carbon copy follow-up, let's go for something different.' Hank Williams had been a tremendous influence on me in my youth and I liked the idea of doing 'Lovesick Blues' but with a twist beat as the twist was the current rage."