“When I sing,” Lefty Frizzell told Country Music, “every word has a feeling about it. I have to linger, have to hold it. I don’t want to let go of it. I want to hold one word through a whole line of melody, to linger with it all the way down. I don’t want to let go of that no more than I want to let go of the woman I love.” And indeed, Frizzell never let go of his unique style. More than just a hit-maker, he was an innovator and much-imitated pillar of country music. Country greats Willie Nelson and George Jones, among many others, have recorded his songs (Nelson released an entire album of Frizzell compositions). According to Charles Wolfe in his liner notes to The Best of Lefty Frizzell, honky-tonk favorite Merle Haggard called Frizzell’s voice “the most unique thing that ever happened to country music, and Randy Travis and Keith Whitley learned to sing by copying his records note for note.” Haggard told Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn, “To my mind he had a greater voice that Elvis. .. . He delivered every line in a song like [actor] Henry Fonda . . . absolutely believable. . . . Every breath was authentic.”
On the release of the Bear Family record company’s definitive Frizzell compilation, Hilburn noted, “Lefty Frizzell only had 17 Top 10 singles during his lifetime” and asked, “So why has a German record company, ... put together a 12-disc box set of his work?” Placing Frizzell’s stature in context, Hilburn answered himself thus: “Frizzell was arguably the greatest male singer in post-World War II country music—yes, even more influential than Hank Williams, his main honky-tonk rival in the early 1950s.” Revered Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard, who has expressed amazement—as have many in the music industry—at Frizzell’s lack of recognition, also invoked Hank Williams in his comments to Hilburn about Frizzell: “He was a wonderful guy, someone who was just about as loose and free as any rock star you ever saw—on stage and off. He was really flamboyant, a good-looking guy with curly hair, always chasing after women and drinking a lot, like Hank.”
Born William Orville Frizzell on March 31, 1928, in Corsicana, Texas, Frizzell lived in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas as a youngster. To the family, he was “Sonny,” but by the time he was 14 everyone else called him Lefty. Popular legend has it that he won the name as a “Golden Gloves” champ, but it was actually the result of a schoolyard brawl in El Dorado, Arkansas.
From an early age, Frizzell wanted to be a singer, and despite the dominance at that time of Western swing,
For the Record…
Born William Orville Frizzell, March 31, 1928, in Corsicana, TX; died of a stroke, July 19, 1975, in Nashville, TN; son of a transient oil well driller; married wife Alice, c. 1946.
Performed on radio, in talent shows, and at dances as a child; made radio appearances and performed throughout Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas, 1940-1950; appeared at the Ace of Clubs in Big Springs, TX, 1950; made first record, for Columbia, 1950; performed on Town Hall Party radio show, 1952-1961.
Awards: Inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, 1982.
the vocalist he most emulated was the “Singing Brake-man,” father of country music Jimmie Rodgers. “We had an old victrola that my Dad had traded for a milk cow when I was about six,” Frizzell recalled in Country Music, “and I remember some old thick records of Jimmie Rodgers. It was an inspiration.”
By the time he was 12, Frizzell was singing on the radio, in talent shows, and at dances. Too young for World War II, he played the honky-tonk circuit in Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas, honing a style influenced by Ernest Tubb, Ted Daffan, and Rodgers. He married his wife Alice in the late 1940s, and in 1950 he began a long-term engagement at the Ace of Clubs in Big Spring, Texas. Before this, though, according to Hilburn, he had spent six months in county jail for barroom fisticuffs, a setback that resulted in the termination of his previous job, at a Roswell, New Mexico, radio station. In fact, it was his incarceration that inspired a later hit, “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” a song that first found form in a letter to Frizzell’s wife.
Frizzell drew big crowds at the Ace of Clubs. In Dallas, producer Jim Beck got word of the young singer with the unusual style. Beck, who ran a studio and had contacts with record labels and music publishers, asked Frizzell to come up to Dallas and make some demos. In April of 1950, Frizzell made the trip, bringing several of his own songs. Beck was especially impressed with a tune called “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.” He took the song to Nashville hoping to get Little Jimmy Dickens, then Columbia’s hottest artist, to record it. Dickens passed, but Columbia producer Don Law heard something special in Frizzell’s voice and by July 25th of that year had gotten the singer a contract and his first real recording session.
Columbia released “If You’ve got the Money” on September 4, 1950; within days, it became one of the fastest-selling records in country music history. The song sprung from a remark Frizzell had made to a jukebox route man in Big Springs. “He was wanting me to go somewhere with him,” Wolfe quoted Frizzell as saying, “and I said, ’Well if you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time’ and it just hit me, that’d be a heck of a title for a song.’” The other number recorded during the landmark session that summer was “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” a ballad that allowed Frizzell to show off his fondness for splitting and extending syllables, slurring notes, and inserting catches, glides, and grace notes into his lines. As LA Times writer Hilburn described his style, “Frizzell combined the energy of the blues with the Everyman grace of country music . .. [creating] a tension and drama that heightened the themes of heartache, longing and celebration that ran through his music.” Both “Money” and “I Love You” flew to the Number One spot on the charts, instantly making Frizzell an industry heavyweight.
Frizzell was soon back in the studio with his Texas backing musicians beginning what was to be a pattern of touring with his band, the Western Cherokees, and recording every four or five months. At one point in 1951, he hit Numbers One, Two, Six, and Eight on the Billboard Country Top 10; no one before or since has landed four singles in the Top 10. One of his biggest hits of that year, “Always Late (With Your Kisses),” was inspired by an all-night drive through the back roads of Louisiana. It was also in 1951 that Lefty began paying tribute to his idol Jimmy Rodgers, covering “Traveling Blues,” a hit that was eventually collected with other Rodgers songs on Lefty Frizzell Sings the Songs of Jimmie Rodgers. That year saw Frizzell lock up the Number One chart position for 26 weeks.
Although Frizzell had three big hits in 1952—“Don’t Stay Away (’Till Love Grows Cold),” “Forever (and Always),” and “I’m an Old Old Man (Tryin’ to Live While I Can)”—that year was generally one of bad luck: Frizzell split with his manager, broke with his original band, and ran into money problems. Feeling burnt out, he headed for California to work on the Town Hall Party radio show, which was something of a mini Grand Ole Opry. For the next six years he worked and recorded steadily but partly because of the arrival of rock and roll—which took the steam out of many a country performer’s career—he could not score a Top 10 hit.
In 1959 Frizzell began looking for material from other writers. Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin of Cedarwood Publishing Company in Nashville pitched him a song based on the real-life murder of a New Jersey priest and news accounts of a mysterious woman in a black veil who visited the grave of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino. Designed to resemble a folk song, “Long Black Veil,” became Frizzell’s biggest hit in years and was recorded in 1968 by the Band on their universally lauded debut album Music From Big Pink. Other rock notables, including Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, and John Prine have covered Frizzell compositions as well.
Buoyed by his success with Nashville writers and session musicians, Frizzell relocated to Music City in 1961 (a move many insiders felt should have come much earlier). Two years later, he had a hit with Buddy Killen’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” which became his first Number One song since he’d hit with “Always Late” 11 years earlier. But, during the remainder of the 1960s, Frizzell was plagued by excessive drinking, insensitive producers, managerial disputes, and changing musical tastes.
In the early 1970s, however, his career again took an upturn; in 1970 he had a hit with “Watermelon Time in Georgia,” a backhanded reference to Rodgers’s “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia.” Frizzell then made two albums for ABC/Dunhill, which Bill C. Malone, author of Country Music U.S.A., called, “some of his greatest performances, with a voice now richer, deeper, and more sensitive.” According to Hilburn, “One of the highlights [of that period was] “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” a song co-written by Frizzell whose disillusioned tone could be seen in part as a reflection on his own troubled life.”
And then, suddenly, Lefty Frizzell died of a massive stroke, on July 19, 1975. He was 47 years old. He had suffered form high blood pressure but had refused to take any medication that he feared would interact unfavorably with his cherished vodka, which he abso-
lutely would not give up. In the months preceding his death, he had given a series of interviews to Geoff Lane of Country Music. Lane remembered fondly that the first time he met Lefty, the two had stayed up all night drinking and talking about Lefty’s marital problems. The interviewer ultimately came to view Frizzell as a troubled man finally coming to peace with his talent. The singer still wore a relic of his initial success—a massive ring with his initials spelled in diamonds over a solid-gold setting. It was about all he had left from those heady early years. “I’m lucky to have that,” he told Lane wistfully, “when I consider all the back alleys it’s been up and down.”
American Originals (recorded 1950-1965), Columbia, 1990.
The Best of Lefty Frizzell, Rhino, 1991.
Lefty Frizzell/Life’s Like Poetry, Bear Family (Germany), 1992.
Lefty Frizzell Sings the Songs ofJimmie Rodgers.
Byworth, Tony, The History of Country & Western Music, Exeter Books, 1984.
Malone, Bill C, Country Music U.S.A., University of Texas Press, 1985.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1983.
Country Music, August 1975.
Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Charles Wolfe to The Best of Lefty Frizzell, Rhino, 1991.
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