Lee Hazlewood: 1929 to 2007
In Sia Michel’s heartbreaking yet inspiring January 2007 New York Times profile, Lee Hazlewood, dying of kidney cancer, summed things up succinctly: “I’m 77. I’ve been around long enough now. I’ve lived a pretty interesting life — not too much sadness, a lot of happiness, lots of fun. And I didn’t do much of anything I didn’t want to do.”
No argument there. A true psychedelic cowboy who began his career off the beaten path, Hazlewood briefly entered the mainstream, drifting in and out as he chose, before the end came August 4 in Henderson, Arizona.
His own hits were few, yet Hazlewood’s production work for Sanford Clark, Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra has stood the test of time. For decades he recorded his own music. His songs, reflecting his southwestern roots, were awash in offbeat, often brilliant iconoclasm, with accompaniment ranging from austere to lavish. Albums such as his 1963 concept effort Trouble Is A Lonesome Town clearly anticipated the Americana concept.
Hazlewood was born in Mannford, Oklahoma. His dad, an oil wildcatter, promoted Bob Wills dances on the side before moving the family to Texas. Lee was drafted twice, the second time during the Korean War, and wound up assigned to Armed Forces Radio in Japan. Embracing radio as a career, he became the first disc jockey to play Elvis in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1955.
On the side, he wrote songs such as “The Fool”, started a label, and met guitarist Duane Eddy and singer Sanford Clark, pivotal figures in his career. Hazlewood produced Clark’s bluesy 1956 rendition of “The Fool”, which became a national success when Dot Records picked it up. At Phoenix’s tiny Ramsey Studios (a sort of Sun Records West), Hazlewood helped define Eddy’s famous “twangy” guitar sound, using an echo chamber made from a grain tank as he co-produced Eddy instrumental hits including “Rebel Rouser”, “Moovin’ And Groovin'”, and others the pair co-wrote.
In the mid-’60s Hazlewood joined Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label and made waves producing Dean Martin’s stunning 1965 hit “Houston”. Sinatra tapped Hazlewood to revive daughter Nancy’s faltering recording career, resulting in her explosive 1966 #1 rendition of Hazlewood’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” and subsequent solo hits, the father-daughter duet “Somethin’ Stupid”, and duets with Hazlewood himself. His dry drawl stood out when they covered Johnny Cash and June Carter’s “Jackson” and Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning”. Though he recorded steadily for decades, these were his only real hits.
During that time, his own LHI label signed Gram Parsons’ pioneering country-rock unit the International Submarine Band, but didn’t issue their landmark Safe At Home until 1968 when the ISB had dissolved and Parsons, still under contract to LHI, had joined the Byrds.
From 1970 on, Hazlewood floated between continents, recording constantly yet indifferent to stardom. As often happens, a new generation (including Beck, Nick Cave and the British band the Tindersticks) discovered his work. A mid-’90s Nancy Sinatra revival reunited her with Hazlewood for shows and recording. Sounds Like Records, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley’s indie label, began reissuing older Hazlewood albums and in 1999 put out a new one: Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! And Me.
Not even the 2005 terminal cancer diagnosis stanched his creative spirit as he recorded Cake Or Death, released in 2006. Though clearly a valedictory, it reflected his usual quirky production, revisited some older songs, and closed with “The Old Man”, his sober reflection on the end.
“Lee Hazlewood,” declared a print ad for his 1973 Capitol album Poet Fool Or Bum, “has been heard but not listened to.” It was true then. Fortunately, he lived long enough to see that situation change for good.