Lefty Frizzell: The Honky-Tonk Life of Country Music’s Greatest Singer
When I first read this book’s subtitle, I thought the author’s view might be a little slanted. When I finished the book, I realized he was only stating the facts.
Cooper gives the reader the good, the bad and the ugly in both Lefty’s professional and personal life. Sometimes this is accomplished all in the same paragraph.
Born in Corsicana, Texas, on March 31, 1928, Lefty was raised in a traveling family. His father drove the family through Texas and Louisiana following oil rig work. In those days, entertainment was found on the radio. Roy Acuff, Pinto Pete, The Shillings Cowboys, and Lefty’s inspiration, Jimmie Rodgers, ruled the airwaves in the Frizzell home.
Cooper follows Lefty’s career in a way that’s both entertaining and informative. High school talent shows, local radio spots, bars, barns and dancehalls are all described with a panoramic vision. Names, places and dates are all well documented.
He describes how, in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1946, “the boy with the wave in his hair and the curl in his voice” perfomed for 15 minutes a day, seven days a week on KGFL Radio. Lefty’s talent earned him $3.25 a week. It was around this time that “little girls began to go crazy about him,” as his wife, Alice, would say.
As Lefty’s popularity grew, so did his vices. Drinking, fighting and womanizing were all part of a lifestyle that landed him in the Chaves County jail in 1947. The charge was sex with a minor. A country music legend was born.
As Lefty toured the country, the roster of who he shared the stage with turned into a who’s-who of country music. Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Eddy Arnold all hit the boards with Lefty.
Never one to forget where he came from, Lefty was always generous to his friends, fans and younger musicians. In Bakersfield in 1953, Lefty strong-armed a local promoter to let an unknown kid Lefty had befriended open the show. Minutes later, a 16-year-old Merle Haggard took to the stage.
Cooper brings it all to the table. The good: the year Lefty owned seven of Billboard’s top 30 country music songs. The bad: Poorly planned tours, horrendous business decisions, and getting dropped by Columbia in 1972. The ugly: There were nights when Lefty was too drunk to even get onstage, much less perform.
Cooper also reveals the darker side of Lefty’s personal life: the rocky marriage to Alice; fighting with his children; drugs and drinking. Amazingly, through it all, there was always the great songs: “I Loved You A Thousand Ways”, “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time”, “Mom And Dad’s Waltz” and “The Long Black Veil”, to name but a few.
Lefty died from a stroke on July 19, 1975, but his music has continued to be influential. In 1984, two years after Lefty was voted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, Merle Haggard took Lefty’s “That’s The Way Love Goes” to number one.
Cooper ends the book by reminding us that it was Lefty’s singing, more than anything else, that has influenced country music. His sound and style can be heard in everyone from George Jones to Keith Whitley. Because of Lefty’s voice, a country music legend survives.