One of pop’s genuine originals, Lee Hazlewood was a versatile songwriter, equally capable of turning his hand to pop, country, R&B, folk, easy listening, burlesque, blues or rock’n’roll. Hazlewood the performer possessed an instantly recognisable bass drawl perfectly suited to his lyrical tales of low-rent heartache, self-deprecating comedy and mystical cowboy psychedelia. He was also a pioneer in the black art of record production and taught a thing or two to the teenaged Phil Spector, who hung around paying close attention while Hazlewood created magnificently atmospheric instrumentals for Duane Eddy.
He was born Barton Lee Hazlewood in Mannford, Oklahoma on 9 July 1929. A career as an oil-driller led his father to move his family around Arkansas, Kansas and Louisiana, settling in Port Neches in the early 40s. After graduating from high school, Hazlewood enrolled at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where his studies were interrupted when he was drafted into the Army. Upon his discharge, he married his high school sweetheart Naomi Shackleford, but the escalation of the Korean War resulted in his re-conscription. He served as a deejay with Armed Forces Radio in Japan and spent the last eight months of his tour of duty on armed combat.
Following demob, Hazlewood and Naomi moved to Pasadena, California, where he studied voice technique at the Don Martin School of Broadcasting. His course complete, the couple relocated to Coolidge, Arizona, where Hazlewood befriended musicians Donnie Owens and Al Casey. Owens helped him find a job as a deejay at KCKY, a minor country music station. “They were playing Bing Crosby and Perry Como. All the kids listened to this other station which had a black deejay. So on my morning show I started slipping in records like ‘Annie Had A Baby’ by Hank Ballard. The station manager got very mad but the ratings went up because college kids from Arizona State started listening.” It was at KCKY that Hazlewood met Duane Eddy, a local lad who used to visit the station to cadge surplus country records. “For the first year or so my wife and I used him as a babysitter so we could go to a movie occasionally. Duane was playing guitar in the Chet Atkins style at this time.”
Hazlewood began writing songs and in 1955 took Eddy and his pal Jimmy Delbridge into the small Ramsey Recording studio in Phoenix to record ‘Soda Fountain Girl’ and ‘I Want Some Lovin’ Baby’. He released the record on Eb X Preston, a custom label named after a comedy character he’d created for his radio show. He moved his family to Phoenix shortly afterwards to take up at better-paid job at KRUX, later switching to KTYL.
“Suddenly, records that people never heard before started selling and the kids were asking for them. The record stores used to call us and ask, ‘What label is it on?’ You had Decca, Capitol, whatever, and then all these little labels no-one had heard of before like Sun, Fortune and Abbott. I thought, if I can play this stuff, I can record it. So I started Viv Records.”
Hazlewood began cutting other country acts using Al Casey and his pals as backup. “We’d press a thousand and sell a thousand. That’d just about get the money for our sessions back, so we could make another record by somebody else. We cut two singles by Jimmy Spellman for Viv. A big name artist on Columbia covered one of them, which didn’t help.”
In March 1956, Hazlewood took Casey’s friend Sanford Clark into Ramsey’s to record ‘The Fool’. “Connie Conway played a Campbell’s soup box over a drum stool. That was the afterbeat on ‘The Fool’. I meant it to be a country song but Al came up with a riff out of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and put it against this cowboy song. It took us a day to do the track but nearly three weeks, on and off, to get Sanford’s voice on it. It wasn’t his fault; it was just me trying to get a sound on it. We didn’t have echo chambers so we tried all kinds of combinations of tape echo on little machines, stretching them and plugging them into each other. I didn’t know what I wanted but I had loads of time to do it because it was only $8 an hour. Everybody went crazy when they heard the sound. People used to come in just to listen to it. I didn’t have enough money to pay for all that studio time, so we cut a little deal and put it out on MCI, co-owned by Floyd Ramsey, who also owned the studio. We sent out 200 records to all the distributors and stations in the South. I told everyone we had a #1 country record but our distributors didn’t order at all. Then, about six weeks later, after we had forgotten it, someone called me from Cleveland, Ohio and said, ‘You got a hit’.”
Unable to meet the demand, MCI sold ‘The Fool’ to the Dot label, who took the record to #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Dot Records placed Hazlewood on a retainer in exchange for first refusal rights on his future productions. In early 1957, he gave up his radio job and moved with Naomi and their two small children to Topanga, California. A few months later, Hazlewood was back at Ramsey’s to record the instrumental ‘Ramrod’ with Al Casey and his friends, which he released on his Ford label. With Casey under contract to Dot at the time, the single was accredited to Duane Eddy & His Rock-A-Billies.
In September 1957, Hazlewood went into partnership with Lester Sill, manager of the Coasters. Sill introduced him to Saul Bihari of Modern Records, whom Hazlewood sold on the idea there were more would-be rock’n’roll stars back in Arizona awaiting discovery. Bihari put up the funds and they headed to Phoenix to cut some masters for Modern.
Sill and Hazlewood returned to Ramsey’s that November to tape ‘Moovin’ N’ Groovin’’. “I went to cut just a group, any group. I was gonna call them the Rebels but Duane worked so hard on it. He was fooling around with the wang bar of his guitar bending the notes on the bass strings just for the heck of it because it made a nice twanging sound. That was the start of it, the wang bar.” Hazlewood overdubbed sax in Hollywood and pitched the finished track to Dot, RCA and other labels, who all passed, so Lester Sill negotiated a deal with Jamie, an imprint out of Philadelphia part-owned by Dick Clark, host of the TV show American Bandstand. Bolstered by exposure on Bandstand, ‘Moovin’ N’ Groovin’’ entered the Hot 100 in March 1958, peaking at #72. Eddy’s next record would prove to be his big breakthrough.
“I went to Phoenix and told Floyd Ramsey, ‘We gotta have an echo chamber. We need it for ‘Rebel-Rouser’. He says, ‘They cost a lot of money’. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, let’s not bother with an echo chamber. I want some kind of huge barrel’. So we went out and yelled in storage tanks. I yelled in ’em all day. When I finally got one where the yell came back to me, I said, ‘Right, we’ll buy that one’. We paid $200 for it. We put this big cast iron grain tank in a corner of the parking lot with a $4 mike at one end and a speaker at the other.”
Hazlewood took the tape of ‘Rebel-Rouser’ to Gold Star Studios in Hollywood to overdub sax and the Sharps, a doo wop group who provided whoops and hollers. Jamie released the record in March and it entered the charts a month later, eventually rising to #6. For Eddy’s next single, Jamie reissued ‘Ramrod’, to which Hazlewood had added sax and a vocal chorus. It charted at #27 and later in the year ‘Cannonball’ reached #15.
“After ‘Cannonball’, Floyd converted the whole studio and upped his price to $12 an hour. Lester and I bought about $15,000 worth of equipment in exchange for that amount of studio time. Most of Duane’s first album was put together from the singles he’d done, but we needed some extra sides to make up the numbers and those were the ones we did in the new studio using the new three-track.”
Duane Eddy amassed seven hit singles during 1959, including ‘Forty Miles Of Bad Road’, which reached #9. Late that year, Sill and Hazlewood launched Trey Records. The label’s initial releases included a 45 by the Spectors Three, a group put together by Phil Spector, former leader of the Teddy Bears. Sill took Spector under his wing and flew him to Phoenix to watch Hazlewood at work recording tracks for Eddy’s “The Twang’s The Thang” LP. “The combination of echoes we used to play with so much used to drive Phil crazy. He wanted to know what everything was. I used to beg Lester to get him out of the studio.”
By the end of 1960 Duane Eddy had accrued 16 hit singles and five big-selling long-players – including “Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel” and “$1,000,000.00 Worth Of Twang” – but all was not well in the Eddy camp. Eddy had renegotiated his contract with Jamie, which led to him quarrelling with Hazlewood over producer royalties. Eddy’s partnership with Sill and Hazlewood was terminated.
With no hits forthcoming on Trey, he and Sill wound down the label. In 1961 they entered into a deal with Era Records to distribute Gregmark, a new logo named after Sill’s son Greg and Hazlewood’s son Mark. Of the singles released on Gregmark, the only ones to reach the charts were by the Paris Sisters, all four of which were produced by Phil Spector. This tested Sill and Hazlewood’s relationship and things got worse when Spector and Sill launched their Philles label. Sill and Hazlewood agreed to go their separate ways.
Early in 1962, Duane Eddy left Jamie for RCA. Unhappy with the initial sessions for his new label, he suggested to Hazlewood that they get back together. At RCA’s Hollywood studio that February they recorded the tracks for Eddy’s “Twistin’ ’N’ Twangin’” album. Chart singles ‘Deep In The Heart Of Texas’ and ‘The Ballad Of Paladin’ followed.
With the girl group boom in full swing, in June 1962 they flew to Phoenix to record ‘(Dance With The) Guitar Man’, to which Hazlewood overdubbed the vocals of the Blossoms in California. The record reached #12, Eddy’s highest-charting record in over two years. His next three hit singles all featured members of the same coterie of session vocalists. While at RCA, Hazlewood also provided instrumental combo the Astronauts with their hit 45 ‘Baja’ and produced some singles and an album for top session drummer Hal Blaine, but the Eddy-Hazlewood reunion proved short-lived.
Had they not fallen out again, Hazlewood’s next song would have gone to Eddy, but instead it provided Al Casey with a hit. “I didn’t care about surf music. I wrote ‘Surfin’ Hootenanny’ for Duane, but I think we had some little problems. So I said to Al, ‘Do you want to record this song?’ He said it was a really dumb song. So we got the girls, Darlene Love and all of them that sang for Spector – six great background singers that could make any corny song sound like it was Ray Charles doing it. ‘Surfin’ Hootenanny’ was a joke, but a good joke.”
Alert to the vogue for folk music, in 1963 Hazlewood and his friend Marty Cooper wrote ‘Stranger In Your Town’, which they recorded with a couple of session singers. “That happened one afternoon at my house over a bottle of Scotch. Marty Cooper and I were sitting around, a bunch of people just banging on guitars. I said, ‘I’ve got something for you, Marty – stranger in town, stranger in town. Finish it’. Marty started adding parts. He wanted to cut a demo, so we took the people there. I forgot all about it. About a week later Marty called and said, ‘We got a record deal with Mercury. What are we going to call them? We need something folksy.’ I said, ‘How about Naomi’s last name – Shackleford?’ So we went in and did it right and got a damn hit out of that silly song.”
Mercury also issued the group’s “Until You’ve Heard The Shacklefords, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” LP and Hazlewood’s first solo album “Trouble Is A Lonesome Town”, for which he’d been trying to find a home since 1960. “That was a demo. I didn’t know it was a concept album. I wrote a complete story of a make-believe town. I took it to everyone I knew and they all turned it down. I took it to Jack Tracy, the West Coast head of Mercury, a good friend. He said, ‘I think it goes out like this’.”
Hazlewood spent much of 1964 on sabbatical. “I was disgusted that everything you heard on the radio was Beatles. Not only that, but they were hailed as innovators when they were doing things that were done four years earlier by the Everly Brothers. I enjoyed my eight months off. I sat in my back yard watching the bugs swim across my pool.” He was coaxed out of inaction by his friend and neighbour Jimmy Bowen of Reprise Records, Frank Sinatra’s label.
Reprise issued Hazlewood’s second album “The NSVIPs (Not So Very Important People)”, a sequel to “Trouble Is A Lonesome Town” with humorous monologues linking the tracks. His next LP – the more conventional “Friday’s Child” – contained his versions of ‘The Fool’ and songs subsequently popularised by Nancy Sinatra and Dean Martin. Hazlewood also reunited with Duane Eddy to produce his albums “Twangsville”, “Duane A Go Go Go” and “Duane Eddy Does Bob Dylan”, precipitating Eddy’s signing to Reprise.
Bowen also cajoled Hazlewood into producing Dino, Desi & Billy, a boy band comprising Dean Martin’s son, the son of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and their schoolmate Billy Hinsche. It was an unlikely assignment but two Top 30 hits resulted. Dean Martin himself made the charts with Hazlewood’s song ‘Houston’ and Hazlewood later produced a couple of singles by Dean’s daughter Deana, also for Reprise.
His next mission was to rescue the recording career of Nancy Sinatra, whose early singles had all failed to catch on. He was hesitant at first but a visit to the Sinatra home convinced him to accept the challenge. The first single he produced with Nancy, ‘So Long Babe’, reached the lower regions of the charts, setting the scene for better things to come.
“We sold about 60,000 with ‘So Long Babe’. I thought this song I had written for Nancy would sell at least three times that – a beautiful song called ‘The City Never Sleeps At Night’. She learned the song and we’re through with it, just sitting around, and we started singing some suggestive Texas songs for fun. She’s breaking up because she’s never heard any of this stuff before. I said, ‘I’ve got the greatest Texas love song you’ve ever heard in your life. I’ve only got two verses’. I sang her ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’. She said, ‘I want to record it’. I said, ‘You can’t, because it’s dirty’. On the way to the date, Nancy called me in the car – believe it or not I had a phone in the car – and said, ‘I never did the other verse to the song’. From my house in North Hollywood to the studio on a good afternoon is about seven or eight minutes tops. That’s where the middle verse to ‘Boots’ was written.”
With ‘The City Never Sleeps At Night’ as its B-side, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ entered the Hot 100 in January 1966, reaching #1 a month later, a feat the record repeated all around the world. By December, Nancy had also charted with ‘How Does That Grab You, Darlin’?’, ‘Friday’s Child’, ‘In Our Time’ and ‘Sugar Town’, all also written and produced by Hazlewood and arranged by Billy Strange, making her the top-selling female artist of the year. She was also one of the busiest, releasing the LPs “Boots”, “How Does That Grab You?”, “Nancy In London” and “Sugar”. Hazlewood had found his ideal interpreter.
His profile now at its highest yet, he was offered a new recording deal with MGM. His “The Very Special World Of Lee Hazlewood” album, recorded with arranger Billy Strange in late 1965 and early 66, included his versions of ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’, ‘So Long Babe’ and ‘Not The Lovin’ Kind’. His second MGM album “Lee Hazlewoodism, Its Cause And Cure” was released in 1967. “Record companies used to call and ask you to do writers albums, as they were called in those days. If you happened to have a hit or two at that time, you’d throw them in. I consider them good, expensive demos paid for by major record companies. It saved me from taking stuff around to other people. They’d just get the next LP and record some of it.”
In 1966, he launched his LHI (Lee Hazlewood Industries) label with distribution handled by ABC-Paramount, issuing a batch of singles by the Kitchen Cinq, Virgil Warner, Raul Danks & Jon Taylor, Last Friday's Fire, Linda Owens, Barney Carl, the Shacklefords and others. The initial LHI albums – by the Kitchen Cinq, the 98% American Mom & Apple Pie 1929 Crash Band and Bob Kaufmann – were released in 1967.
A month after Nancy Sinatra’s smash hit ‘Sugar Town’ dropped off the Hot 100, its risqué B-side ‘Summer Wine’ began picking up airplay and charted in its own right, sparking a demand for more Nancy & Lee duets. Hazlewood was under contract to MGM but bent the rules. He and Nancy recorded ‘Jackson’, a song previously popularised by Johnny Cash & June Carter, which peaked at #14 that summer, and in November ‘Lady Bird’ reached #20.
Nancy’s biggest hit of the year, though, was ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, a duet with her dad, which spent a month atop the Hot 100 and also went to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. “Frank played it for me and says, ‘You’ve been wanting me to do something with the kid’. He wanted me to produce it but I said, ‘I can’t. Jimmy Bowen produces you, so we’ll both have to do it’. I didn’t pay attention to Jimmy and he didn’t pay attention to me. We brought in our rhythm section – Hal Blaine, Don Randi, Al Casey, Donnie Owens – and got rid of Frank’s. Nobody mentioned a follow-up.”
During 1967, Hazlewood produced Duane Eddy’s “The Biggest Twang Of Them All” and “The Roaring Twangies” long-players. Nancy Sinatra released her “Country My Way” and “Movin’ With Nancy” albums and also charted with ‘Love Eyes’, ‘Lightning’s Girl’ and ‘Tony Rome’, the title song of the movie starring her father. “Frank said, ‘I’ve done a pretty good film, but I don’t like the song. Can you write me something better?’ I didn’t have a demo, so I took my guitar over to Paramount Pictures and sat in front of the producer and Frank and sang this dumb song. Frank said, ‘Do you think we could get Nancy to do it? It’s not the kind of movie where the guy playing Tony Rome can do it.’.”
In 1968, Nancy & Lee charted with the mesmeric ‘Some Velvet Morning’, one of their most admired duets, which they debuted on the Emmy-winning TV special Movin’ With Nancy. Their subsequent album “Nancy & Lee” went on to sell a million. Hazlewood was inspired to write the song by the Greek mythology stories he read to his children. “I thought they were a lot better than all those fairy tales that came from Germany that had killings and knifings. There was only about seven lines about Phaedra. She had a sad middle, a sad end, and by the time she was 17 she was gone. She was a sad-assed broad, the saddest of all Greek goddesses. So bless her heart, she deserves some notoriety, so I’ll put her in a song.”
The release of Hazlewood’s third MGM long-player, “Something Special”, was cancelled to enable his return to Reprise as a solo artist. He recorded his “Love & Other Crimes” LP in Paris with his regular crew of musicians. “I happened to be in Paris to see my children. I had an apartment in Paris I never lived in. My ex-wife moved in there. I like Paris very much and this guy had a studio that I liked the sound in. It reminded me a little bit of Gold Star in Hollywood. I got on the phone and told Mo Ostin, ‘I’m gonna do an album and I’m gonna fly all these guys over here first class.’ Mo said OK. Mo was nice about the whole thing, and Jimmy Bowen too.”
When LHI’s distribution deal with ABC came to its end, Hazlewood announced that the label was to continue as an independent, releasing a new clutch of 45s by Ann-Margret, Honey Ltd, Sanford Clark and others. In 1969, he issued the solo LP “Forty” and “The Cowboy & The Lady”, an album of duets with Ann-Margret. LHI never would have a hit record.
He made his first visit to Sweden in 1969 at the invitation of director Torbjörn Axelman to film a TV special, Love & Other Crimes. Old friend Donnie Owens accompanied Hazlewood on a couple of numbers and Swedish vocalist Siw Malmkvist sang with him on songs he’d recorded previously with Nancy Sinatra, Suzi Jane Hokom and Ann-Margret. Back in theUSA, he produced sessions for Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold and Chet Atkins and had an acting role in the film The Moonshine War, while winding down the action at LHI.
In 1970, Hazlewood made another special for Swedish television, Cowboy In Sweden, which featured him and Nina Lizell performing songs from his album of the same title. This signalled his full time move to Stockholm to concentrate on TV work. His “Requiem For An Almost Lady” LP of 1971 was also accompanied by a small screen special. His next album, “13”, was his third to attain no US release.
Hazlewood got together with Nancy Sinatra in 1972 to record the album “Nancy & Lee Again”, which spawned the single ‘Did You Ever’, a big hit around the world, although not in the USA. “I was living in Sweden. Nancy and I talked about it on the phone and I said, ‘Let’s do it. We’ll cut it with our own money and see if they still love us’. We put it out in America and they didn’t love us at all. In ways, I liked it better than the first one. But out of that album we got a #2 record in the UK.”
Later that year, Torbjörn Axelman filmed the documentary Nancy & Lee In Las Vegas, which aired on Swedish TV in January 1973. Hazlewood’s television career reached its zenith with The NSVIP’s, the Swedish entry in that year’s Rose D’Or Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, at which the show was awarded first prize. Over the next five years he issued another seven albums, all of which went unreleased in the USA.
After a 15-year hiatus – during which Hazlewood kept a very low profile (in the words of Nancy Sinatra, he “sat on his assets”) – he made his comeback with “Gypsies & Indians”, an album of duets with Anna Hanski. “Anna was the best-selling girl artist in Finlandand she had done some of the old things on her albums. I was at the office in LA and noticed all this money coming from Finland? I wrote a couple of things for that album.”
During his absence from the world of music, Hazlewood had developed a cult following, particularly among the new generation of performers, which continues to this day. In recent times, songs from his vast catalogue have been recorded by the Fall, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Nick Cave, Primal Scream, Lydia Lunch and many other indie rock luminaries. The young Norwegian band Some Velvet Morning perform nothing but Hazlewood numbers.
Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra embarked on reunion tour of Canada, the USA and Scandinaviain 1995, which included appearances at the Fillmore East and the Lollapalooza Festival. “I was living in Spain and she called me and asked me to do it. Every year I move so you people can’t find me. I like to live places where nobody has heard of me.”
In 1999, Hazelwood released “Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! And Me”, his first album of new material in over 20 years. He also performed at the Nick Cave-curated Meltdown Festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall and saw five of his old LPs reissued on Smells Like, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley’s label. In 2002 he issued the albums “For Every Solution There’s A Problem” (a compilation of unreleased material), “For Every Question There’s An Answer” (an accompanying interview record) and “Bootleg Dreams & Counterfeit Demos”, published the semi-fictionalised memoir The Pope’s Daughter and toured all over Europe. The year also marked the release of “Total Lee!”, a tribute album featuring Lambchop, Calexico, St Etienne, Kathryn Williams, Tindersticks and others. Nancy Sinatra and Hazlewood reunited in 2004 to record the album “Nancy & Lee 3”, with Billy Strange supplying the arrangements, just like the old days, and a cameo appearance from Duane Eddy. The album was released only inAustralia.
In 2006, Hazlewood announced he had been diagnosed with cancer and had a year to live. He married Jeanne Kelley, his girlfriend of 15 years, and began work on what would be his swansong, “Cake Or Death”. The album – titled after a sketch by Eddie Izzard, his favourite comedian – featured guest appearances by Al Casey, Duane Eddy and his granddaughter, Phaedra Dawn, who duetted with him on a new version of ‘Some Velvet Morning’.
Barton Lee Hazlewood died peacefully at his home in Henderson, Nevada on 4 August 2007, a few weeks after his 78th birthday party.
(Quotes courtesy of Rob Finnis and Kieron Tyler)