LEGENDS OF COUNTRY MUSIC: Lefty Frizzell
During the summer of 1947, the dusty New Mexico town of Roswell was very much in the news. It was home to the Roswell Army Air Field, where sections of the Eighth Air Force helped continue tests of the new atomic bomb; it was also a growing oil town, where oil riggers were replacing cowboys in the local honky-tonks and clubs.
In early July it became something else; local ranchers found parts of a “flying saucer” that had crashed nearby, along with the bodies of several small “aliens.” A nationwide UFO scare was triggered, and suddenly hundreds of reporters were flocking to the town, asking the Air Force what was going on and accusing the intelligence officers at Roswell of a massive coverup.
For weeks the local newspapers were full of the scare, and few people noticed a tiny article on the back pages of the Roswell Daily Record; a local radio singer from KGFL, “Lefty” Frizzell, had been arrested and sentenced to a six-month jail term. He was a big, strapping boy with thick, curly black hair and an awshucks grin. As he began his jail term—for what he would describe later as “fighting and carrying on”—he was nineteen.
He had come to Roswell from Texas to try to make it as a radio singer, together with his young wife, Alice, and their two-year-old daughter, Lois. Times were tough, but the couple scraped by, living in a little trailer on the seedy side of town. They had no car, and when Alice got off work from her part-time job at a restaurant, Lefty would try to meet her to walk her home.
Now these precarious arrangements had come crashing down, and the young singer spent his days in the old-fashioned jailhouse, whiling away his hours writing love letters to his wife and wondering whether he could ever pick up his career again.
He also thought a lot about songs. Since he was twelve, he had been trying to write songs—not tough blues or novelties or lonesome ballads, but country love songs, lyrical laments that he could use to show off his singing voice. Most had been awful, and soon forgotten. But now he had more time, and in between the love letters, he started writing love songs and sending them out to Alice. One Friday evening in September, he took out his tablet and began to write down a new one he had just worked out.
“I Love You, I’ll Prove It a Thousand Ways,” he wrote at the top, and started off his prose: “I love you, I’ll prove it in days to come.” It was a letter, and a promise, and an intensely personal thing, but Alice Frizzell saved it (as she saved all the letters), and when Lefty got out, in early 1948, he added music and sang it for her.
Then they went back to Texas, not suspecting that the song would have any effect on their own lives, let alone on the entire direction of country music singing. Some fans think that the impact of a singer can be measured by counting up the number of chart hits he or she has had, by looking at the highest Billboard position a record reached, or by tallying up how many weeks the record spent in the Top 40.
By these standards, people like Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Red Foley, and Conway Twitty certainly had more success than Lefty Frizzell. The bean-counters note that Lefty only had three Number One hits in his whole career—“Always Late” (1951), “I Want to Be With You Always” (1951), and “Saginaw, Michigan” (1964)—and wonder if Lefty wasn’t just another colorful Texas honky-tonker who burned out too soon.
True country fans, and many country singers, know better. They know that real influence isn’t so much a matter of a specific song, but a potent style, and that Lefty was a stylist supreme. Years later Merle Haggard would say; “When I’d get on stage, and I’d wonder how I should do a song, and maybe I’d be in doubt, I’d just mentally try to remember how Lefty would do it.”
Lefty Frizzell was, first and foremost, a singer’s singer—someone whose influence far outweighed his commercial success. Testimonials to Lefty’s style—what his wife, Alice, once called “Lefty’s game”—show up almost everywhere modern singers talk about their craft. George Jones was sent home from his very first recording session because he sounded too much like Lefty; Willie Nelson dedicated an entire LP to his memory.
Merle Haggard said, “I feel he was the most unique thing that ever happened to country music,” and singers as different as Freddie Hart, Ray Charles, and Ronnie Milsap have cited Lefty as an influence. The late Keith Whitley cut his teeth on a stack of old Lefty records that belonged to his mom. “I can still remember sitting in front of the record player when I was very, very young trying to emulate Lefty’s style,” he said. Randy Travis won his initial fame by emulating Lefty; he confesses: “In the beginning I would learn Lefty Frizzell songs and try to copy them note-for-note . . . try to learn all the licks and the phrases that he would use in songs.”
The compact disc era has seen a number of Lefty Frizzell ’s original cuts reissued, and Germany’s Bear Family Records has released his complete works in a massive box set. In addition, Lefty has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1982. Nevertheless, he remains a misty legend to many fans. “There’s no way in the world that Lefty Frizzell ’s being recognized as much as he should,” insists Hank Williams Jr. The legend actually started before the traumatic jail term in Roswell.
It began in the rough-and-tumble Texas oil town of Corsicana, where William Orville Frizzell was born on March 31, 1928. He was one of eight children born to a young oil driller, Naamon Frizzell, and his wife. Since he was the firstborn in the family, he soon acquired the nickname “Sonny”—a name his family would use for him all his life.
As a boy, Sonny listened intently to the old Victrola his dad had gotten in a trade for a milk cow, sticking his head right up next to the speaker to hear every nuance of his favorite singer, Jimmie Rodgers.
He recalled, “Instead of going out and playing when I came in from school, I’d go in, and my head would go close to that speaker, and yodel right with him.” In 1939 the family moved to El Dorado, Arkansas, and Sonny made his debut on stage singing a version of Gene Autry’s hit “South of the Border”; soon he had his own radio spot—on a children’s show over local station KELD.
“I knew when I was twelve years old what I was gonna do,” he said. Throughout the 1940s we get scattered glimpses of young Lefty trying to carve out his career in music. He wins a talent contest on “Wayne Babb’s Stage Show” in Dallas; works with an Arkansas string band headed by Rex “Jelly” Elliot; buys his first fancy cowboy suit at a rodeo clothes store in Dallas and borrows $100 from his mother to pay for it; gets nicknamed “Lefty,” not, as later legend would have it, from a Golden Gloves boxing match, but from a fight with a schoolyard bully; gets married at barely sixteen, to Alice, in March 1945; and goes to Roswell in 1947 to sing at local servicemens clubs. Then came the jail sentence.
It would have been enough to discourage many men, and for a time Lefty Frizzell did quit trying to sing and went back to work in the oil fields with his father. But he couldn’t let the music alone. And sometime during this period he began to sense he had a new way of delivering a song, a style that was suited to the new type of country music that men like Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman were singing.
Some called it “honky-tonk,” in deference to the new roadhouses and clubs that were springing up in the Southwest; it was a style that was fitted to the new microphones and sound systems in these places, systems that allowed the singer to get away from the old mountain “shouting” style of Roy Acuff or Bill Monroe.
Lefty Frizzell began to exploit his wonderful sense of phrasing, breaking a simple syllable like “ways” into something like “way-yays” and stringing it out for a whole line. He developed a break in his voice—he attributed it to his “mixed-up” Arkansas-Texas-Louisiana accent—and added slurs and curves to his singing; and it was all quiet, sincere, intimate—and haunting. By 1950, Lefty had settled in at the Ace of Clubs in Big Spring, Texas. Suddenly he caught on, and began drawing crowds.
He began to feature “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” finding the song perfect for his new style, and began to write other songs that would give him more opportunities to show it off. One day the jukebox man came in to restock the club’s machine, and he and Lefty got to talking. “He was wanting me to go somewhere with him,” recalled Lefty later, “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.” Word of the new singer soon reached the ears of a man named Jim Beck, a well-connected talent scout and studio engineer who ran a studio on Ross Avenue in Dallas. He sent word for Lefty to come up and cut some demos; if they sounded good, Beck would pass them on to friends at Columbia Records. In April 1950, Lefty pulled up in front of Beck’s studio and unloaded his own Martin guitar.
Beck asked him to sing some of the original songs he had been doing at the Ace of Clubs, and Lefty obliged; the old acetate cutters rolled, and soon Beck had rough cuts of “If You’ve Got the Money” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” At first, recalls Alice, “Beck was interested in the songs, not in Lefty being on record.”
And, in fact, Beck soon took the demos up to Nashville with the idea of pitching “Money” to Little Jimmy Dickens, then Columbia’s hottest novelty act. Dickens turned it down, but Columbia head Don Law liked the voice he heard on the demo, and a few weeks later was in Texas listening to Lefty’s show. By July 25, he had given the young singer a contract and was setting him up in Beck’s studio for his first real session.
A pickup band was thrown together; featured was a young woman from Wichita Falls named Madge Sutee, who had been a piano player for the Miller Brothers band there. Her romping, barrelhouse piano helped set the Frizzell style on “Money,” and Don Law insisted on using her whenever possible for all Lefty’s later Dallas sides. Four sides were cut that first day, and Columbia put two of them (“Love” and “Money”) back-to-back on the first single.
When it was issued on September 4—after an anxious summer when Lefty and Alice almost starved to death—it became one of the fastest-selling records in country music history. Other artists rushed to record cover versions of “Money”—eventually forty of them, including pop singers like Jo Stafford. Sales were so strong that, seventeen days after the release, Columbia rushed Lefty back into Beck’s studio for some new sides.
Throughout 1951 he was producing hits every three or four months: “Look What Thoughts Will Do,” “I Want to Be With You Always,” “Always Late,” “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” “Travelin’ Blues,” and “Give Me More, More, More (of Your Kisses).” Soon he was on the road with a band called the Western Cherokees and being managed by a Houston agent named Jack Starnes (who later helped discover George Jones).
He became one of the first country stars to fly extensively on tour, often flying to dates out of Beaumont; for a time his pilot was Henry Cannon—the husband of Minnie Pearl. Bookings were rolling in, and Lefty, according to younger brother Allen, “did what any Texan worth his salt would do—he bought three Cadillacs.” On top of it all came a deal, in July 1950, to join the Grand Ole Opry. While there, Lefty actually shared a dressing room with Hank Williams, and the two hit it off fairly well—in spite of some mutual kidding and ribbing about who was a bigger star.
Things began to go sour in 1952. Lefty and Starnes made one of their biggest mistakes when they decided to leave the Opry, on the theory that they could get more money by doing their own bookings. He then missed a special command performance in New Orleans for a bunch of Columbia bigwigs and wound up getting jailed for drunk driving; fortunately, the sheriff was a fan and let him out.
Then in June he and Starnes had a bitter falling out and went to court; in the settlement, Lefty gave up most of his record royalties and came away with a lasting distrust of managers and promoters. In the fall of 1952, thoroughly disgusted with the Texas and Nashville scenes, Lefty headed for California. He had found a spot on Cliffie Stone’s pioneering TV show, Hometown Jamboree.
Cliffie recalls: “The first night Lefty performed on the show, the mail, phone calls and attendance of the show tripled. Lefty’s easy, natural, down-home ways were immediately captured by the cameras, and the viewers at home loved him.” For a time, things looked good again, but Lefty began to have trouble getting hits. Finally, he broke up his band and traveled only with his kid brother, David, who had just turned sixteen; he used pickup bands wherever he played—something he would do for years to come.
“Those slump years,” recalls David, “he’d been used and abused by everybody that could get their hands on him. Lefty played every little dive I’ve ever seen. Everybody in country music during those years was doing the same thing, trying to survive, trying to get by.” By 1958 things were looking up again.
He had gone to Hollywood to cut some sides with big string sections and to Nashville to try his luck with a Marty Robbins song, “Cigarettes and Coffee Blues.” The song worked, and he followed it up with a new song by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin, two young Nashville writers, called “The Long Black Veil.” It stayed on the charts for weeks, and suddenly Lefty was hot again. In August 1961 he left California and moved to Nashville.
Old friend Merle Kilgore loaned the family the money they needed to make the move. Lefty spent the last fourteen years of his life settled in Nashville, trying to cope with being a living legend, trying to record a few more good songs, and trying to write. The Jim Denny bureau booked him, and Denny’s Cedarwood Publishing Company looked after Lefty’s new songs and fed him a diet of good Music Row product by songwriters like Wayne Walker, Mel Tillis, and Danny Dill. His friend Buddy Killen at Tree Publishing got him “Saginaw, Michigan,” which he recorded— reluctantly—in 1963.
In addition, Lefty himself began to write seriously with old drinking buddies like Whitey Shafer, Dallas Frazier, Abe Mulkey, and Doodle Owens. He liked to talk about when he could retire to a farm he had brought down in Wayne County, Tennessee, and just write songs. In the mid-70s he made two good albums for ABC, and he and Shafer produced two final masterpieces—“I Never Go Around Mirrors” and “That’s the Way Love Goes”—both recorded by Lefty, but popularized by others. But years of hard drinking and harder living were starting to take their toll.
Plagued by fits of depression and high blood pressure, Lefty couldn’t believe his doctors were serious. Given a choice, he would usually prefer a shot of Jack Daniel’s to his medication. On July 19, 1975, Lefty was getting ready to leave for the Delaware State Fair in Dover, where he was booked to perform with Skeeter Davis and Stonewall Jackson. Late that morning he suffered a massive stroke, and died that evening.
In one of his last interviews, just a few weeks before his death, he spoke what might have been his best eulogy: “When I sing, to me every word has a feeling about it. I had to linger, had to hold it, didn’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 wanted to let go of the woman I loved. I didn’t want to lose it.” And to country music’s good fortune, he never did.