Born Barton Lee Hazlewood, 9 July 1929, Mannford, Oklahoma
Lee Hazlewood had a long, versatile career in music, as a songwriter, producer and singer. His contribution to the birth and development of rock n roll was significant. He is best remembered for his work with Duane Eddy (especially the 1957-60 period) and with Nancy Sinatra in the second half of the 1960s. As a performer, he possessed a distinctive baritone, perfectly suited to his lyrical tales of the darker side of humanity. Stuart Colman has called him “the music world’s most cheerful fatalist”.
Born in the small town of Mannford, Oklahoma, Hazlewood was the son of a wildcat oil driller. His family was constantly on the move and it was not until his high school years that the Hazlewoods finally settled in Port Neches, Texas. He later attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where his education was interrupted by conscription. Upon his discharge he married his high school sweetheart Naomi Shackleford and tried to settle down but the outbreak of the Korean War led to his reconscription and a spell as a disc jockey with the Armed Forces service in Japan.
Next Hazlewood moved to California to study broadcasting, then relocated to Arizona, where he continued his deejay work, first in Coolidge, later in Phoenix. A young Duane Eddy came around the station in Coolidge (KCKY) to pick up the country records because Hazlewood and his colleagues never played most of them. Duane was strictly a country fan at this time and played guitar in a Chet Atkins style. It was around this time that Lee started writing songs.
In 1955 Hazlewood founded his first label, Viv Records, for which he recorded his first efforts as a singer, “Five More Miles To Folsom” and one other song, intended as demos. They stayed in the vaults until Bear Family released them in 1995. It was in Phoenix that Hazlewood and Duane Eddy made the contacts that were to have a profound influence on both their lives, local musicians like guitarist Al Casey and his guitar-playing wife Vivian (professionally known as Corki Casey), drummer Connie Conway and jack-of-all-trades Donnie Owens.
In 1956 Hazlewood wrote “The Fool” and asked Al Casey if he knew anyone who could record it. Casey suggested his friend Sanford Clark. Allegedly it took about one hundred takes before Hazlewood was satisfied. The record featured a repetitive guitar riff by Al Casey, derived from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning”. “The Fool” by Sanford Clark was not issued on Viv, as this was strictly a country label, but saw its first release on MCI before it was picked up by the much bigger Dot label for national distribution. By August 1956, “The Fool” was # 7 on the Billboard pop charts - Hazlewood had his first hit. Dot soon offered him a non-exclusive producer’s position. Lee accepted and moved to Los Angeles. All through 1957 he tried to come up with a second hit for Dot, but in vain. That same year he sold the Viv label to Loy Clingman.
In September 1957, Hazlewood went into partnership with Lester Sill, a veteran of the music business. They formed a publishing company (Gregmark) and co-produced many records, including those of Duane Eddy. Hazlewood persuaded Eddy to move away from country and switch to rock & roll. Together they developed the “twangy” guitar sound, characterized by playing lead on the bass strings. The first recording in this style was “Movin’ ’n’ Groovin’”, independently produced in Phoenix in November 1957. Sill and Hazlewood had trouble finding a company that was willing to release the instrumental, but eventually it was picked up by the Jamie label in Philadelphia and sold reasonably well (# 72). For the next four years Duane Eddy was a Jamie recording artist.
Lee Hazlewood was constantly experimenting with new recording techniques (he was an influence on Phil Spector) and by the time of Duane’s next single, “Rebel Rouser”, he had more or less perfected his production style, which included the use of a water storage tank, applied as an echo chamber. “Rebel Rouser” peaked at # 6 and was the first of a long series of hits by Duane Eddy, both in the USA and abroad. In the UK Eddy was even more popular than in his home country. Hazlewood also recorded a few songs for Jamie as a vocalist, first in 1958 under the pseudonym Mark Robinson (“Pretty Jane”), then in 1960 under his own name (“Words Mean Nothing”), backed by Duane Eddy in both cases.
In October 1960 Eddy terminated his partnership with Hazlewood and Sill, following a conflict about money. The 1961 Jamie recordings were produced by Duane Eddy himself. In the meantime Hazlewood concentrated on the labels he had set up with Lester Sill (Trey and Gregmark). The Paris Sisters scored four Hot 100 hits on Gregmark (one even made # 5, “I Love How You Love Me”), but these were all produced by Phil Spector.
During the first year of Duane Eddy's contract with RCA (1962), the collaboration between Eddy and Hazlewood was resumed, resulting in three hit singles and four albums, but the reunion was short-lived. Alert to the vogue for folk music, Hazlewood got involved with the Shacklefords (named after his wife), who had a modest hit (# 70) with “A Stranger In Your Town” in 1963. That year Lee also recorded his first album as a singer, “Trouble Is A Lonesome Town” (Mercury), now considered a classic piece of Americana. All tracks opened with a narrative introduction.
Disgusted by the British Invasion of 1964, Lee took an eight-month sabbatical from the music industry before joining Reprise Records, at the invitation of Jimmy Bowen. After producing solid hits for Dean Martin (“Houston”, # 21) and Martin’s son Dino with his friends (Dino, Desi & Billy), he was asked to help Nancy Sinatra with her singing career. After four years of trying, Nancy had not yet scored any hits, at least not in the USA (“Like I Do” was a # 4 hit in Holland in 1962). The first single Lee wrote and produced for her, “So Long Babe”, went to # 86. Then came “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”, released in December 1965. It went to # 1 in the USA, the UK, Holland and several other countries. A string of hits for Nancy followed over the next three years ; some of these, like “Jackson”, “Lady Bird” and “Some Velvet Morning” were Sinatra-Hazlewood duets. The Reprise LP “Nancy and Lee” peaked at # 13 on the album charts and stayed in the Top 200 for 44 weeks in 1968-69. A second album of duets (“Nancy And Lee Again”) would follow in 1972, on RCA.
Meanwhile, Hazlewood began to make more and more vocal recordings, for MGM, Reprise and LHI (Lee Hazlewood Industries), a label he had founded in 1966. He was temporarily reunited with Duane Eddy, whose Colpix and Reprise albums he produced. Lee also scored several films, both in the US and Sweden, where he lived for most of the 1970s. Between 1978 and 1993 he “sat on his assets”, in the words of Nancy Sinatra. Albums with new material came out in 1993, 1999, 2002 and 2006 (“Cake Or Death”). In 2005 Lee Hazlewood was diagnosed with renal cancer and he died two years later, aged 78.
More info :
Sessionography / discography :
Acknowledgements : John P. Dixon, Rob Finnis, Ulfert Wilkens, Stuart Colman (obituary in Now Dig This 294).
Dik, May 2017
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