Off the Charts

Lefty Frizzell: Country Music Bedrock

Issue 145

Everybody knows who Hank Williams is, but somehow Lefty Frizzell is not a household name. In the early days of country music, however, the two men were equally important in establishing and popularizing the genre. Roy Orbison, George Strait, and Randy Travis are among the country music luminaries who stand on the musical bedrock created by Lefty Frizzell.

He grew up in the 1930s in East Texas and parts of Arkansas and Louisiana, wherever his dad could find work in the oil fields. Born William Orville Frizzell, he was called “Sonny” as a child; much later, record executives leaked the intriguing rumor that he got the nickname “Lefty” after landing a serious punch in a schoolyard fight. Didn’t matter if it was true; “Lefty” stuck.

After falling hard for the yodeling voice and songwriting style of Jimmie Rodgers, Frizzell taught himself to sing and play guitar. He also started writing songs, and by the 1940s he was gigging and making radio appearances with original material. His big break came in 1950, and it unfolded in a way that spotlighted his twin contributions to country music: his voice and his songs. When he sang his composition “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” as an audition for record producer Jim Beck, Beck loved it and took Frizzell’s demo to Nashville. There, Columbia Records’ Don Law recognized the voice of a potential star; he signed Frizzell and released his debut, Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, in 1951.

Frizzell’s smooth delivery brings Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 6 (She Left Me This Morning)” to a whole new level of cool. It’s easy to understand why that clear, offhand voice caught the imagination of the American listening public. Also, respect must be paid to the barrelhouse piano player and the fiddler on this record, session musicians whose names are lost to time.

 

Listen to Lefty (1952) came out next, exhibiting Frizzell’s outstanding skill at creating his own melodies and lyrics. He managed to use the standard chord progression of a bluegrass ballad as the foundation for wide-ranging, far-wandering melodies that come across as simple and straightforward despite their crafty ornamentation.

A good example is “I Want to Be with You Always.” The unhurried tempo and relaxed vocals are part of the Frizzell signature, a voice one can trust, wise and yet simultaneously unconcerned about the difficulties life throws at you. His precise vocal intonation should be noted too, given how rare that skill is; that accuracy was what allowed him to pull off complicated melodies without them becoming a distraction.

 

Some have called Frizzell “the original Elvis” because of his velvet delivery and suave, fashionable looks, but sadly that self-confidence did not translate into a happy life. He was drinking so heavily in the 1950s that he ended up on the outs with many people in his professional life, from the team at Columbia Records to his own manager and the Grand Ole Opry staff. Although he was a sought-after performer on stage, radio, and TV, he stopped writing songs, frustrated that Columbia refused to release the ones he thought were the best. Although he was a top seller at first, the singles he did release during that decade charted lower and lower. Furthermore, he got into a couple of serious car accidents, likely related to his drinking.

His career received a much-needed boost in 1959, when he finally landed a single in the Top 10, a wistful number called “The Long Black Veil.” Johnny Cash would later bring it back into the charts with his ghostly version in 1965. Rallied by the song’s success, Columbia at last put out another Frizzell album, the first in seven years. The One and Only Lefty Frizzell included “The Long Black Veil,” a much breezier accounting of the story than Cash left us.

 

This was followed quickly by a second tribute album to Jimmie Rogers in 1960, but then another few years of strife slowed Frizzell’s output. For a moment in 1963 it looked like he was back on track, celebrating the single “Saginaw, Michigan” reaching the top of the country charts. Although that touching view into the life of a working man earned Frizzell a Grammy nomination, it would be his last major success.

Columbia named an album after the song. Saginaw, Michigan (1964) also included the heartbreak ballad “I’m Not the Man I’m Supposed to Be” by rockabilly and country songwriter Wayne Walker. If you’re a George Jones fan, you will note the influence here.

 

Despite ebbing sales, Columbia took a new approach to Frizzell’s marketing at this point, pushing out at least a record per year. The Sad Side of Love (1965) was followed by The Great Sound of Lefty Frizzell (1966). The year 1967 saw the release of two albums: Puttin’ On and Mom and Dad’s Waltz. Unlike later rock and country albums, these were not the artist’s creations, but compilations by the record company of new and old material. Some had already shown up on other albums or been released as singles.

One example is “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” which Frizzell first recorded in 1951 and then did a slicker version of in 1958. Columbia turned the latter into a single and named an album after it a few years later. The arrangement is rich in textures, with backup singers, mandolin, and a violin section. But the star is that silky Frizzell voice.

 

Columbia put out one more Frizzell album, Signed, Sealed and Delivered (1968), before ending his contract. His health and reliability were deteriorating. After a few years out of the studio, he signed with ABC Records, which gave him a chance to make a few more albums. None of them sold well.

The ragged sound of Frizzell’s voice on The Legendary Lefty Frizzell (1973) leaves no question that his musical peak is behind him. Producer Don Grant went out of his way to provide sonic support with an over-abundant arrangement that attempts to stand in for the smoothness now missing from the “original Elvis.” Still, that suave phrasing is distinctively, unmistakably Frizzell.

 

After decades of alcoholism, Frizzell died of a stroke in 1975, at the age of only 47. Film producer and director M. Douglas Silverstein is currently working on a documentary about this influential country star; hopefully that means more people will come to appreciate his legacy.

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