Lefty Frizzell

Lefty Frizzell was probably the most influential country singer of all time. His unique note-bending vocal style has played a major role in much of the country music of the past fifty years. You can hear strains of his work in the style of Merle Haggard, which has been continued through George Strait, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley and on through the music of John Anderson, Mark Chesnutt, Joe Diffie, Clint Black. The Texas-born singer-songwriter’s major success came in an all-too-brief four-year period between 1950 and 1954, when he scored five number one country hits and a further ten top ten entries. For a time he was the chief rival to Hank Williams’ chart domination, yet, unlike Williams, he was not regarded as one of country music’s defining artists until much later. In fact, it was not until shortly before he died of a stroke in 1975, that Lefty Frizzell started to receive the acclaim he so justly deserved. A real stylist, for years he was out on a limb, keeping the honky-tonk sound alive in an era when Nashville was too preoccupied with pop crossovers. His performing style was nourished in the dancehalls of Texas and built heavily on the recordings of Jimmie Rodgers. He even cut a whole album of the legendary Singing Brakeman’s songs.

William Orville Frizzell was born on March 31, 1928 in Corsicana, Texas. His father was an oilfield roughneck and the family frequently moved around the east Texas oilfields. They were a poor family and the young Sonny (the family name for Lefty), was something of a tearaway. Only music kept him under control. By the age of twelve he was playing guitar and writing songs and four years later leading his own band and playing local dives and honky-tonks. Music, booze and sex were the main things on Lefty’s mind. By the time he was 17 he was married, and little more than a couple of years later, a night out with some teenage boys and girls went awfully wrong when one of the underage girls complained to her parents and Lefty was charged with statutory rape and ended up in the local prison. This brought him to his senses and he started to take his music a lot more seriously. He linked up with Jim Beck at his famous Dallas studio to make his first recordings in the summer of 1950. Signed to Columbia Records, Nashville, he became the biggest country star of 1951 with seven of the top 30 hits of the year. He was just twenty-three years old and was touring with Hank Williams on a merry-go-round of one-nighters and boozing. Bad management deals meant that Lefty got little money out of such self-penned hits as If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time, I Love You A Thousand Ways, I Want To Be With You Always and Always Late (With Your Kisses). Lacking management or career direction, Frizzell was ill prepared to build upon his initial success and within three years the hits had stopped flowing.

Though he became a Grand Ole Opry star and appeared regularly on the Louisiana Hayride, he could never come to terms with the smooth Nashville sound. In early 1953, he moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where he got a regular job on the Town Hall Party TV show. Early in 1954, he reached the Top Ten with Run ’Em Off, but it would be his last Top Ten record for five years. He felt burned out and didn’t have the energy to invest in his career. He had just two hits between 1954 and 1959: I Love You Mostly in 1955, and Cigarettes And Coffee Blues four years later. Lefty was frustrated that Columbia wasn’t releasing what he believed to be his best material, so he simply stopped writing and recording songs. However, he did tour sporadically, occasionally with his younger brother, David Frizzell. He enjoyed the occasional career upswings like the classic Long Black Veil in 1959 and the chart-topping Saginaw, Michigan in 1964.

Frizzell moved to Nashville in 1961, after the Town Hall Party closed in 1960. He began touring and recording at a more rapid rate, but apart from 1964’s Saginaw, Michigan, he usually struggled to have any of his songs break the top twenty. He developed a debilitating alcohol problem that came to plague him throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. Columbia was only releasing handfuls of albums and singles, though Lefty was recording an abundance of material. He drastically cut back on concert appearances and the lack of success only helped him sink deeper into alcoholism. In 1972, he left Columbia, and signed with ABC Records. Though the change in labels helped revitalise him artistically, he didn’t sell that many more records. However, he did have the enthusiasm to record albums, as well as play concerts and television shows. His alcohol addiction worsened and he developed high blood pressure, but he wouldn’t take the medication because he thought it would interfere with his drinking. As a result, he looked older than his 47 years when he died of a stroke on July 19, 1975.

Years of mediocre and badly marketed records had diminished Lefty Frizzell’s reputation, but after his death, a new generation of artists hailed him as an influence and an idol. He was deservedly inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982. In retrospect, his career had lasted a lot longer than he could ever have expected. Many singers have openly revealed their debt to him. Stoney Edwards probably spoke for many aspiring country singers when he wrote Hank And Lefty Raised My Country Soul, in 1973, but the two singers who gained most from the Frizzell style were undoubtedly Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley. They both recorded some of his songs and have passed the Frizzell sound down to the modern country singers of today, most never having heard a Lefty Frizzell record in their lives.

Recommended Listening

Treasures Untold (Rounder 1980)
The Best Of Lefty Frizzell (Rhino 1991)
Life’s Like Poetry (Bear Family 12-CD box set 1992)
That’s The Way Love Goes: The Final Recordings of Lefty Frizzell (MCA 1996)
Look What Thoughts Will Do: The Essential 1950-1963
(Columbia Legacy 1997
Steppin’ Out (Bear Family 2009)