James D. Martin -
Lefty Frizzell has been called the most influential singer/stylist in the history of Country Music. He was born
William Orville Frizzell on March 31, 1928 in Corsicana, TX. His father was an oil driller who moved the family
from Texas to El Dorado, Arkansas, shortly after his birth.
His uncle Lawrence bought him his first guitar from an old black farmer for $2.00. With that guitar and an old
Victrola, he learned every song of his hero and greatest influence, Jimmie Rodgers. During this time, Frizzell
developed the style of singing that would revolutionize how country songs would be sung. By age 12, Frizzell,
who was called Sonny by his family and close friends, had his own spot on a Children's show at an El Dorado
radio station. Moving back to Texas in the early 1940's, Frizzell earned his nickname Lefty, following a
schoolyard fight. He never fought in the Golden Gloves.
By his early twenty's, Frizzell was a regular at the Ace of Clubs in Big Springs, Texas and after spending
years singing in other various honky tonks, barn dances and parties, lefty got the attention of Columbia Records
in 1950. Don Law, the record executive who signed him to Columbia, heard that sound no one including himself had
ever heard before. Frizzell signed with Columbia at the age of 22, releasing "If You've Got The Money Honey,
I've Got The Time" and "I Love You A Thousand Ways" in July that year. In 1951, Lefty owned the charts with the
release of "I Want To Be With You Always" (#7), "Always Late (With Your Kisses)" (#1), "Mom And Dad's Waltz" (#2),
and "Travelin Blues" (#8). Frizzell held the number one spot for 26 weeks. Having 4 songs in the top 10 at the
same time, is a feat that has never been duplicated to this day! Don Law hinted about some issues with Lefty in
his affectionate liner notes on an album that was released shortly after Frizzell's death, "In his early years,
when I knew him best, he was happy-go-lucky and irresponsible," Law wrote. "His motto could have well been
the title of his hit "Always Late" - he was never on time for a session and sometimes didn't show at all."
Lefty Frizzell was a premiere songwriter and song interpreter. The deep and emotional sound that gets a person's
heart and that wonderful quaver he inserted into his vocals has gone on to influence singers from Merle Haggard to
Daryl Singletary. "I'm not really a lazy guy, but I get tired of holding notes for a long time. Instead of
straining, I just let it roll out and it feels good to me," Lefty said of his vocal style.
1951 and 1952 saw Frizzell touring with Hank Williams. It has been said that the towns that they played have
never been the same! Lefty said, "Hank and I did shows together. We'd flip a coin to see who would go first.....
I forget where we were at the time, but one day Hank said, 'You need to join the Opry.'" At the age of 23, on
July 21, 1951, Lefty sang "I love You A Thousand Ways" and "I Want To Be With You Always" on the stage of the
Grand Ole Opry. By February 1952, Frizzell left the Opry on his own accord and moved to California. Stardom
continued through the 50's in California, where he toured constantly, headlining the Hollywood Bowl in 1955
and appearing regularly on the TV show "Town Hall Party", the Compton-based country show that was a
mini-version of the Opry and "Country America." Charting 15 top tens between 1950 and 1954, when Rock 'n Roll
began to get the audience's attention somewhat away from country music when he recorded "Long Black Veil"
in 1959, he again took a spot in the top 10. Frizzell recorded "Saginaw Michigan" in 1964, his last #1 hit
and a song so strong, nothing could hold it back. It was nominated for a Grammy, and crossed over to the pop
chart, a rarity for country songs in that era.
Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard remembers Frizzell from the "Town Hall Party" days. "He was a wonderful
guy, someone who was just about as loose and free as any rock star you ever saw - on and off stage. He was
really flamboyant, a good looking guy with curly hair." In listening to Lefty, you feel the conflict between
the lure of good times and the melancholy ones. Frizzell was not only original in his vocal sound - he was
the first country singer to wear rhinestones on stage. Although Frizzell liked sharp clothes, it took some
convincing by a Los Angeles tailor, Nudie Cohen that women loved men that looked "flashy", and that
rhinestones would work.
Lefty, no longer with Columbia records, signed with ABC Records in 1972. He recorded two albums that some
regard as his masterpieces. "That's The Way Love goes", "I Can't Get Over You To Save My Life" and
"I Never Go Around Mirrors" co-written by Frizzell whose disillusioned tone could be seen in part as a
reflection on his own troubled life. Don Gant, who produced the album, reported that the singer was so
moved when he listened to the finished album he broke down and cried. "He was just overcome that it could
be that good," Gant said. The 1960's and early 70's saw country music going through a change. Nashville
was caught up in the pursuit for pop hits, therefore "I Never Go Around Mirrors" only made it to #25 on
the charts, can you imagine?
Lefty was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 1972 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in
1982. Lefty had a heart slightly bigger than Oklahoma, but some say his personal opinion of his own
talent was not so big. Merle Haggard has publicly told the world how he loves Lefty, who was the first
person to put him on the stage as a teenager. How nervous Merle was to open for his hero, Lefty Frizzell!
Merle says "When I was 15 years old, I thought Lefty hung the moon. You know....I'm not sure he didn't."
The Hag recorded his own tribute single, "That's The Way It Was In '51". Willie cut a tribute album entitled,
"To Lefty, From Willie" in honor of his friend. "Hank And Lefty Raised My Country Soul" was another great
song written by Dallas Frazier and Doodle Owens, and recorded by Stoney Edwards. There are other songs,
such as "They Left Their memory In Good Hands" written by John Riggs and recorded by Rusty Adams, Lefty's
friend and unofficial road manager at the time of his death. A recent tune called "Ain't It The Truth"
was recorded by yet another Lefty follower, Daryl Singletary, who also co-wrote this song along with
John Hobbs and Doug Johnson. Some say that Elvis must have seen Lefty at some point, because he was doing
in '55 and '56 what Lefty was doing in '50 and '51! Right before Lefty died, Elvis called him and asked
him to send him some songs so he could do them on an album tribute of his singing heroes. Unfortunately,
that album never materialized. Other rockers including Bob Dylan, The Band and The Burrito Brothers have
been influenced by this country star that had all the looks, the moves and the talent that makes a
complete package as an artist.
"When I sing, to me every word has a feeling about it," Lefty said in an interview right before his untimely
death. "I had to linger, had to hold it, I didn't want to let go of it. I want to hold one word through
a whole line of melody."
Lefty Frizzell with his first recording band taken at the famous Jim
Beck Studio, Dallas, 1950. From right to left: Lefty Frizzell - vocals,
guitar, Leon Rhodes - lead guitar, Buddy Griffin - bass, Bobby Williamson -
rhythm guitar & MC, Vic Candis - fiddle, and Jim Kelly - steel guitar. From
the cover of the rare, unreleased 45 containing "Always In Love" and
Steppin' Out", which never appeared on any of his Columbia releases. Photo
courtesy of Buddy Griffin.
On July 19, 1975, country music lost a part of it's very soul. Lefty chose alcohol over taking medication
needed for high blood pressure, causing the stroke that took his life. He was 47. He died in Nashville.
He is buried on Music Row at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Goodlettsville, TN.
As long as artists like Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, and Lefty's son,
Crockett Frizzell are around, Lefty will live on. Crockett's recently released album includes a
four-song tribute to "my Dad and My Hero, Country Music Great, Lefty Frizzell."
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