LEFTY FRIZZELL—Liner notes to the Bear Family CD "STEPPIN' OUT"
Lefty Frizzell was the greatest honky-tonk singer of all time—if you ask the most educated and highly opinionated fans of country music, that is. Blessed with a voice that came naturally to him—a voice that held so much soul and carried such infinite layers of emotional expression, that grown men were oft-moved to tears—Lefty was also cursed with bad habits and a downward career path that left him dead in 1975 at the tragically young age of 47.
This compilation of tracks, part of the ‘Gonna Shake This Shack’ series, seeks to compile all the up-tempo numbers—hillbilly boogie, rockabilly, borderline rock and roll and hard late 1950s country—for a package that will undoubtedly appeal to crowd of rockabilly fans and those seeking to have a lone Lefty Frizzell disc in their collection.
Let it be known, however, that a disc that contains only the uptempo Lefty Frizzell numbers is much like a painting that uses only two of the primary colors. Lefty’s incredible depth of emotion lent itself best to plaintive ballads and waltzes, and although the uptempo numbers are also great, if you really want to experience the full breadth of Lefty’s talent this author urges you to seek out the most essential of Bear Family box sets, ‘Life’s Like Poetry.’ (BCD 15550)
William Orville ‘Lefty’ Frizzell was born March 31, 1928 in the oil and farm town of Corsicana, Texas, about 50 miles southeast of Dallas. As a young child, his family moved to El Dorado, Arkansas, where they remained until Lefty was a teenager. Although the family would always call him ‘Sonny,’ since he was the first boy in the family, the nickname ‘Lefty’ was acquired during a school fight with another boy. The nickname—which came because Lefty led with his left hand in the fight—stuck with him throughout his life, even though Lefty played his guitar right-handed.
As a child, Lefty loved music and began playing guitar at a young age, even securing a spot on a children’s radio show on the local station KELD at the age of 12. When the Frizzell family moved back to Texas, Lefty won a talent contest in Dallas, which bolstered the youngster to continue in music, which he did, alternating between working in the Texas oilfields and performing at honky-tonks on the weekends.
In 1945, Lefty wed Alice Harper, when both of them were 16 years old and too young to get married without parental permission. Soon afterward their first child, Lois, was born, and in 1946 Lefty and his new family moved to New Mexico in search of a better life, first to Capitan and then to Roswell, a then-booming Army town close to the West Texas border.
Lefty pursued singing and writing songs in Roswell, while Alice worked at a downtown café. A local musician had a Wilcox-Gay disc recorder, and Lefty begged to get some of his songs recorded on the primitive device, such was his desire to become a professional singer.
Times were tough and the family nearly starved to death, circumstances made worse by Lefty’s tendency to get in trouble with the law. Eight days after the legendary Roswell ‘U.F.O.’ crash happened in Roswell in July 1947, Lefty was arrested and served six months in the Roswell jail for what he called “fightin’ and carryin’ on” in a later interview. In reality, the charges were statutory rape, a married 19-year old man caught with a 14-year old girl. The time Lefty spent in jail just about killed him, wondering if Alice would take their new baby Lois and leave.
Whether ‘U.F.O.’ crashes or captured alien beings played into the equation, Lefty wrote the first of many future hit songs in the Roswell jail in September 1947, I Love You A Thousand Ways. The song was a plaintive apology to his wife Alice for his misdeeds.
Upon release in early 1948, Lefty and family moved back to Texas, where eventually he would set up a residency at the Ace of Clubs in Big Spring, a club gig that would last more than a year. Lefty’s original songs were popular with the local crowds, and on many occasions people recommended that Lefty should try making records.
Eventually Lefty heard about a talent scout in Dallas by the name of Jim Beck, and he set out on the 300-mile trip from Big Spring to Dallas in April 1950, to audition for Beck, the pleasure of which cost Lefty and his band one hundred of their hard-earned dollars.
Dallas, Texas in the late 1940’s was quickly establishing itself as a country music hub. There was a large ‘Opry’-type show there, the ‘Big ‘D’ Jamboree,’ which drew thousands each week to the Sportatorium in downtown Dallas. The show was broadcast on the radio to most of the southern United States.
Jim Beck was a magnet for talent in the area, where he not only ran the only real professional recording studio in Dallas at the time, but also through his work as a talent scout and A&R man for such labels as Columbia, King, Bullet, and Imperial.
Columbia Records in particular drew a lot of talent from the Dallas area, signing hillbilly acts like Frankie Miller and Charlie Adams, and rockabilly acts like Sid King and the Five Strings, among others. Included in that talent pool, and the greatest discovery for Beck and Columbia Records, was a fresh-faced kid named Lefty Frizzell.
While Beck was mildly interested in Frizzell’s ballads, it wasn’t until Lefty sang him a new song he had been working on, If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time) that Beck’s ears really perked up. There are many versions of the story, and fifty years later it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in deciphering these many accounts, but what counts is that by July 1950 Lefty was recording his first session at Jim Beck’s studio as a newly signed Columbia Recording artist.
This compilation begins with a track that makes buying this CD essential—an unreleased track from 1950 that didn’t make it on the original Bear Family box set due to licensing problems at the time. Steppin’ Out is a wonderful slice of honky tonk—co-written by Hank Williams and Jimmy Fields—that is heard on compact disc for the first time here—a rare 45 reissue of the song was released in the 1980s, but is finally here on CD for the Lefty fanatics.
Lefty’s first few sessions in 1950 and 1951 resulted in several of the biggest hits of his career—If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time), I Love You A Thousand Ways, My Baby’s Just Like Money, I Want To Be With You Always, Always Late (With Your Kisses), Mom And Dad’s Waltz, and Don’t Stay Away (Till Love Grows Cold). These early successes would be the biggest hits Lefty would ever have (save for the #1 hit Saginaw, Michigan in 1964), and although he would have charted records sporadically even into the 1970s, these songs would be forever known as his greatest hits.
From these early sessions, with their primal musical backing (featuring the mysterious Madge Sutee, a piano-pounding female in the Del Wood tradition), we have included here the up-tempo numbers Shine, Shave, Shower (It’s Saturday), When Payday Comes Around, You Want Everything But Me, Give Me More, More (Of Your Kisses), If You Can Spare The Time (I Won’t Miss The Money), I Won’t Be Good For Nothin’, and I’m An Old, Old Man (Tryin’ To Live While I Can). None of these were big hits, but all of these are excellent examples of 1950s Texas honky-tonk. To modern ears the barrelhouse piano and loose arrangements may make the Jim Beck recordings of this era sound quite primitive and dated, but this is exactly the way bands of this era sounded in the dusty Texas icehouses and taverns.
Lefty’s first flush of success brought large sums of money, even after Jim Beck’s “songwriting” cut and Jim Bulleit’s “publishing” cut (sadly, this was a defining theme in Lefty’s career—he trusted the people around him, all of whom cut themselves in to large chunks of his money, usually for some easy money up front as an advance). Lefty, like Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, was another poor country boy with no training on how to deal with success and the money that came with it.
These early years brought Cadillacs, fancy Western Suits, a tour bus, an airplane, and all the accoutrements of hillbilly flash that a hot young star could want. Soon Lefty had a flashy new Gibson SJ-200 guitar, the top of the line instrument that the Gibson company made. To add icing to the cake, not long after buying the guitar he took it to Paul Bigsby in California to have a new custom neck put on, and a custom pick guard with Lefty’s name inlaid on it. This guitar would be the iconic representation of Lefty’s image for many years to come, and though he sometimes toured with other guitars, Lefty kept the guitar until the day he died. After Lefty died, it was displayed in the Country Music Hall Of Fame for decades (the instrument was finally sold last year, and the buyer was none other than Merle Haggard).
In 1951 Lefty was invited to be a cast member of the WSM ‘Grand Old Opry’ in Nashville, where he shared a dressing room and co-star billing with another bright light of the era—Hank Williams. Though the two had jived between each other about who was the bigger star, there was more a friendly rivalry than anything else.
In the liner notes that Charles Wolfe wrote for the ‘Life’s Like Poetry’ box set, Disc Jockey Hugh Cherry remembered a conversation between Lefty and Hank that took place in 1951 at Eddie Dubois’ Key Club in Printers Alley in Nashville: “We (Hugh and Hank) were sitting there and Lefty came in by himself, a little greased, and sat down with us. Hank decided to feign displeasure with Lefty, and he started out by saying, ‘Here boy, why don’t you just stay down in Texas, this is my territory up here.’ This was about the time that Lefty had all the chart songs, and Lefty got that big smile on his face, and said, ‘Hank, the whole damn country is the back yard of both of us; can’t you realize there’s enough room for all of us?’ Hank kind of smiled and said, ‘Well, I was just kidding. Actually, it’s good to have a little competition. Makes me realize I got to work harder than ever. And boy, you’re the best competition I ever had.’ That pleased Frizzell very much, because there really was a great admiration which existed between the two.”
Lefty’s tenure on the Opry was short-lived. Most people in the business of Country Music know that Opry membership is a double-edged sword—while the exposure and popularity of the show is unparalleled, the money that the Opry pays its performers is often a mere fraction of what a ‘hot’ artist can make on a Saturday night. As a result, Lefty’s manager of the time (Jack Starnes, one half of Starday Records in Texas) began booking Lefty on a hectic string of performances all across the United States, forfeiting Opry membership. In retrospect, it may have been a prudent financial decision at the time, but ultimately hurt Lefty’s popularity in the long run.
It didn’t take long—barely a year or two—before the flush of success and fame and money became too much for Lefty to handle. He was always a drinker, but now the temptations of roaring all night were often too strong to resist. In the same way that people today love to tell George ‘No-Show’ Jones stories, in the early 1950s ‘Lefty Frizzell stories’ were a commonplace discussion amongst country music fans. It was a reputation, albeit well deserved, that Lefty would carry until his death.
A common practice in the early days of country music involved a star hiring a ‘front man,’ or another singer and M.C. who would warm up the audience before the star came out. Lefty was no exception, but Lefty’s front men were expected not only to warm up the audience, but also to handle the often too-drunk-to-perform and belligerent ‘star’ backstage. Freddie Hart, who later became a big star in his own right, began his career as one of Lefty’s front men. Hart has nothing but positive things to say about his former boss, and credits Lefty with discovering him and getting him his first recording contract—but tells of many nights where he would have to perform the entire show to a crowd of disappointed and angry patrons, with Lefty backstage unable to perform.
The years 1951 through 1955 were turbulent ones for Lefty. The management relationship with Jack Starnes soured, resulting in a lawsuit against Lefty, settled out of court, that took away most of the royalties of the earlier recordings, as well as his excellent touring band. Lefty soon found management and musicians through J.D. Miller in Crowley, Louisiana, including the excellent front man Lou Millet, but the relationship was again short-lived. By 1953 Lefty and his family had relocated to California, where Lefty found a new manager—Steve Stebbins— and joined the cast of the ‘Town Hall Party’ television show.
The biggest problem amongst all this turmoil in Lefty’s life through these years was the lack of hits. The new sensation that had four songs in the top ten in 1951 barely dented the charts in the mid-1950s. Many great performances were released during this time, but none of them had the chart magic to click with the buying public. You Can Count On Me and Run ‘Em Off, from 1953, and Mama, from 1954, are found on this collection, superb tunes but ignored at the time of their release.
If one had to mark a place in Lefty’s career that delineated the early years from the later years, it would have to be the year 1956 and the change of recording from Dallas to Nashville. Lefty had continued to record in Dallas at Jim Beck’s studio, mostly at the behest of Columbia A&R man Don Law. What few people know today is that Law was preparing to make Dallas the center of Columbia’s country music recording, and Decca Records’ Paul Cohen was about to do the same, decisions that would have placed Dallas as the “Country Music Capital of the world,” instead of Nashville.
What transpired is a little-known event but one that shook the landscape of country music recording—Jim Beck died in May 1956 after cleaning his tape recorders with carbon tetrachloride, an effective but deadly solution that requires adequate ventilation and short exposure times. Beck ignored these dangers and inhaled too much of the cleaning solution and died a week later, taking with him the future of country music recording in Dallas, Texas.
With Jim Beck out of the picture, Lefty began recording in Nashville at Owen Bradley’s recording studio just a few weeks after Beck’s death. What that meant in the big picture was a radical change in the sound of Lefty’s records, not only with a different, more ‘polished’ recording fidelity, but also with a completely different set of musicians. The end result, taken as a whole in Lefty’s oeuvre, is an obvious difference in the sound of the earlier Dallas recordings and the post-1956 Nashville recordings.
Just Can’t Live That Fast Anymore, recorded at the first session in Nashville, was one of Lefty’s best up-tempo records of the 1950s. This first session featured three of Hank Williams’ former band members—Sammy Pruett on guitar, Don Helms on steel guitar, and Jerry Rivers on fiddle—but if there was attempt to unite Lefty with Hank’s band on his return to Nashville, it was short-lived. Over the next fifteen years, Lefty would record mostly with the Nashville ‘A-Team’ session musicians, specifically with Grady Martin on lead guitar acting as de facto arranger and producer on most of his sessions.
Lefty was just too country to ever really record rock and roll or rockabilly, but like most of his contemporaries, Lefty saw Elvis Presley taking away a lot of the country music revenue, and Lefty flirted with the ‘Big Beat’ like nearly every other country artist of the day. While he would probably write off these records as novelties, and certainly not his best work, the fact remains that many of the tunes Lefty recorded from 1956-1959 have become favorites among the rockabilly cult.
Cuts included on this CD such as From An Angel To A Devil, No One To Talk To (But The Blues), Time Out For The Blues, My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It, Cigarettes and Coffee Blues, and You’re Humbugging Me exhibit all the qualities of great rockabilly, and with the band featuring Grady Martin on lead guitar, Bob Moore or Roy ‘Junior’ Huskey on bass, and Buddy Harman on drums, these records have the sound and feel of other records recorded at Bradley’s studio from around the same time.
A California session in March 1957 found Lefty recording with the ‘Town Hall Party’ band (featuring Joe Maphis on guitar), singing a duet with Johnny Bond on Sick, Sober, And Sorry, also included here. There were a pair of California sessions and a Nashville session in 1958 that had Lefty reprising his earlier hits with a more polished late-1950s sound (all for an updated ‘Greatest Hits’-type package released as ‘The One And Only Lefty Frizzell’). The versions of If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time) and Always Late (With Your Kisses) found here date from these sessions, by no means Lefty’s finest hour but an interesting mix of 1950s pop-rock and country-western.
Around this same time in the mid-to-late-1950s, Lefty joined many of his contemporaries in the country music world by recording radio shows for the popular Armed Forces program ‘Country Music Time,’ broadcast by recorded transcriptions to soldiers across the USA and the world. These radio shows are a fascinating glimpse into what country music shows sounded like at that time, because the vast majority of these ‘Country Music Time’ transcriptions were recorded live in the studio with the singer and his or her touring band.
The Lefty Frizzell transcriptions feature great performances that are often quite different from his recordings (for instance, Lefty’s live version of Cigarettes And Coffee Blues heard here is much truer to Marty Robbins’ original demo version that Marty pitched to Lefty than the rockabilly-powered version released as a Columbia single), as well as instrumentals and performances by guest artists (Freddie Hart is included on several of these transcriptions, and here we have included Lefty’s brother David singing the popular Carl Mann hit Mona Lisa). From these transcriptions we have also included Desert Blues, Somebody’s Pushin’, Sunday Down In Tennessee, and You Win Again.
The last five tracks on this compilation date from the late 1950s and early 1960s and are more stone country than anything else, but they have that certain something that we feel will appeal to fans of the ‘Gonna Shake This Shack’ series. Farther Than My Eyes Can See is a great Freddie Hart composition, cut at the same session in July 1959 as My Blues Will Pass, both featuring the unmistakable sound of Grady Martin on guitar. So What! Let It Rain dates from 1960, and Heaven’s Plan dates from 1961, both being the closest Lefty ever came to a pop-rock crossover sound. The latest track on the CD is She’s Gone, Gone, Gone from 1965, a song which surprisingly has become a breakout hit in the last few years among the rockabilly and retro country crowd.
Although Lefty would make hundreds more recordings from 1960 until his death in 1975, the thirty-five tracks found on this CD best represent the hillbilly boogie and rockabilly side of Lefty Frizzell.
Lefty would ultimately have two of his biggest hits in 1959—The Long Black Veil—and 1964—Saginaw, Michigan, the latter being the biggest chart hit of his career. There was another front man and duet partner—Abe Mulkey—who would continue to perform with Lefty until his death. There would be thousands more shows, more short stops on the long way down, and a few more flirtations with the country music charts, before Lefty finally gave up the ghost and died July 19, 1975. He was only 47 years old, but in photos taken before his death, he looks like an elderly man, aged beyond his years.
Lefty’s singing style has left a longer-lasting impression than any of his 1950s contemporaries, mostly through the influence of Merle Haggard, who has admittedly taken the Frizzell slurred-syllable singing style as a cornerstone of his entire career, influencing more modern stars such as Randy Travis in the process.
In an interview with the author for a recent box set, Merle Haggard had this to say about Lefty’s death: “Lefty got his feelings hurt, and the thieves robbed him of his inspiration, and they robbed him of his money, too…and they took his songs. He should have been able to say, ‘I’m Lefty Frizzell.’ He was only 47 years old, he should have been sittin’ in that place Eddy Arnold had. But, because he was a poor boy, a little boy from Texas without any representation, man, they took him to the cleaners. Everybody did.”
Merle continues: “Lefty was a bright guy, but he was a very forgiving nature, very pleasant person, and I think he held it all inside. And I think it bothered him so much, that he had that stroke. He became very weak, in the last days, I talked to a lot of people around him. And he just kind of slowed down, and cuddled up and died, from heartbreak. Alice, his wife wasn’t satisfied with him, the music world had turned their back on him, he got beat out of all the money, he had outgrown the glory, and he didn’t have no reason to be alive…he knew that he had peaked out. And I think when you reach that point in your life, where you know that you’re not going to do anything else that will be worth a damn, I think you sort of start to shut down. Somethin’ will get you…and he was a blood clot waitin’ to happen, you know.”
This collection seeks to squarely focus on the good times, the honky-tonk high-water mark—Lefty Frizzell’s glory period of the 1950s and early 1960s. The boots still had a fine sheen to them, and the clothes were crisp and newly tailored. Enjoy the styling of the finest singer country music has ever known—a man from Corsicana, Texas, by the name of Lefty Frizzell.
Thanks to Merle Haggard