By Mike Greenblatt
William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell is more than just one of country music’s all-time greats. For old-time country fans, Lefty is among the elite group of performers who are immediately known by their first names.
Frizzell’s influence has stretched over generations of male vocalists. Merle Haggard once said, “Most of us learned to sing listening to him.”
Frizzell’s phrasing was pure soul. He’d lag just behind the beat, with an elasticity in his voice that The Band emulated whenever Levon Helm took the mic. (The Band famously covered Lefty’s folk-influenced hit “The Long Black Veil,” written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin.)
Singers like Willie Nelson, Dwight Yoakam, John Anderson, George Strait, George Jones, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley all have a little Lefty in their phrasing, delivery and timbre. And they’ve all mentioned it in interviews.
Bottom Line: Lefty Frizzell was a singer’s singer.
Born in Corsicana, Texas, on March 31, 1928, and raised in El Dorado, Ark., Frizzell’s major influences were Ernest Tubb [1914-1984] and The Singing Brakeman himself, Mr. Jimmie Rodgers [1897-1933].
Although Frizzell’s artistic legacy is grand, the man behind the music lived a complex, even heartbreaking, life. As a teenager, he sang on radio shows, dances, talent contests and bars, despite being underage. His style was perfect for honky-tonks throughout the South as well as New Mexico and Nevada. In the mid-1940s, he was arrested for statutory rape. When he got out of jail, he worked with his dad on an oil rig.
In the early 1950s, Frizzell was singing again, leading the house band at The Ace Of Clubs in Texas, where he came to the attention of Jim Beck. Frizzell was singing mostly covers for dancing patrons. But Beck loved Lefty’s unusual and distinctive vocal style enough to ask him if he had any of his own tunes.
That’s when Lefty whipped out “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time” and “I Love You A Thousand Ways,” two songs that are now considered classics and have been covered by dozens of artists. Jim Beck took a tape of Lefty singing those two songs to Columbia Records. Frizzell was signed to the label after producer Don Law saw a live set, and those two songs became his first single.
Just before the dawn of rock ’n’ roll, Frizzell dominated the country charts with songs including “I Want To Be With You Always” (No. 1 for 11 straight weeks) and “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” (No. 1 for 12 straight weeks). At one point, Frizzell had four songs in the country Top 10, a feat that has never been duplicated since.
Riding high at the top in 1952, Lefty fired his band, joined the Grand Ole Opry, quit the Grand Ole Opry and started spending his money lavishly, drinking more and mistakenly thinking his success would last forever. In 1953, he moved to Los Angeles. In ’54, he scored with “Run ‘Em Off.” An embittered Frizzell refused to write and record, and the hits soon dried up. He accepted a side gig touring with his brother, David Frizzell, who enjoyed a modest career of his own.
“The Long Black Veil” ignited Frizzell’s comeback and prompted him to move to Nashville in 1961. “Saginaw, Michigan,” written by Bill Anderson and Don Wayne, which reached No. 1 in 1964, was his last big hit. By then, Lefty had developed into a full-blown alcoholic. Barely functioning, he nevertheless kept on with his desperate search to return to his former glory throughout the ’60s and ’70s. By the time he died from a massive stroke on July 19, 1975, brought on by a host of alcohol-related symptoms, he looked much older than his 47 years.
Frizzell is one of those artists whose legacy has eclipsed his time on earth as to how he is remembered. First, before he even died, came the song “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul” by Stoney Edwards in 1973. Willie Nelson made a whole album of Lefty songs in 1977 called “To Lefty From Willie.” Lefty was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. George Strait recorded “Lefty’s Gone” in 1985. Roy Orbison went under the name of “Lefty Wilbury” in honor of the fallen hero in his supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. There’s even a song about Frizzell’s guitar: “Lefty’s Old Guitar” by J.D. Crowe & The New South. The 12-CD box “Life’s Like Poetry” (Bear Family) is the ultimate Lefty set. GM