By Bruce Sylvester
AN ARTICLE FROM LIFE: THE COMPLETE RECORDINGS
Bear Family (20 CDs and hardbound book)
“When I sing, every line has a feeling about it. 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, to linger with it all the way down. I didn't want to let go of that no more than I wanted to let go of the woman I loved, “ said William Orville (“Lefty”) Frizzell.
In the evolution of country music, Lefty (1928-75) was a smooth crooner following in the footsteps of the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. He was an inspiration to Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, who both did tribute LPs to him.
In the early 1950s, he rivaled Hank Williams to be king of country music. But while Hank was pure hillbilly, Lefty's sound was as wide open as his native Texas. Pain could have been Hank's middle name, but laid-back Lefty was out for a good time and “more, more, more of your kisses.”
This humongous 361-track package is Bear Family's third Lefty extravaganza, following 14-LP "His Life, His Music" (1984) and 12-CD "Life's like Poetry" (1992). This time, besides all his studio sessions, we get demo tapes going back to the 1940s (before his first professional recordings) and radio transcriptions. Over eight CDs his younger brother David Frizzell narrates his candid bio "I Love You a Thousand Ways: The Lefty Frizzell Story," an account filled with alcohol, blood, humor, and fighting – especially with wife Alice, who wed him when both were but sixteen. In the matrimonial boxing ring, they were an equal match.
Both sides of his 1950 debut on Columbia hit #1 – not bad for a 22-year-old. “If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time” was solid Saturday night honky-tonk fun. At 18, he'd penned its tender flip side “I Love You a Thousand Ways” to Alice from a jail cell amid a six-month sentence for involvement with a 14-year-old. The box's amply illustrated 264-page book shows his loving handwritten letter to Alice where the song is still prose not yet set to music. David's details of the case include Lefty's experiences with apparently friendly jailers.
Among all the box's demos and transcripts, we get a whopping 12 renditions of “If You've Got the Money.” Its demo has an original verse “There ain't no use in marryin' and havin' those love pains. We'll spread joy, boy oh boy, without those balls and chains,” that was cleaned up for the studio release. Jo Stafford's cover reached #14 on the pop lists.
Inevitably, Columbia tried to again hit pay dirt with a 1952 sequel, “If You Can Spare the Time (I Won't Miss the Money).” It didn't chart. By then, Lefty had gone from poverty to wealth. Maybe listeners couldn't identify with his line about his Cadillac. The moolah/time notion resurfaces in his undated demo of “Steppin' Out,” which his friend Hank Williams co-wrote with Jimmy Fields though no recording of it by Hank seems to have surfaced.
Into 1953, he rode country's top 10, but only cracked it four times in coming years. Even the box's long unissued tracks from his early Columbia sessions are delightful in their ornery playfulness. While a Saturday night/Sunday morning duality filled '50s country music, Lefty generally only celebrated Saturday night with occasional exceptions like '57's minimally sorry “Sick, Sober and Sorry,” a duet with Johnny Bond reprising Bond's 1951 solo smash of the ditty.
On the refrain of “Give Me More, More, More (of Your Kisses),” his band joins him in happily shouting, “more, more, more!” The notes say that his punctuality inspired “Always Late (with Your Kisses)” with its superb steel guitar intro. Percussion like a ticking clock accompanies the time references on “It Gets Late So Early.”
As for unabashed sentimentality (a popular tone back then), there was 1951's “Mom and Dad's Waltz.” We're told that he originally wrote it solely to his mother and not for his volatile, abusive, but sometimes helpful father. Then he added Dad so he wouldn't be mad. Lefty arranged for his parents to get the song's royalties but (since his father couldn't handle money) changed the arrangement so the dough went straight to Mom. Years later, Merle Haggard – a huge fan – said the song inspired his classic “Mama Tried.”
Lefty's early demos show him recreating the style of Texas troubadour Ernest Tubb and Tubb's iconic forebear, laconic Jimmie Rodgers. Lefty's own sublime vocal style came later, though nods to Rodgers crop up in the box. Country singers rarely got to record albums from scratch in the early '50s, but Columbia let him do a charming eight-song 10-inch LP of Rodgers' songs – in part because so many Rodgers originals weren't then in print. We hear the album here.
“A curly-haired, curly-voiced boy,” in brother David's words, he made singing sound effortless. Think of Frank Sinatra's line “Nice and easy does it every time.” From late in his career, his vibrato on the word “horse shoes” on “That's the Way Love Goes” is so discreet and understated that you may not even fully realize that you're hearing it.
As honky-tonk fell out of style, his chart performance faltered. After 1954's fond yet ornery “Run 'Em Off,” he didn't crack country's top 10 until 1959's spooky “Long Black Veil,” which lyricist Bob Dill created from two unrelated stories and a line of a hymn. (In the '60s, Joan Baez and then The Band dug deeper into the ballad's innocent-man-hanging darkness.) In 1964, he scored his first #1 since '51's “Always Late” with droll con-job tale “Saginaw Michigan.”
As time went on, Columbia didn't always produce his sessions well. From 1958, we hear four early hits redone with schlock arrangements that don't fit his lyrics. Understandably, the session wasn't released back then, but the box lets us suffer through it now.
Meanwhile, on the home front, “Alice and Lefty fought for any reason or no reason,” David relates. At one point, she became devoutly religious. Her minister, Jimmie Rodgers Snow (son of country star Hank Snow), told her she couldn't lead a Christian life wed to a drinking sinner like Lefty so she prepared to leave him. When Snow said alcoholics' wives should take the money in their husbands' bank accounts and send it to his church, Alice did so. Yet she never left Lefty for good.
From an artistic standpoint, Lefty's luck changed in 1972 when he signed with ABC, where producer Don Gant fortunately used restraint with the syrupy string sections and choruses watering down so many Nashville sessions at the time. Chart success was scant, but in retrospect his ABC tracks shine. Take “I Never Go around Mirrors,” “That's the Way Love Goes” and Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker's co-write “Railroad Lady.” Bittersweet in its nostalgia, “Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy” notes a few bygone C&W classics in its bridge, ending with Lefty's own “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” By this point, there was a sadness in his lyrics as well as his vocals in contrast to his early sessions' buoyancy.
Time was running out for Lefty. When his blood pressure soared, he refused medication since it would interfere with his drinking. A stroke felled him on July 19, 1975. A 1956 track's title proved true: “I Just Can't Live That Fast Any More.”
This behemoth of a box set is a superb salute to him. Its packaging is a delight by itself. Slim packs of one or two CDs each are stacked on two tiers so that each batches' covers together form an 11x10” photo of Lefty. Beneath them, in a hollowed out section of the box's innards, comes a stack of eight slim packs of David's biographical CDs . Each pack reproduces the front and back of a long-ago LP.
We can love the box a thousand ways. For a start, for all the charming tracks that never even charted, not to mention the wonderful ones that weren't even released during his heyday. The Jimmie Rodgers tribute album in its entirety. The cornucopia of photos. The complete discography and sessionography. The candor of brother David's narrated biography. The wonderful one-liners that marked vintage country (“She patches up the holes in my dreams.” “I buy the wine that makes her unwind.”). The packaging.
If you've got the money and you've got the time, it's waiting for you.