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Who’s Lee Hazlewood?

He’s truly one of the most influential and innovative figures in modern music. He’s been around a long time and left for dead more than once. And now he’s back. Our writer traces a life in music.

Lee Hazlewood was born July 9, 1929, in Mannford, Oklahoma—a town so small, he once said, that they used to share a town drunk with the next town over. After serving in the Korean War he moved to Arizona. In 1953, he became a radio DJ and one of the first people to champion the work of Elvis Presley. Years later Presley thanked Lee for his early support, telling him that if it hadn’t been for folks like Lee he would probably have wound up driving trucks for a living.

On weekends Lee would take the Greyhound to Los Angeles to shop the demos he had been writing. ‘[The publishers] liked me alright but thought I should do something else other than write songs,’ he recalled. Frustrated by the setbacks, Lee decided he could stay in Arizona and produce the tracks himself. He started his own record label, Viv, in 1955 and released a string of successful singles, including his first bona-fide hit, ‘The Fool,’ sung by Sanford Clark.

Lee became heavily interested in experimental sound and production techniques. Looking for the perfect echo, he spent a day yelling in grain silos. Once he found the silo with the right sound he stood his friend Duane Eddy in it with a guitar and had him go to work, thereby co-inventing Eddy’s signature echoey guitar twang, later made famous on ‘Rebel Rouser’ and the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme. That same grain silo was later bought by a Phoenix recording company and is still sometimes used as an echo chamber.

Phil Spector, who at the time was just getting into production work, once stopped by Lee’s studio to find out what the buzz surrounding him was all about (and perhaps to learn a few techniques). Impressed with Lee’s work, Spector later employed many of Lee’s sidemen in his famed production team—known as the ‘Wrecking Crew,’ responsible for hits such as The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ and The Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me.’

At 35, with an enormous catalog of groundbreaking and influential production work under his belt and the new sound of the incipient British invasion devouring the singles charts, Lee retired from the music business.


* * *

Since 1961 Nancy Sinatra had maintained a less-than-stellar musical career on her father’s Reprise label, trying desperately to make it big with some very bad material. Her friend, Jimmy Bowen, who was also Lee’s neighbor, was able to convince Lee to come out of retirement and write some new music for her. Lee accepted and did more than just write her some songs: he changed her image, her voice, her career—and the rest of his life—with one single: 1966’s ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking.’

Bringing in arranger Billy Strange, Lee had Nancy sing the tune in a lower register and offered her his now-legendary advice that she should sing the song ‘like a fourteen-year-old girl who fucks truck drivers.’

‘Boots’ quickly shot to number one in the U.S., selling millions of copies, and was soon followed by other Nancy-sung-Lee-penned top-ten hits like ‘How Does That Grab You Darlin’?’ and ‘Sugartown.’ Lee began writing a string of what he termed ‘boy/girl songs,’ and they too were well received. Songs like ‘Summer Wine,’ ‘Some Velvet Morning,’ ‘Jackson,’ and ‘Sand’ made Nancy and Lee the most popular dueters of their time, and sent their debut album Nancy & Lee straight to the top of the charts.

Lee’s leap back into recording was done rather grudgingly, but led to him recording his wonderful and highly underrated solo albums, throughout which he was in a constant state of roaming—to London, to Barcelona, to Stockholm, to Helsinki, to Hamburg, to Paris, to Las Vegas, to California, to Texas. And it’s in these albums that his idiosyncratic personality truly comes to the fore. On his first album, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, Lee details the odd lives of the equally odd people he grew up around in Mannford, Oklahoma. In his self-described ‘whiskey voice,’ he would offer short spoken introductions to gritty songs about the town’s undertaker (‘We All Make The Little Flowers Grow’), the town beauty who ‘ain’t worth a dime’ because ‘she can’t cook and she can’t love’ (‘Look At That Woman’), and the troubles of being raised an outlaw’s son (‘Son of a Gun’).

Through much of his early solo career he prefaced his songs with these gravelly introductions, all the way through the record that many now regard as his masterpiece, Requiem For An Almost Lady. Lyrics dually tempered by darkness and humor are Lee’s trademark, and here they truly shine.

‘It has been said that all good things are made in heaven / But I have a feeling that the first time we said ‘I love you’ to each other / The gods must have turned their backs / And laughed out loud.’

‘L.A. Lady’

However good his albums, when first released they were only lukewarmly received. His album Poet, Fool or Bum received the unpleasantly curt review from the NME of ‘Bum.’

In 1977, with over a dozen albums to his name, Lee slipped back into retirement.


* * *

‘And I said how does it feel? / Like all God’s promises are broken / It’s like dying on Christmas day / Before all the gifts are open.’

‘Dirtnap Stories’ from For Every Solution There’s a Problem

Now at 73, Lee’s out of retirement—again.

In the early 1990s bootleg recordings of Lee’s long-out-of-print solo work were rabidly traded among underground music fans. His cult status grew among a new legion of fans who loved his solo material as much, if not more, than his more famous duet work. In interviews, artists as varied as Pulp, Beat Happening, Einstürzende Neubauten, Nick Cave, Beck, and Nirvana would spread the gospel of Lee.

During his highly touted reunion tour with Nancy Sinatra in 1995, he was approached by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley about reissuing some of his back catalogue on Shelley’s Smells Like record label. Lee was taken aback and eventually consented to the release of five of his old albums, many of which were recorded and released only in Sweden.

His new album, For Every Solution There’s a Problem, is a collection of demos he recorded over the last 25 years. It is to his credit that his old numbers and the new so flawlessly blend together. Backed by longtime friend and collaborator Al Casey, ‘Dirtnap Stories’ and ‘Strangers, Lovers, Friends,’ two of the album’s newest compositions, are some of the strongest ballads Lee has ever written, while songs like ‘Buying Back’ and ‘For My Birthday’ still show that he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

The album also includes a few rare numbers that Lee’s particularly fond of, such as ‘Dolly Parton’s Guitar,’ about which he characteristically says:

I really like that song, it feels good, it’s everything else, but it’s serious, it’s a beautiful text/lyric in the beginning—but you make me feel like Dolly Parton’s guitar? Now that’s really, then it starts getting funny, you know? And I said, ‘Well, I’m not gonna send a picture with you about where Dolly Parton’s guitar sits all day.’ But see, I think people would find the humor in that. I mean the love in that, maybe even.

Like all tribute albums, Total Lee is a mixed bag. Lambchop opens with a beautifully over-the-top version of ‘I’m Glad I Never’ from Requiem. Johnny Dowd turns ‘The Railroad’ into a near spiritual, and Erlend Oye does a fine acoustic job on Lee’s anti-war ballad ‘No Train to Stockholm.’

Where these cover versions fail, however, prove where Lee really was his best: on those duets. No one can surpass the vocal grandeur of Nancy and Lee on ‘Some Velvet Morning,’ and The Webb Brothers’ version of the song proves this. Their meek voices fall flat and the soaring strings aren’t enough to save them. Calvin Johnson, whose own baritone is much like Lee’s, makes ‘Sand’ just sound dumb in his duet with Mark Pickerel. (In his defense, Calvin Johnson teamed up with Queer-core band Pansy Division on the album Pile Up for a much more inspired Hazlewood cover, the kitschy ‘Jackson.’)


* * *

In 1999 Nick Cave asked Lee to perform at the Meltdown festival at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Backed by Al Casey, he was uproariously received. At the end of his set with the crowd still going wild, Lee shouted out, ‘Really! Guys!, I’m seventy years old. Where, where were you back when I needed you?’ He recalls that someone from the crowd yelled back:

‘We weren’t born yet, Lee.’ And I go ‘Yeah, you got that right, I’m sorry, you’re all twenty-eight years old I know that, you weren’t born yet.’ And I thought, now that gave me chills, and nothing gives me chills, but that did. I thought, you know, Al [Casey] says, ‘I heard the kid answer you, he’s pretty smart. They weren’t born yet, Lee.’ And I said, ‘I know, Al, shut up.’

[ Quotes graciously taken from ‘For Every Question There’s an Answer,’ an interview conducted by the City Slang label for the two new releases in 2002. ]

In his free time David Willems can be found walking around New York and looking at stuff. He is the editor of Palaver, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times and The New Colonist. He has made a few attempts at songwriting himself, but mostly prefers to play air guitar quietly in the living room. More by David Willems