Lee Hazlewood: Singular Lee

He discovered Duane Eddy and practically invented country rock, but Lee Hazlewood is best known for his collaboration with Nancy Sinatra. The secret of their success? Singing dirty songs, he tells Fiona Sturges

Friday 14 June 2002 00:00
Comments

In the early Fifties, Lee Hazlewood had a job as a radio DJ in Arizona. Inspired by all the records passing through his office, he decided to try his luck as a songwriter. With a few demos on tape, he took the Greyhound bus to Los Angeles and tried to sell his songs to some publishers. "They didn't like them at all," he recalls. "They wouldn't say why. They just told me I should go back to school. You know, I had a tear in my eye each time I came back from LA." Seven years later, one of the same publishers went out of business. By that time, Hazlewood had a few hits under his belt. He bought up the whole company. "I gave him a good price. But even then, as I wrote the cheque, he still said, 'Lee, I love you, but your songs are no good.' What a sonofabitch!"

Hazlewood had the last laugh, of course. This is the man who inspired Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, who catapulted Nancy Sinatra to the top of the charts with "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'", who kick-started the career of Duane Eddy, who helped to produce Gram Parsons' International Submarine Band's Safe at Home, the album that gave birth to country rock, and somehow found the time to make 29 albums of his own. Elvis Presley, Dean Martin, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Einsturzende Neubauten and Lydia Lunch are among the artists to have covered Hazlewood's songs. Even now, they're lining up to pay homage. Next week, Total Lee is released, a tribute album with covers by Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley, Evan Dando, Kathryn Williams, Johnny Dowd, Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, Stephen Jones, the Webb Brothers and Calexico.

Looking distinctly youthful in jeans and a baseball hat, the 72-year-old Hazlewood sits in his hotel room, bouncing amiably from one subject to another in his strikingly familiar Southern growl. I've been warned that he can be a bit of a grump, but I seem to have caught him on a good day. He is never less than charming.

While Hazlewood is content to recount stories from the past, it's clear that he'd rather be talking about his family. He has two daughters – Samantha and Debra – and a son, Mark. There is a reason, he says, why his three children chose not to follow in their father's footsteps. "I guess for them music has kind of negative associations. From the time they could remember to the time they were teenagers, that was the stuff that made Dad not home. But these old copyrights – some of them are pretty valuable, you know. They get it all when I decide to shuffle off, so they might be happier about it then."

The son of an oil-man father and a half-Native American mother, Hazlewood grew up in Texas. He began writing when he was 14, watching blues singers at the local bars. After college he was drafted and sent to fight in Korea. Discharged 18 months later, he went to LA to study broadcasting. With his Texan drawl ironed out, Hazlewood landed his first job in radio in Coolidge, Arizona in 1953. The following year he began taking a few local acts – mostly country and rockabilly singers – and producing one-off records for them. The third single he ever made was Sandford Clark's "The Fool".

"Everyone thought I should write a country song," he explains. "But they said it sounded kind of English. So I got my favourite guitar player, Al [Casey], and said, 'Can you do something with this?' He said, 'Put [Hubert Sumlin's] "Smokestack Lightnin'" riff to it.' So we did, put Sandford's vocals on top and put it out. I got a telephone call from this big DJ in Cleveland. He said, 'Hazlewood, you got a hit here.' In two weeks everyone was buying it."

Meanwhile, a teenage guitarist had begun dropping by and relieving the station of their country records. His name was Duane Eddy. He struck up a friendship with Hazlewood, who, clocking his talent, took him out to play at a few country clubs. In 1958, Eddy had his first hit.

Hazlewood's best-known collaboration was with Nancy Sinatra. By 1965, exasperated by the voguish enthusiasm for English bands, he had gone into semi-retirement. His neighbour was Jimmy Bowen, a producer who ran the singles department at Frank Sinatra's Reprise records. Bowen also happened to be dating the boss's daughter. "I used to just sit in the backyard, drinking my Scotch and watching the bugs in the pool. He came over a couple of times and said, 'You can't just quit', and started trying to persuade me to produce Nancy. I said I wasn't interested in any second-generation artists, but he kept on and on. I eventually said I would meet her. So I went over to her house, and her dad dropped by, said hello and shook my hand. So I agreed to try one record."

The result was "So Long, Baby", a low-key release that ended up selling 65,000 copies and got Nancy in the charts. Seeing the possibilities, Hazlewood agreed to write some more songs. "Me and Al knew dozens of old Texas bathroom songs. They're not that dirty – if your mother was a liberal you could sing them to her. We started singing them one night and Nancy was on the floor with laughter. Then I played one of my own, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'". She said, 'I'm gonna record that', and I said, 'Not in my house you're not.'" He was to be persuaded, however. In the recording session, Hazlewood instructed Nancy to "sing it like you're a 16-year-old girl who goes out with 45-year-old truck drivers". The record sold five million and led the two to record a string of duets.

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

"I liked Nancy very much," remembers Hazlewood. "She got the genes from her dad and she's smart in business. We both thought a good way to make more money would be to write some boy-girl songs."

Their seemingly saccharine records contained some of the most scurrilous lyrics of the era. "Some Velvet Morning" was a darkly ambiguous song that came with the line: "Some velvet morning when I'm straight/ I'm going to open up your gate." But if Nancy knew what the songs were about, she wasn't giving anything away. "As far as I was concerned, she thought 'Some Velvet Morning' was a cute little song," states Hazlewood, his eyes gleaming with mischief. "Sometimes she'd say, 'What's this song about?' And I'd say, 'About three minutes. Don't ask me any more than that.'"

By the end of the Sixties the hits began to dry up, and Hazlewood relocated to Sweden. There he became involved in film and TV soundtracks, one year winning the Golden Rose at Montreux. In the late Seventies and Eighties he assumed a more nomadic lifestyle, settling in a succession of countries including Spain, France, England and Ireland. Nowadays he lives near Houston with his girlfriend, Jeanie. "I've never liked to stay in a place too long," he chuckles by way of explanation. "I move when the rent's due."

After nearly two decades of languishing in near-obscurity, Hazlewood is enjoying something of a renaissance in the industry. Three years ago he released a collection of Tin Pan Alley standards, the bizarrely titled Farmisht Flatulence Origami, ARF!!! and Me. At the same time, a series of albums from the Sixties and Seventies were reissued by Steve Shelley's Smells Like label. Now, to coincide with the Total Lee tribute album, Hazlewood is releasing For Every Solution There's a Problem, a collection of long-lost tracks "from all over the place. I barely remember writing some of 'em." I ask him what he makes of this renewed interest. "I guess I'll just take the money and run," he replies, cackling with laughter.

With that, he gets up, pours himself a whisky and says, "Now I'm old and most of my friends are dead. I'll work when I need to work and I'll even do the odd show. But, frankly, I'd rather be at home with Jeanie and the grandkids. That much is true."

'For Every Solution There's a Problem' and 'Total Lee: the songs of Lee Hazlewood' are released on City Slang on Monday. The book 'Lee Hazlewood's The Pope's Daughter – his fantasy life with Nancy and other Sinatras' is published by Xlibris

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in