SUNDAY, MAY 9, 1993 LOS ANGELES TIMES
Hail to the Real King
A new box set showcases soulful singer-songwriter Lefty Frizzell, an influential cornerstone of country music
By ROBERT HILBURN
Lefty Frizzell only had 17 Top 10 singles during his lifetime, barely enough music to fill half of one 75-minute CD. So why has a German record company, Bear Family, put together a 12-disc box set of his work? And why should we care? The answer: Frizzell was arguably the greatest male singer in post-World War II country music—yes, even more influential than Hank Williams, his main honky-tonk rival in the early '50s. You get one clue to why anyone would want 131/2 hours of music by the Corsicana, Tex., native from these words of praise by Merle Haggard, who is widely regarded as the dean of today's country singers: "Hearing Lefty's voice was a turning point in my life," Haggard has said. "If Lefty had met Col. Tom Parker back then, there probably would never have been an Elvis.
"Presley had definitely seen Lefty Friz-zell by the time [Elvis] went to Sun Records and met Col. Parker. The side-burns, the overall look, the nervous energy on stage—Lefty had all that too. "And to my mind, he had a greater voice than Elvis. . . . He delivered every line in a song like Henry Fonda . . . absolutely believable. . . . Every breath was authentic." But the best evidence for the value of the new box set—the most ambitious release by far from a company that special-izes in country music retrospectives—is simply Frizzell's voice itself. Listen, for instance, to "I Want to Be With You Always," a song Frizzell wrote in 1951 with Jim Beck. Sample lyrics: I lose my blues Honey, when Pm with you No one else can do You're in my heart to stay. The lines are disarming, but nothing extraordinary—and the words alone don't prepare you for the way Frizzell instills them with a soulful resonance. In a slurring or drawling approach that has been imitat-ed endlessly, Frizzell combined the energy of the blues with the Everyman grace of country music.
He didn't just break sentences into soulful passages the way, say, Ray Charles does, but he bent the individual words in all sorts of surprising and affecting ways—sometimes stretching two syllables into four or five. It created a tension and drama that heightened the themes of heartache, longing and celebration that ran through his music.
Haggard remembers spending hours studying Frizzell's recordings as a teen-ager in Bakersfield, and it's easy to picture countless other country singers doing the same thing—from Willie Nelson ( who once recorded an entire album of Frizzell songs ) and George Jones to Randy Travis and Garth Brooks. Bear Family's box set is the ultimate study guide for country singers and histori-ans: a work that gives us everything previously released by Columbia Records and ABC Records, including some gems that went largely unnoticed because they never became hits.
The package—an expansion of an earlier Frizzell vinyl box set—also contains more than six dozen early demo recordings and Armed Forces Radio transcriptions. Titled "Lefty Frizzell/Life's Like Poet-ry," the set is a treasure chest of country music—a remarkable tribute to a man who was so overlooked by the country-music industry in the '70s, when the emphasis was on pop crossover stars, that he didn't get voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until seven years after his death in 1975. Tim illiam Orville Frizzell was 22 when • 11 he walked into Jim Beck's studio in Dallas in July, 1950, for his first Columbia Records recording session. Two of the tunes he recorded that day were a playful novelty titled "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time" and a ballad called "I Love You a Thousand Ways." When they were released the following October, they struck the country world with lightning impact. Both songs went to No. 1 on the charts, establishing a fan base that enabled Frizzell to dominate the country bestseller list in 1951 to an almost unprecedented degree.
Thanks to such other hits as "I Want to Be With You Always" and "Always Late ( With Your Kisses )," Frizzell held the No. 1 spot on the charts for 26 weeks that year. At one point, Frizzell had four singles in the Top 10, a feat that hasn't been duplicat-ed since. Despite his unique singing style, Frizzell would never come close to that chart domination again—though he would have periodic hits until his death. Various reasons have been given over the years for his failure to live up to his potential. Some observers point to bad career decisions, including main-taining a West Coast base rather than moving to Nashville and be-coming a regular on the all-impor-tant Grand Ole Opry. Other possi-ble reasons range from personal problems. including excessive drinking, to lack of ambition.
Whatever the answer, Frizzell has remained a virtual hidden chapter in country music history for years. Fans have pretty much had to turn to liner notes of Frizzell albums for information—much of which proved inaccurate, including the often repeated tale that his nickname came from his days as a Golden Gloves boxer. That::: why one of the most valuable elements of the box set is Charles Wolfe's carefully re-searched history of Frizzell's life, a documentation that helps explain why Frizzell's story is also, in part, the tale of talent wasted. Don Law, the record executive who signed him to Columbia, hint-ed at some of the problems of working with Frizzell in his affec-tionate liner notes on an album that was released shortly after Friz-zell's death. "In his early years, when I knew him best, he was happy-go-lucky and irresponsible," Law wrote. "His motto could have well been the title of one of his hit songs—al-ways late. He was never on time for a session and sometimes did not show up at all having fallen by the wayside somewhere." In the heavily illustrated 150-page booklet that comes with "Life's Like Poetry," Wolfe gives us the rest of the story.
Frizzell's father was an oil driller who moved his family from Texas to El Dorado, Ark., shortly after Frizzell was born. Dance-ori-ented Western swing was the fa-vored music in the area, but the youngster was more attracted to traditional country music—the re-cords of singers like Roy Acuff and, especially, Jimmie Rodgers, the "Singing Brakeman" who is often called the father of country music. By the time he was 12, Frizzell, who was called Sonny by his folks, had his own spot on a children's show on the El Dorado radio sta-tion, and he continued to sing on the radio and at grocery stores (for tips) when the family moved back to Texas in the early '40s. It was around this time that Frizzell got the nickname Lefty, following a schoolyard fight. He never fought in the Golden Gloves. 4, By his -late teens, Frizzell —described by Wolfe as a "barrel-chested, high-spirited young man"--was married and living in Roswell, N.A., where he was sen-tenced to six months in county jail for his part in a barroom brawl. It ' cost him his Idi? A the Ro§Well r POP MUSIC radio station, but one goodthing came out of the experience. While in jail, he wrote the song "I Love You a Thousand Ways," and mailed the lyrics in a letter to his wife. Returning to Texas, Frizzell be-came a regular at the Ace of Clubs in Big Spring, Tex., and his reputa-tion began to spread through the region. Jim Beck, the recording studio owner in Dallas, made a demo tape with Frizzell in 1950 that led to the Columbia contract.
Within a year, he was the toast of the country music world—and the storm clouds were apparently al-ready forming. In his liner notes for the 1975 memorial album, Don Law noted: "When I first heard about Lefty in that little tavern in Big Spring. Tex., he was making $40 a week. Within a year or so he was being booked for as much as a thousand dollars a night. This was pretty strong medicine for a young coun-try boy . and his reaction was predictable. He bought expensive cars, an airplane, hired a pilot and generally lived it up. At about that time the vultures started to move ven though the hits were spo-radic after the early spurt, Frizzell's stardom continued through the '50s. Based in Be a Recording Engineer SOUND MASTER Southern California for most of that decade, he toured constantly, headlining the Hollywood Bowl in 1955 and appearing regularly on "Town Hall Party," the Compton-based country show that was a mini-version of the Opry. Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard remembers Frizzell—and the wild lifestyle—from the "Town Hall Party" days. "He was a wonderful guy. some-one who was just about as loose and free as any rock star you ever saw—on stage and off." Howard told The Times recently. "He was really flamboyant, a good- looking guy with curly hair, always chas-ing after women and drinking a lot, like Hank."
In listening to Frizzell's body of work, you feel the conflict between the lure of good times and the melancholy ones. While sometimes able to express his disappointment in upbeat hits, including 1958's "Cigarettes and. Coffee Blues,- Frizzell gave us some of his most affecting vocals in ballads that many Frizzell fans will hear for the first time on this set. They include such non-hits as "The Darkest Moment." "You're There, I'm Here" and "I'm Lost Between Right and Wrong." Wolfe's essay leads us through the various ups and downs in Frizzell's personai life, including creative resurgence in the mid - '70s. By that time, Frizzell was developing high blood pressure but refused to take medicine for it because he feared the medicine and his beloved vodka wouldn't mix—and the vodka was more important He was a pretty lonely man Whitey Shafer. a Texas songwriter who worked with Frizzell in the mid -'70s, told Wolfe. "1 don't think he cared if he liven or died.'
Still, there were good times ahead musically. Encouraged by friends and admirers, Frizzell made an album in .1973 for ABC Records that included some of the most moving vocals of his entire career One of the highlights: "I Never Go Around Mirrors," a song co- written by Frizzell whose disillusioned tone could be seen in part as a reflection on his own troubled life. Don Gant, who produced the album, reported that the singer was so moved when he listened to the finisheu album for the first time that he broke down and cried. "He was just. overcome that it could be that good. Gant said. But the country music industry hau given up on Frizzell years before and the song only made it to No. 25 on the charts. Nashville was caught up in the pursuit of pop hits in the '70s and Frizzell was part of the old, traditional school. He made one more ABC album before he died in 1975 of a stroke. Frizzell's influence has reached beyond the country world to touch on such landmark rockers as Bob Dylan and John Fogerty.
The Band included i Frizzeit hit, "The Long Black Veil on its widely acclaimed. 1968 debut album, "Music From Big Pink. ana John Prine did his owt, version of "I Want to Be With You Always" on his Gramme 1991 album "The Missing Years." Yet Frizzell's his imprint is felt most in country—at least among the singers and historians. "Of all the honky -tonk singers of the '40s and early '50s, he was the one who has shown the greatest influence.' says Bill Ivey, chairman of the Country Music Founda-Lion. "He had a more open, warmer tone than Hank . . . almost as if he moved the music in its vocal sound one step away from the nasal edginess that you had with Hank." ut songwriter Howard, whose LP hits include "Busted' and "Heartaches by the Number," marvels at how many people in country music still don't recognize Frizzell's contribution. sit around with a lot of these young writers and I am amazed at how seldom his name is mentioned because 1 am just in awe of what he did," Howard said. Howarc said he feels sometimes like pulling out an old Frizzell album and playing it for them.
Thanks to this Bear Family release. he now has the perfect album to play.
Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.
Press - Lefty Frizzell - Life's Like Poetry 12-CD-Box - Los Angeles Times May 9 1992
SUNDAY, MAY 9, 1993 LOS ANGELES TIMES