Lefty Frizzell Biography

William Orville Frizzell, 31 March 1928, Corsicana, Navarro County, Texas, USA, d. 19 July 1975, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. The eldest of eight children of an itinerant oilfield worker, Frizzell was raised mainly in El Dorado, Arkansas, but also lived in sundry places in Texas and Oklahoma. Greatly influenced by his parents’ old 78s of Jimmie Rodgers, he sang as a young boy and when aged 12, he had a regular spot on KELD El Dorado. Two years later he was performing at local dances at Greenville and further exposure on other radio stations followed as the family moved around. At the age of 16, he was playing the honky tonks and clubs in places such as Waco and Dallas and grew into a tough character himself, performing the music of Jimmie Rodgers, plus some of his own songs. Some accounts suggest that it was at this time that he became known as Lefty after fighting in a Golden Gloves boxing match, but this appears to have been later publicity hype by Columbia Records. Both his father and his wife steadfastly denied the story, maintaining that Lefty actually gained the nickname when he beat the school bully during his schooldays. It is further claimed that it was a schoolfriend and guitarist called Gene Whitworth who first called him Lefty (he was actually always known as Sonny to his family).

In 1945, he was married, and his wife Alice became the inspiration for several of his songs over the 30 years the marriage lasted. More and more frequently, his drinking landed him in trouble with the authorities, and he was inspired to write his famous song, ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’, while spending a night in a Texas country jail. He made his first recordings for Columbia in 1950, and had immediate success when ‘If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time’ and ‘I Love You A Thousand Ways’ both became US country number 1 hits. He became close friends with Hank Williams, who suggested Frizzell should join the Grand Ole Opry. Frizzell replied, ‘Look, I got the number-one song, the number-two song, the number-seven song, the number-eight song on the charts and you tell me I need to join theOpry ’; Williams thought for a while, and commented, ‘Darned if you ain’t got a hell of an argument’. The following year he had seven Top 10 entries, which included three more number 1 hits, ‘I Want To Be With You Always’ (which also gained Top 30 status in the US pop charts), ‘Always Late (With Your Kisses)’ and ‘Give Me More More More (Of Your Kisses)’. Further Top 10s followed and as Merle Haggard later sang in his song ‘The Way It Was in ‘51’, ‘Hank and Lefty crowded every jukebox’. In 1952, Frizzell did join the Grand Ole Opry but left after a few months, stating that he did not like it.

In 1953, Frizzell moved from Beaumont, Texas, to Los Angeles, where he became a regular on Town Hall Party. He had by now become accepted as a national entertainer and he recorded regularly, although the hits became less frequent. His hard-drinking lifestyle was partly to blame, and certainly he and Williams suffered similar troubles. Charles Wolfe quotes Frizzell as once saying: ‘All Hank thought about was writing. He did record a number he wrote because I was having trouble with my better half, called ‘I’m Sorry for You, My Friend’.’ Some time later, the friendship between the two men was damaged when Frizzell refused to allow Williams to record ‘What Am I Gonna Do With All This Love I Have For You’, Frizzell intending to record it himself, although, for some reason, he never did so.

Frizzell became upset about material not being released by Columbia and in 1954, he broke up his band and stopped writing songs; tired of the way he had been exploited, his behaviour became more unpredictable. He was joined in California by his brother David Frizzell, and for a time they toured together. Eventually he charted again with his version of Marty Robbins’ ‘Cigarettes And Coffee Blues’ and in 1959, he enjoyed a number 6 US country hit with ‘The Long Black Veil’. TheTown Hall Party had closed in 1960 and late in 1961, Frizzell decided to move to Nashville. He played bookings wherever he could and made further recordings, achieving minor hits that included ‘Don’t Let Her See Me Cry’. His career received a welcome boost in 1964 when ‘Saginaw, Michigan’ became a country number 1 and also entered the US pop charts. This song must rate as one of country music’s finest ballads and Frizzell’s version has rightly become a standard and worthy of a place in any collection. Twelve more chart entries followed between 1964 and 1972, but only ‘She’s Gone Gone Gone’ reached the Top 20.

In the late 60s, Frizzell became despondent that Columbia was not releasing his material; the label issued some albums but released few singles that were potential chart hits. In 1968, he even recorded with June Stearns as Agnes And Orville but, concerned at the lack of promotion of his own material, his drinking worsened. In 1972, after 22 years with the label, he left Columbia and joined ABC Records. The change seemed to work wonders - Frizzell set about recording material for albums, resumed playing concerts all over the USA and appeared on network television. He charted with such songs as ‘I Can’t Get Over You To Change My Life’, ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’ and ‘Railroad Lady’, and his album releases proved very popular. His superb song ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ (his own recording was only issued as a b-side) became a US country number 1 for Johnny Rodriguez in 1974 and Merle Haggard in 1984. Frizzell developed high blood pressure, but refused to take medication to treat the condition since he thought the medicine would interfere with his alcohol consumption. Even in the depths of his drinking, he remained humorous, which led writer Bob Oermann to describe him as ‘a loveable, punch-drunk, boozy, puddin’-headed, bear-like kind of a guy who never really got along with Nashville or theOpry ’. He spent much time between concerts fishing at his home just outside Nashville. He was 47 (although he looked older), and aside from the blood pressure, seemed to be in reasonable health. It therefore came as a surprise to most when, on the morning of 19 July 1975, he suffered a massive stroke and died later that evening of the resulting haemorrhage.

Lefty Frizzell was a great songwriter and one of the best stylists that the world of country music has ever seen. His singing was distinctive, with a unique style of pronunciation and a laid-back delivery and gentle vibrato that may have appeared lazy, but was in fact part of a carefully designed pattern that he alone mastered. The bending of words as emphasized in ‘Alway-yayys Lay-yate’ (Always Late) and similar songs led to him being described as a genius for phrasing. John Pugh once described his singing as ‘a compelling, ethereal, transcendent vocal quality that has produced some of the most hauntingly beautiful sounds ever to emanate from a pair of human vocal chords’. His influence is evident on later performers such as Merle Haggard, John Anderson, Stoney Edwards, Randy Travis and George Strait, who, although not perhaps intentionally trying to imitate their mentor, are readily identifiable as students of Frizzell. Since his death many artists have recorded tribute songs, while some have even recorded complete albums, including Willie Nelson (To Lefty From Willie) and brother David Frizzell (David Sings Lefty). Lefty Frizzell was elected to the Nashville Songwriters’ Association International Hall Of Fame in 1972 and inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1982.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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