Lee Hazlewood - Biography
Musician, singer, songwriter, producer and arranger Lee Hazlewood led an extraordinary career in music. Like a strange amalgam of Johnny Cash and Burt Bacharach, Hazlewood developed a singular brand of psychedelic-tinged country-pop expression and his flexibility, aesthetic sense and skill combined to create some extraordinary records. His own albums were one-of-a-kind country affairs, particularly notable for Hazlewood’s deep-toned, laconic vocals, dark, offbeat themes, use of spoken narrative passages and extravagant arrangement and production styles. Although best known for his work with Nancy Sinatra, which resulted in her undying hit “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” the prolific Hazlewood’s ease with such a broad range of musical styles brought him not only success but also afforded him a unique legacy and lasting posthumous reputation as one of American music’s greatest adventurers.
Born Barton Lee Hazlewood on July 9, 1929 in Mannford, Oklahoma, his youth was spent there, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas (thanks to his father’s career as a wildcat oilman), exposing him to a rich swath of regional musical styles. While a musically inclined pop and bluegrass fan, Hazlewood chose to study medicine at Dallas Texas’ Southern Methodist University but was soon drafted and served in the military during the Korean War. Overseas, he did a stint as an Armed Forces Radio disc jockey and following his discharge, he settled in Los Angeles, studied for a radio career at Spears Broadcasting School and began writing songs.
By 1955, Hazlewood was working as a DJ for a Phoenix, Arizona radio station and at local recording studio. One of the first radiomen west of the Mississippi to air Elvis Presley’s records, Hazlewood picked up on rockabilly’s commercial potential and produced local singer Sanford Clark’s echo-laden 1956 hit “The Fool.” He also fell in with local guitarist Duane Eddy and helped him develop his chart-topping “million dollars worth of twang” sound, ultimately placing over a dozen Eddy singles on the pop chart, selling hundreds of thousands of records along the way. He produced hit instrumentals like 1958’s “Rebel Rouser,” where he memorably teamed the guitarist with former Coasters’ tenor saxist Gil Bernal.
Hazlewood returned to Los Angeles, where he started his own song publishing company while continuing to produce Eddy. He also began working with Phil Spector and eventually landed a contract for his debut long-player, Trouble is A Lonesome Town (1963 Mercury). A stunning concept album built around a fictional city named Trouble that examined its citizens bleak lives from an existential, moody perspective, it established Hazlewood as an innovative force to be reckoned with.
A move to Reprise brought another striking set—The N.S.V.I.P’s (1964 Reprise)—which was an austere, poetic examination of “Not So Very Important People,” mostly misanthropes, outcasts and other poor souls. At Reprise, he also produced kiddie supergroup Dino, Desi & Billy and provided a #1 hit for Dean Martin after suggesting his song “Houston” to producer Jimmy Bowen. In 1966, Hazlewood launched his association with Nancy Sinatra, giving her “These Boots Were Made Walking” and establishing her as a major pop star. Their classic duet album—Nancy and Lee (1968 Reprise)—featured the song Hazlewood is best remembered for, the atmospheric, druggy “Some Velvet Morning.”
After returning to MGM briefly, Hazlewood kept pumping out idiosyncratic—and downright maverick—country discs like The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood (1966, MGM), with the morbid masterpiece “My Autumn’s Done Come,” and the recitation-heavy Lee Hazlewoodism, Its Causes and Cures (1967 MGM). Hazlewood also virtually invented country-rock when produced Gram Parsons’ International Submarine Band debut, issued on his own LHI label, but by the late 1960s, his proclivity for the downbeat and weird grew increasingly unwelcome in both country and pop circles.
After working with Ann Margret on The Cowboy and the Lady (1969 LHI), Hazlewood tagged along with the singer to Sweden and remained an expatriate for life, changing homes in various Scandinavian cities almost as frequently as he released albums. A steady stream of Hazlewood discs—notably the extravagant Cowboy in Sweden (1970 LHI), the aggrieved concept album Requiem For An Almost Lady (1971 LHI) and the fine Poet, Fool or Bum (1973 Capitol)—were issued throughout the 1970s, but in America, Hazlewood would never regain the traction he’d enjoyed earlier.
When musician Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth took up Hazlewood’s cause in the late 1990s, reissuing both several neglected, key albums and the all-new oddball pop set Farmshit, Flatulence, Origami, Arf And Me (1999 Smells Like), a rediscovery and uptick in Hazlewood’s hip quotient supplied some long overdue gratification. Hazlewood continued recording, with a mixture of old and new material on For Every Solution There’s A Problem (2002 Virgin). With the release of Cake Or Death (2006 Ever Records), he announced his retirement.
Unfortunately, Hazlewood made good on that promise, dying from cancer on August 4, 2007.