Lefty Frizzell was the definitive honky tonk singer, the vocalist that set the style for generations of vocalists that followed him. Frizzell smoothed out the rough edges of honky tonk by singing longer, flowing phrases — essentially, he made honky tonk more acceptable for the mainstream without losing its gritty, bar-room roots. In the process, he changed the way country vocalists sang forever. From George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson to George Strait, John Anderson, Randy Travis, and Keith Whitley, hundreds of artists have emulated and expanded Lefty's innovations. Frizzell's singing became the foundation of how hard country should be sung.
Despite his influence, there was a time when Lefty wasn't regarded as one of country's definitive artists. Unlike Hank Williams — the only contemporary of Lefty that had greater influence — he didn't die young, leaving behind a romantic legend. After his popularity peaked in the early and mid-'50s, Frizzell continued to record, without having much success. However, his recordings continued to reach new listeners and his reputation was restored by the new traditionalists of the '80s, nearly ten years after Lefty's death.
Lefty (born William Orville Frizzell) was born in Corisicana, TX, in 1928, a son of an oiler; he was the first of eight children. During his childhood, his family moved to El Dorado, AR. As a child he was called Sonny, but his nickname changed to Lefty when he was 14, because he won a schoolyard fight; it was later suggested that he earned his nickname after winning a Golden Gloves boxing match, but that was eventually proven to be a hatched publicity stunt by his record company. Initially, Lefty was attracted to music through his parents' Jimmie Rodgers records. He began singing professionally before he was a teenager, landing a regular spot on KELD El Dorado.
Frizzell spent his teenage years playing throughout the region, singing on radio shows, in nightclubs, for dances, and in talent contests. He traveled throughout the South, playing in Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and even Las Vegas. During this time, he was refining his style, drawing from influences like Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Ted Daffan. Lefty's career was going fine until he was arrested in the mid-'40s, serving a jail sentence for statutory rape.
Frizzell's run-in with the law led him away from music, as he temporarily worked in the oil fields with his father. However, his time as an oiler was brief and he was soon performing in clubs again. By 1950, he had landed a regular job at the Texas club Ace of Clubs, where he developed a dedicated following of fans. At one of his concerts at the Ace of Clubs he caught the attention of Jim Beck, the owner of a local recording studio. Beck recorded music for several major record labels, and he also had connections within the publishing industry. Impressed with Lefty's performance, he invited the singer to make some demos at the studio. In April of 1950, Frizzell cut several demos of his original songs, including a new song called "If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," which Beck took to Nashville. Beck intended to pitch the song to Little Jimmy Dickens, but Dickens disliked the song. However, Columbia record producer Don Law heard the tape and liked Frizzell's voice. After hearing Lefty live in concert, Law signed the singer to Columbia; within a few months, he had his first recording session.
"If You've Got the Money, I've Got the Time," Lefty's first single, climbed to number one upon its release. It was a huge hit — its B-side, "I Love You a Thousand Ways," even hit number one — with other artists hurrying into the studio to cut their own versions; over 40 performers wound up recording the song. Within 17 days of the single's release, Columbia had Frizzell record another single. The result, "Look What Thoughts Will Do"/"Shine, Shave, Shower (It's Saturday)," wasn't as big a hit, but it did reach the Top Ten.
By now, the Lefty Frizzell sound was being perfected by the vocalist and Law. Frizzell was working with a core group of Dallas-based studio musicians, highlighted by pianist Madge Sutee. In the beginning of 1951, he formed the Western Cherokees, which was led by Blackie Crawford. Soon, the Western Cherokees became his primary band for both live and recording situations. Lefty was in the studio frequently, recording singles. His third single, "I Want to Be With You Always," was number one for 11 weeks, and its follow-up, "Always Late (With Your Kisses)," spent 12 weeks at number one. At one point in early 1951, he had a total of four songs in the country Top Ten, setting a record that was never broken. Frizzell was a popular concert attraction, playing shows with the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. He had three more Top Ten hits in 1951 — "Mom and Dad's Waltz," "Travelin' Blues," and the number one "Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses)."
The hits continued throughout 1952, as "How Long Will It Take (To Stop Loving You)," "Don't Stay Away (Till Love Grows Cold)," "Forever (And Always)," and "I'm an Old, Old Man (Tryin' to Live While I Can)" all went to the Top Ten. Even though he was at the peak of his popularity, things began to unravel for Lefty behind the scenes. Frizzell fired both his manager and his band. He joined the Grand Ole Opry, but he decided he didn't like it and left almost immediately. Lefty was earning a lot of money but was spending nearly all of it. He worked with Wayne Raney, but the sessions were a failure. In early 1953, he moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where he got a regular job on Town Hall Party. That year, he had only one hit, the Top Ten "(Honey, Baby, Hurry!) Bring Your Sweet Self Back to Me."
Early in 1954, he reached the Top Ten with "Run 'Em Off," but it would be his last Top Ten record for five years. During the mid-'50s, Frizzell felt burned out and didn't have the energy to invest in his career. He had a total of two hits between 1954 and 1959 — "I Love You Mostly" in 1955, "Cigarettes and Coffee Blues" — because he decided to stop recording. Lefty was frustrated that Columbia wasn't releasing what he believed to be his best material, so he simply stopped writing and recording songs. However, he did tour sporadically, occasionally with his brother, David Frizzell.
Deciding it was time for a change, he began working with Jim Denny's Nashville-based Cedarwood publishing company in 1959. Cedarwood gave him "The Long Black Veil," a song written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin that had overt folk music influences. Lefty recorded the song, and it became a surprise Top Ten hit in the summer of 1959. Encouraged by its success, Frizzell moved to Nashville in 1961, after Town Hall Party closed in 1960. He began touring and recording at a more rapid rate, although it only resulted in a couple of minor hits. Lefty's last big hit arrived early in 1964, when "Saginaw, Michigan" climbed to number one and spent four weeks on the top of the charts. After that, he came close to the Top Ten with 1965's "She's Gone Gone Gone," but he usually struggled to have any of his songs break the Top 20 for the next decade.
Frizzell didn't stop recording, but he did develop a debilitating alcohol problem that came to plague him throughout the late '60s and '70s. However, alcohol wasn't the only thing holding his career back — Columbia was only releasing handfuls of albums and singles, though Lefty was recording an abundance of material. Since his records weren't as successful, he drastically cut back the number of concerts he performed. In 1968, he cut some songs with June Stearns under the name Agnes and Orville, but none of the tracks became hits. The lack of success helped him sink deeper into alcoholism.
In 1972, Lefty left Columbia, signing with ABC Records. Though the change in labels helped revitalize him artistically, he didn't sell that many more records. However, he did have the enthusiasm to record albums, as well as play concerts and television shows. Frizzell's alcohol addiction worsened and he developed high blood pressure, but he wouldn't take the medication because he thought it would interfere with his drinking. As a result, he looked older than his 47 years when he died of a stroke in 1975.
Years of mediocre and mis-marketed records had diminished Lefty's reputation, but after his death, a new generation of artists hailed him as an influence and an idol. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, and George Jones had all sung his praises before, but in the mid-'80s, the kind words of George Strait and Randy Travis were supported by a series of reissues, beginning with Bear Family's 14-LP set, His Life His Music (later replaced by the 12-CD Life's Like Poetry). In 1982, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the greatest testament to his music remains the fact that his voice can be heard in every hard country singer that followed. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine