Psychedelic Cowboy Rides Off
Lee Hazlewood didn’t give a damn. He never concerned himself with pleasing critics, following convention or satiating record executives. While best known for penning the Nancy Sinatra hit "These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” he was an influential and multi-faceted force in the music industry. Hazlewood was a disc jockey, production pioneer, songwriter, record label manager and singer; the cowboy wore a lot of hats in his day. Hazlewood was an iconoclast who consistently defied categorisation, crafting exuberant orchestral pop, hauntingly ethereal ballads, guttural surf and gothic country gems. In his vast catalogue of music, he cast himself as a wanderer, a rambling man, a comedian, a tough guy, a poet, a deadbeat, a heartbroken fool and a hero. The man himself was any number of these or none; his mystique was always part of his charm.
1929 to 1951
Barton Lee Hazlewood is born on July 9, 1929 in Mannford, Oklahoma (population: 356). His father Gabriel is an oil wildcatter who sometimes books musicians for local dances. In his semi-fictionalised 2002 autobiography The Pope’s Daughter, he describes his mother Eva Lee as, "a small, 80 lb, sanity-challenged, hyper, extremely verbal woman… [who] often explode[d] in a one-woman chorus of words that would embarrass a seasoned sailor.” She could also bake a mean pastry. The Hazlewoods move from place to place during Barton’s childhood and adolescence; he attends five different schools while in the eighth grade alone. The family eventually settled in Port Neches, Texas. Hazlewood studies medicine at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and marries his high school sweetheart, Naomi Shackleford.
1951 to 1952
Hazlewood serves with the U.S. Army for 18 months. While stationed overseas during the Korean War, he works as a disc jockey for American Forces Radio Service.
Once back in the United States, Hazlewood attends Spears Broadcasting School in Los Angeles. He is hired as a disc jockey at KCKY, a radio station in Coolidge, Arizona where he makes $55 a week. Hazlewood develops a cult following due to his irreverence and the different characters that he plays while on the air. "I used to get letters to the station addressed to these characters,” Hazlewood would tell The New York Times in 1999. "Some of them suggested they get rid of me. I gave them three people for the price of one.” One of Hazlewood’s fans is 15-year-old guitarist Duane Eddy.
Hazlewood and teenager Eddy become friends and collaborate on music together, with Hazlewood writing and producing. After enlisting pianist James "Jimmy Dell” Delbridge, the trio often travel to Phoenix to perform. When Hazlewood is fired from KCKY, he lands a job at KRUX in Phoenix (for $105 a week), and Eddy moves to Phoenix along with him. Lee’s wife Naomi gives birth to their first child, Debra.
While living in Phoenix, Hazlewood recruits several session players, including guitarist Al Casey, to help out with his recordings. Hazlewood begins Viv, his own record label, with Eddy and singer Sanford Clark, a friend he meets through Casey. Having experimented with recording at various radio stations, Hazlewood strives to add new dimensions to Eddy’s Chet Atkins-inspired guitar playing. He wants to incorporate an echo chamber and decides to attach a grain elevator to the side of the studio. "I went all over Phoenix, and I finally found one that gave me a little something back,” he’ll tell The New York Times. "I told the guy, ‘How much do you want for it?’ He said, ‘$200.’ I said, ‘Delivered.’ We drove it back to the studio. It looked like Lee's Folly.” This strange new technique gives Eddy his distinctively eerie reverberating sound and helps him to become one of the most celebrated rock’n’roll instrumentalists of all time. At KRUX, Hazlewood is the first disc jockey in Phoenix to play the music of Elvis Presley. The Hazlewoods welcome their second child, Mark.
Hazlewood writes and produces the song "The Fool” for Sanford Clark, crediting it to Naomi Ford (a shortened version of his wife’s name). Initially, Hazlewood doesn’t want his name associated with the song because he is concerned about the potential conflict of interest of playing his own records on the radio. "The Fool” is initially released on MCI, but is ignored until Dot Records (home of Pat Boone) scoops it up; "The Fool” eventually cracks the Billboard top ten and Hazlewood has his first hit. Buoyed by his success, Hazlewood leaves Phoenix behind and moves to Los Angeles where he joins Dot Records as a full-time producer. He leaves the label the following year, unimpressed by Dot Records president Randy Wood’s criticism of his records. "I didn't need a critique,” Hazlewood would tell The New York Times. "If I had listened to critiques, I'd probably still be in Phoenix, making maybe $110 a week.” Hazlewood’s instincts are dead on; Wood had passed on catchy instrumental "Rebel Rouser,” a song that would later become a top ten hit and an enduring and instantly familiar classic.
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