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Essay: Lefty Frizzell

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  • Published: 11 October 2015*
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Born in to a poor family, the eldest of eight children, Lefty Frizzell is considered to be one of the most prolific songwriters and innovators of Honky-Tonk and Country Music in the 20th century. As reported on Biography.com (2015), ‘Lefty Frizzell is widely recognised as one of the most influential Country singers in history’.

William Orville ‘Lefty’ Frizzell, was born March 31st 1928, in Corsicana, Texas. Lefty’s father, Orville worked the oil fields of Texas, dragging the family from town to town to keep enough money to support them. Not long after Lefty’s birth, the family was moved to El Dorado, Arkansas. It was here where he was given his first guitar as a gift from his uncle. His interest in music first came from his parents’ Jimmie Rodgers records, and with his new guitar he was armed with all he needed to begin emulating the style of who would become his strongest influence. Traces of the ‘Blue Yodellers’ style is instantly apparent in Lefty’s music. In a tribute to the ‘Singing Brakeman’, Lefty revisited his idol’s work in 1952, in his studio album, ‘Songs of Jimmie Rodgers ‘ Sung by Lefty Frizzell’ as a tribute to his hero.

Jimmie Rodgers, is the starting point for country music as we know it today. ‘The Singing Brakeman’ fused many different genres together to create his unique sound. A sound that is still apparent in today’s music, despite having such a short career. ‘Although Rodgers wasn’t the first to yodel on records, his style was distinct from all the others’ (AllMusic.com, 2015). Being the direct link to the music of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Lefty Frizzell, Rodgers was very much where Honky-Tonk music began.

Honky-Tonk music became apparent in the post-war years. Originating in bar-rooms and at rodeo’s in Texas. Certain household names such as Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, known as – ‘The Fathers of Honky-Tonk’ (AlanCackett.com, 2015) pioneered this new form of humble country music. Lefty Frizzells career took this sub-genre to another level with his unique note-bending vocal technique and incredible guitar playing skill, both attributes making Frizzell one of the most instantly recognisable artists in country music. Being a young impressionable child, moving around Texas and Arkansas a lot, Lefty soaked up many different cultures, moulding a little bit of each one in to not only his music, as well as his already apparent influence from Jimmie Rodgers. Though Rock ‘n Roll began to take over America in the 50s, Lefty stayed loyal to his humble western roots, and Jimmie Rodgers styling’s – not changing his musical style or ideologies, to compete with Rock ‘n Roll giants such as ‘Elvis Presley’ and ‘Bill Haley & the Comets’. Instead, he took Honky-Tonk music out of its roughneck surroundings and turned it in to something that was generally more suited in popular culture. ‘He made honky tonk more acceptable for the mainstream without losing its gritty, bar-room roots’ (Rocky-52.net, 2015). It was not only this loyalty to his western upbringing, but his innovative ideas that brought out a brand new style that would change the way all future Honky-Tonk singers would conduct their work.

‘Some people can’t talk and express themselves; with me, expression comes in the form of a song, and it makes me very happy. So I’d lose my blues, hang on to what little I had, and it became a style’ ‘ Lefty Frizzell (IMDB.com, 2015). Due to the families unsettled lifestyle, Lefty grew up to be quite a rebel. Hence the name ‘Lefty’, which came from a left handed punch from Frizzell that won him a schoolyard fight. His future record company – Columbia Records, cleverly disguised this in a story about a Golden Gloves Boxing Match, as a publicity stunt. ‘The young Sonny (the family name for Lefty), was something of a tearaway. Only music kept him under control.’ (AlanCackett.com, 2015).

Having such a sturdy foundation in his Jimmie Rodgers influence, Lefty looked to another legend in the field as an idol – Roy Acuff, a Grand Ole Opry regular ‘Often dubbed the King of Country Music’ (AllMusic.com, 2015). Acuff was considered to be the star that took over where Jimmie Rodgers left off after his death. Rising to fame in the 40s, when Frizzell was beginning to mould his own style from what his idol’s left behind. Acuff came from a very different background to Frizzell. His father was minister in his church. He was also a talented fiddle player and taught Roy from a young age. Showing his interest and talent in music as a child, Acuff played harmonica and sung in the local church choir, before later following his father’s footsteps playing the fiddle.

Having travelled the south west a lot, Lefty Frizzell blended his influences from his cultural background and the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff with the stylings of ‘Honky-Tonk Legend’ (AllMusic.com, 2015), Ernest Tubb, to create a style that was very much his own. As well as being one of the first Honky-Tonk performers to achieve fame across America, Tubb, as mentioned earlier; also greatly respected the work of Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty’s main idol. Similarly to Frizzell, Acuff released a studio album titled ‘The Passing of Jimmie Rodgers’ as his debut release.

By the age of 12, Frizzell had begun to perform. Becoming a regular guest on kids radio shows, whilst the family was still moving from pillar to post. Moving back to Corsicana, saw Lefty enter a talent contest in Dallas, Texas. Taking first place and boosting his status as a musician. Through the majority of his teen years, he spent the days working with his father in the oilfields, and performing at nightclubs and fairgrounds in the evenings, becoming a permanent fixture of the Texas Honky-Tonk circuit.

At 17 years old, Frizzell married and found the inspiration that fuelled many of his songs throughout his career. Alice, sparked the creation of the song ‘I Love You a Thousand Ways’, written by Lefty whilst he was serving a night in Texas County Jail, for drunken behaviour. Which was becoming a very regular thing with the young artist. An ever-growing obsession with booze and sex began to lead him away from music. Within a couple of years of his first run in with the Texas authorities, a drunken night out with a group of underage girls lead to Frizzell finding himself in prison again. Only for a much more serious offence. ‘One of the underage girls complained to her parents and Lefty was charged with statutory rape and ended up in the local prison.’ (AlanCackett.com, 2015). Serving 6 months in prison gave Lefty the motivation he needed to get more serious with his career. Lefty began to work closely with songwriter Jim Beck. Together they wrote ‘If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time’. With a growing arsenal of original songs, along side his Jimmie Rodgers covers, Lefty began to perform again. Landing a regular gig at the ‘Ace of Clubs’ in Big Springs ,Texas. During this time, Hank Williams; who would become Frizzell’s biggest rival, was beginning to dominate the country music scene.

1950 saw Lefty find the break he was looking for. Don Law, of Columbia Records, the man responsible for discovering the legend; Johnny Cash, became very interested in Lefty’s voice after seeing him perform his regular spot at the Ace of Clubs. As reported by Rockabilly.NL (2015), ‘Don Law was one of the most important and successful producers, not only in the annals of country music, but of popular music in general’. Frizzell signed to Columbia Records and began to achieve chart success with a number of hits breaking in to the Country Music top ten. ‘If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time’ – Frizzell’s debut single went straight to number one, remaining there for three weeks. This was released with a B-Side, ‘I Love You a Thousand Ways’, and two other singles; ‘Always Late (With Your Kisses)’ and ‘I Want to be With You’. It was suggested by many that Lefty should join the ‘Grand ‘Ole Opry’ because of his success. Having four songs in the top ten simultaneously, Frizzell was reluctant to approach the Opry. ‘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 the Opry’ ‘ Lefty Frizzell (Oldies.com, 2015). The prolific songwriting team of Frizzell and Beck where the first to put four songs in the same top ten at once. This is a success that would not be matched until the Beatles managed it in 1964 with, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love, ‘Twist and Shout’, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’.

Despite his lack of interest, Lefty performed on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1951, singing his original songs ‘I Love You a Thousand Ways’ and ‘I Want to be With You Always’. The Grand Ole Opry began soon after WSM first started broadcasting in Nashville in 1925, as a showcase for Country music. ‘Country’s most famous stage’ (Opry.com, 2015), has seen the biggest names that country music has to offer. ‘Early Opry performers such as Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe became musical foundations for the Opry during its years in residence at the historic Ryman Auditorium’ (Opry.com, 2015). Despite being home to two of the artists that Frizzell owes his work to, he only performed there once.

In the early 50s, Hank Williams was ‘King in the South and Southwest’, Escott C, Merritt G, MacEwen W. 2004. Hank Williams ‘ The biography. [Online]. New York : Hachette Book Group. [2015]. Available from : https://books.google.co.uk. However, Lefty Frizzell was the only other act on par with Williams at the time. With Lefty’s signing to Columbia records in 1950 and his current chart successes, they both had the ability to fill out concert venues. There were definite similarities between Williams and Frizzell. However, Hank Williams’ songs and persona was a lot more popular at the time. It was not until much later on, nearer the time of Lefty’s death that he was fully appreciated as the country music virtuoso he grew to be.

Frizzell’s vocal style influenced many great Country singers, including Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Roy Orbison. Not only is he still to this day, widely recognised for his innovation to Honky-Tonk and Country music, he was also highly praised for his songwriting ability.

“The impact Lefty had on country music is not even measurable. … No one could handle a song like Lefty. He would hold on to each word until he finally decided to drop it and pick up the next one. Most of us learned to sing listening to him”, (charitychicmusic.blogspot.co.uk, 2015). Another country music legend, Merle Haggard turned to music and rebellion upon his fathers death. Stumbling on the work of Bob Wills as inspiration, before he found a massive influence in Lefty Frizzell, emulating him as Lefty emulated Jimmie Rodgers. Haggard in his teens was lucky enough to attend a Lefty Frizzell concert. ‘He was dressed in white ‘ heroes usually are,’ ‘ Merle Haggard. (MerleHaggard.com, 2015).

Willie Nelson’s work is also a tribute Lefty Frizzell. Nelson released an album called ‘To Lefty From Willie’ ‘ 1977, as a tribute to Lefty, covering the best and most well known of his songs including ‘I Love You a Thousand Ways’, ‘Always Late (With Your Kisses)’, ‘Mom and Dad’s Waltz’ and ‘I Want to be With You Always’. Maintaining Lefty’s legacy into further era’s that may have been unaware of the stars existence. Another tribute to Lefty’s work, included a tribute to the great Hank Williams too, in the shape of a Stoney Edwards song ‘ ‘Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul’. Stoney Edwards was one of the first black Honky-Tonk singers, taking a lot of his vocal stylings from Lefty Frizzell, in the soulful way that he sung. ‘Stoney Edwards never made it to the big time, yet he and his soulful honky tonk sound had a devoted following’, according to Allmusic.com (2015).

Lefty’s reign at the top of country music was short lived, with run-in’s with the law and a very ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ approach. In a way he was one of the first ‘rockstars’ of his era. Between 1954 and 1959 he only had two hits reach the top ten, in the form of ‘I Love You Mostly’ and ‘Cigarettes and Coffee Blues’. Fighting against a huge Rock ‘n Roll invasion and alcohol issues, Lefty’s career slowed down. However, it’s undoubtful that in his short lived success years, he managed to paint a new future for Honky-Tonk and country music for years to come, just like Jimmie Rodgers did before him. ‘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’. (Rocky-52.net, 2015).

In 1975, Frizzell had a major stroke and passed away, but his legacy continued well in to the 80s as a new era of musicians praised him as a musical icon. In 1982, the Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Lefty and since, has had a star embedded in the Hollywood walk of fame. Roy Orbison was also eager to pay homage to the late Honky-Tonk legend. Being part of the Traveling Wilbury’s, he went by the name ‘Lefty Wilbury’ in honor of Lefty. ‘The greatest testament to his music remains the fact that his voice can be heard in every hard country singer that followed.’ (Rocky-52.net, 2015).

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