Monday, June 17, 2024

Lefty Frizzell: The Voice of Honky Tonk

We praise our pioneers who’ve found subtle new ways to play their instruments, but rare is the one who invents a new way to sing. Lefty Frizzell is up there with Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe and the Carter Family as the most influential country musicians of all time and yet his name is not as iconic as the other four. Hank elevated country songwriting to an art, but Lefty showed singers how to fully interpret the material, letting his heart tell his voice how long to linger. “Phrasing” was not a term used in C&W until the Corsicana-born Frizzell brought syllables to vowels and shadow-boxed with the beat to become the prime vocal inspiration for Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Keith Whitley, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and many more. George Jones is generally recognized as the greatest country singer ever, but his first demos for Starday in 1954 were rejected as a blatant Frizzell imitation.

“Most of us learned to sing by listening to Lefty,” Haggard has said. When Roy Orbison of Wink threw in with the Traveling Wilburys supergroup, he took the name Lefty Wilbury as an homage to the man whose first single “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” ruled West Texas and beyond when Orbison was 14.

Frizzell came from nowhere (actually the Ace of Clubs in Big Spring) to become the hottest country singer in 1950, landing four singles in the Billboard Top 10 at the same time. Even Hank didn’t do that. It’s not a coincidence that Seeburg introduced the 45-rpm jukebox the same year.

The records of Lefty Frizzell were made for roadhouse air, his voice filling the smoky spaces between love and doubt. The first 45 was a double-sided hit, with the rompin’ “If You’ve Got the Money” backed by a mournful “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” The ballad was written by a 19-year-old Lefty for his wife Alice when he was doing six months for statutory rape in New Mexico. She took him back and they remained married for 30 years.

That sobering experience in ’47 made Frizzell quit the honky tonk life for a spell, as he went to work with his father, an oilfield roustabout, in Artesia, NM. But when he did sit in with country bands on the weekends, it was obvious to everyone that this curly-headed kid had something special. The night he drove 180 miles to fill in for an ailing singer at the Ace of Clubs was when everything changed. The crowd loved him, the owners loved him, and Lefty had a fulltime gig as a musician. The Ace of Clubs was his Cavern Club, his CBGB. The word that there was a new singer at the Ace who could sing all over that Ernest Tubb stuff made it all the way to Dallas, 290 miles east, where a rising studio engineer named Jim Beck invited Frizzell to audition.

Jim Beck

The Marshall-born, Fort Worth-raised Beck was an electronics genius who built a radio station in his bedroom at age 14. He was recruited by the Army to run its radio network out of Wichita Falls during WWII and opened his first studio in Dallas in 1945. To pay the bills- and make connections- he worked as a radio announcer for KRLD, which brought him to the Sportatorium to cover wrestling matches. The venue was also home to the Big D Jamboree, which hosted many of the stars of country music. Beck would always try to get his studio business card to the acts, but almost all of his clients were local. Beck had a minor hit on Bullet in ’49 with Dallas singer Ray Price’s first single “Jealous Lies” and was looking for the next country star. He was also getting hip to the lucrative world of song publishing.

Not just a great singer, Lefty wrote most of his early hits, including “I Want To Be With You Always,” “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” and “How Long Will It Take (Till I Stop Loving You.)” Lefty did truly love (his parenthetical titles.)

The 1995 biography Lefty Frizzell: The Honky Tonk Life of Country Music’s Greatest Singer by Daniel Cooper claims Beck’s initial interest in Frizzell was as a songwriter. Beck gave himself a co-write credit with Frizzell on “If You’ve Got the Money” and took it to Nashville to try and get Columbia’s hottest act Little Jimmy Dickens to record it. But when Dickens’ label boss Don Law heard the demo he became more interested in the singer. You have to understand how different Frizzell’s vocals were from other top acts of the time. What Beck might’ve heard as over-the-top, Law got as the best new country voice he’d heard in quite awhile. Nobody could sing like Lefty until Lefty.

But Beck, the perfectionist, had great instincts when it came to recording Frizzell. “You need something uptempo,” Beck said at the first session, an anecdote recalled in Cooper’s biography. Lefty said he only wrote ballads, but he did have this one thing he’d been messing around with. A jukebox operator needed some help and asked Lefty if he would come along on his rounds. “If you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time,” the younger singer shot back, realizing he’d just come up with a good title. Lefty finished the song, with input from Beck, in the studio. And there at 1101 Ross Avenue, the legend of Lefty began.

Frizzell with a baby James Hand

Law signed Frizzell after catching him live at the Ace of Clubs in mid-1950 and fell in love with Jim Beck’s operation. Law decided he would produce Frizzell in Dallas, with Jim Beck engineering on that complex soundboard only he could run. By the time that first single hit and everybody was wondering where “If You’ve Got the Money” got its crisp sound, Law had already moved almost all studio sessions for Columbia’s country division to Beck’s studio.

A music-crazed Brit who migrated to the U.S. in 1924, Law got his start in Texas when Brunswick Records was bought by American Record Company (ARC) in 1931 and former bookkeeper Law was moved to the creative side. Law was at the birth of honky tonk, producing Al Dexter’s “Honky Tonk Blues” in 1936 at the same Gunter Hotel (San Antonio) session as Robert Johnson’s recording debut, which Law helmed with his mentor Art Satherley, also a Brit.

The term “honky tonk” goes back to the late 1800s, in reference to the upright pianos of whorehouses and seafront saloons, manufactured by William Tonk & Bros. Originally, honky-tonk was percussive piano music. But after Tubb released “Walking the Floor Over You” in 1941, Texas turned it into country dance music for its oversized saloons.

You see, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys set a high standard as they barnstormed across Texas, playing every enormous community hall built by Czech and German settlers. They were Big Band country style, with a sound that cut through the chatter.

Honky tonk country, with its electric guitars, was created by Texans who couldn’t afford a 10-piece band.
Microphones had improved greatly in the ‘40s, with the Shure brothers putting out the iconic Unidyne series, so singers didn’t have to shout like Roy Acuff anymore. Frizzell was among the first to understand and use the sonic nuances of the new technology. His voice was close to jazz, though his sound, driven by barrelhouse piano player Madge Suttee and a pair of guitarists from Madill, Okla.- Jimmy Rollins and Joe Knight-  was decidedly country & western. Lefty’s expressionist twang and the slap rhythms of his Tune Toppers drove the girls crazy. Before Elvis Presley played the Louisiana Hayride in 1954, the performer who got the most shrieks was Lefty Frizzell.

His heyday was mysteriously shortlived, however. While his rival from Shreveport, Webb Pierce, continued to have #1 hits throughout the ‘50s, Frizzell’s last chart-topper of the decade was 1952’s “Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses),” a co-write from Ray Price. Although he’d been a sensation right out of the chute, Frizzell didn’t have any real hits from from ’53 until ’59. The Elvis-led rockabilly craze had something to do with that, but while Price fought back with a shuffle beat the two-steppers loved, Frizzell became frazzled.

The easy answer for the drought was that Lefty’s studio man Jim Beck died in May 1956 after accidentally inhaling cleaning solution at the studio, which he had moved to Forest Avenue three years earlier. After the tragedy, Law moved Columbia Records studio operations to Owen Bradley’s Quonset hut in Nashville, taking the naturally shy Lefty out of his element. Frizzell had an uneasy relationship with the Tennessee capital, leaving the Grand Ole Opry after only eight months in 1951. During his heyday he lived in Beaumont, where his manager Jack Starnes and his band, which he renamed the Western Cherokees, were based.

There’s a better reason for the downfall. According to biographers, the great singer had gone from party boy to bitter alcoholic in near-record time. Feeling used by Nashville, and entangled in a lawsuit with Starnes, Frizzell moved his family out to Los Angeles in 1953. There he appeared on Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree and the Compton-based Town Hall Party TV shows and performed for displaced Okies and Texas Panhandlers. But his estrangement from Nashville didn’t help his recording career. Nor did the drinking that marred infrequent tours.

Frizzell stayed based in Southern California until “Long Black Veil” took him back to the Top Ten in 1959. The comeback number was a departure, a haunting folk song that sounded 100 years old, though it was penned by Nashville staff-writers Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. But it turned out Frizzell’s whiskey-soaked timbre  was perfect for the dramatic tale. The Frizzells moved in 1961 to Nashville, where the studio A-team (Grady Martin, Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, Buddy Harmon, etc.) played on his records, produced by Don Law.

In 1964, Lefty Frizzell had his last No. 1 hit with “Saginaw, Michigan,” a story song from Bill Anderson and Don Wayne with a nice twist at the end. The next year, Lefty reached No. 12 with Harlan Howard’s “She’s Gone Gone Gone,” a classic today. Law handed production chores to Frank Jones in 1966.

And that was pretty much it. The country world focused on Lefty’s handsome and talented protégé Merle Haggard, who had a big ’66 with “Swingin’ Doors,” “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” Even as Hag never missed a chance to credit the man “who was 90 percent of the reason that I’m in the business,” who called him onstage, an unknown in Bakersfield in 1952, Lefty did not have a Top 20 hit in the last 10 years of his life.

He had health problems, including high blood pressure, but the medicine came with a warning to not mix it with alcohol, so he never took the pills. When he was inducted into the country music Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, a bloated man, who looked much older than someone who started recording in the ‘50s, came up to accept his award. The great William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell died of a massive stroke three years later. He was 47.

On hearing the news, Willie Nelson immediately stepped into the studio with his band to record To Lefty From Willie, though the release was held up for two years because Willie was so hot and Frizzell had already been forgotten.

Such a sad ending for a man who provided the spark for so much beautiful country music to follow. When he was a boy in El Dorado, Arkansas, he used to sing  to his parents’ Jimmie Rodgers 78s with the speaker gates of the victrola pressed against each ear. He was happiest when he was lost in song, this vocal pioneer who still stands for the glory years of Texas honky tonk.


This is a chapter from All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (UNT Press 2017) by Michael Corcoran

Additional source: Lefty Frizzell: Life’s Like Poetry by Charles K. Wolfe (Bear Family liner notes)


One thought on “Lefty Frizzell: The Voice of Honky Tonk

  1. I’ve been to the little Frizell museum in Corsicana, snapped photographs, a rainy day in late March that turned to sleet and bad snow in Dallas that night. I enjoyed reading this, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *