Lee Hazlewood

This Songwriter series represents the pantheon of American Pop composers…names like Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Lee Hazlewood.


Even if you were an avid music fan during the 1960s, you probably don’t recognize the name. At best you might vaguely recall it from a songwriting credit. But Lee Hazlewood’s sound and impact on pop music in the decade of the 1960s deserves recognition. Oddly enough, it is one of his more obscure compositions that seems to be growing in stature with each passing year.

Hazlewood was born in Oklahoma in 1929, and as the son of an oilman, grew up here and there throughout the mid-south. His influences are generally credited to “Gulf Coast” music and sounds, although it’s probably more accurate to say that young Lee grew up as a modern-day cowboy. Whatever the causes, his sound was decidedly “western”: lonesome at times, and always moving. Not country; western.

After a stint in the Korean War, Hazlewood studied medicine at SMU. Deep down he probably knew he was meant to be another type of modern day cowboy, a troubadour. Lee fell into disc jockeying, songwriting and record production, drifting through stations and markets throughout the southwest. Eventually he landed in Phoenix, where he wrote and scored a minor rockabilly hit in 1956 called “The Fool,” recorded by Sanford Clark and later covered by none less than Elvis Presley.

He clearly had talent as a songwriter, but not much happened until a 16 year old guitarist named Duane Eddy sought out Hazlewood’s help and direction. Lee immediately recognized Eddy’s guitar prowess, and began finding gigs and working on sound techniques with him. Hazlewood had long been experimenting with echo chambers, even recording in old grain elevators to achieve distinctive sounds. Enter Eddy’s “twangy” guitar, and the rest is history. The two collaborated to create “Rebel Rouser,” which became a top 10 chart hit. Hazlewood was undoubtedly inspired by Bill Justis’ “Raunchy” of a year earlier. “Rebel Rouser” wasn’t just a follow on, it improved and in some ways smoothed what “Raunchy” was, and at the same time embraced more of a rock and roll sound. These artists wouldn’t know it at the time, but their efforts really just continued the evolution of pop instrumentals, as their sound can easily be traced to Prez Prado and even Jimmy Dorsey. These songs opened the door for a flood of good-time, “loose” pop instrumentals, such as “Tequila” and later “Wipe Out.”

Phil Spector was supposedly a protege of Hazlewood’s during this time; history doesn’t really provide a full account of how much time the two spent together, what they specifically worked on, or just who influenced whom. Hazlewood was certainly recognized as a musical force to be reckoned with in the early 1960s. He was given a shot at a solo album in 1963. The result, an LP called Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, was critically acclaimed but universally stiffed on the sales charts. By 1965 Hazlewood had found a home at Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, and got a lot of attention with a song called “Houston,” a top-ten record for Dean Martin. The song fit Martin’s then “cowboy” phase, resulting from his work with John Wayne. “Houston” was a quirky song, with odd lingering pauses and sudden tempo swings, but clearly a type of “cowboy” song. It’s about a drifter down on his luck, wanting to get to Houston, where his particular pot of gold awaits. It’s the epitome of the modern cowboy, a story written perfectly by Hazlewood.

It was about this time that Reprise staff producer Jimmy Bowen asked Hazlewood for help with a young Reprise artist whose career had failed to ignite. This sort of thing happens all the time with new artists, and they are generally sent packing after a few chart failures. In this case, however, the artist couldn’t be cast off, considering she happened to be the chairman’s daughter. Hazlewood took it as a professional challenge to transform Nancy Sinatra, a capable but largely mediocre brunette singer who usually appeared in dull chiffon dresses.

Hazlewood had Nancy record “So Long Babe,” but the subject matter wasn’t sufficient to remake the image. Believing the music industry was lacking an “it” girl, Hazlewood transformed Sinatra’s look with blonde hair and mini skirts. He told her to stop acting like Daddy’s teenage little girl, and start acting like Daddy’s teenage little girl who “has sex with truck drivers.” Although Hazlewood’s inspiration was quite crude, the result was a stunning success. He pulled out a song he had written a few years prior called “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” had Nancy don a miniskirt, and the rest is history. “Boots” went to number one and sold millions of copies. Hot on the heels of boots was “How Does That Grab You, Darlin’?” a Hazlewood composition that reached #7. Each of these was promoted with footage of Nancy performing in provocative attire, which no doubt helped sell records. These two successes were followed by a softer sounding — but also promoted with a sexy film — Hazlewood song called “Sugartown.” The top-five tune cemented Nancy as the new “it” girl. During 1966 this nouveau-cowboy had three compositions in the top ten. It would prove to be the zenith of Hazlewood’s long but otherwise relatively quiet career.

The flip side of “Sugartown” was an unusual Hazlewood composition called “Summer Wine.” Hazlewood presented it as a male/female duet, assuming that Reprise producer Billy Strange would use a young male star to sing the male lead. Legend has it that Nancy Sinatra insisted Hazlewood — who was older, and not quite pop star in appearance — sing his own part. The song received considerable airplay and critical acclaim, and moved into the top 30 on its own merits. The melody was haunting, and the subject of cowboy-come-to-town only to be accosted by a wily female was certainly unlike anything else on the radio. But this song, more than any other Hazlewood composition, has emerged as his most lasting and durable.

In 1967 Lee had written a song called “Jackson” that he intended to be a fun male/female duet for Sinatra. Nancy again insisted Lee sing the part himself. His dry sense of humor and rich baritone proved to flesh out the song nicely, and “Jackson” hit #14 on the pop charts. The little tune paid further dividends a year later when Johnny Cash and June Carter took a new version to the top of the country charts.

The Chairman himself jumped on the Hazlewood bandwagon, scoring a lasting hit with Lee’s “This Town” in 1967. If ever a song seemed tailor-made for Sinatra, “This Town” was it. Although it didn’t score high on the charts, movie soundtracks and the Sinatra legacy have given it a lengthy shelf life. It’s certainly one of Hazlewood’s better known compositions.

Spurred by the success of “Jackson” and “Summer Wine,” Reprise released an album of Nancy/Lee duets, aptly called Nancy and Lee that proved quite popular. The album, released in 1968, featured a Hazlewood composition called “Some Velvet Morning,” which continues to have life and garner critical acclaim some 40 years after he wrote it. The song only reached number 26 on the pop charts, but is often regarded as one of the top male/female duets of all-time. The subject matter is typically Hazlewood spooky, and not quite clear in its meaning or references. Hazlewood, for his part, never bothered to fully explain.

Musical events of the late 1960s like Altamont and Woodstock made Nancy’s “it” girl status yesterday’s news. The mini-skirts and big hair gave way to introspective and socially-conscious artists like Melanie, Carole King, and Helen Reddy. Hazlewood’s tenure at Reprise had run its course, and he moved to Sweden. Explanations for the move range from the absurd — Frank Sinatra wanted him rubbed out — to the extreme — Hazlewood didn’t want his son drafted off to Vietnam. Sinatra liked Hazlewood, so the real reason probably has something to do with the latter. Whatever the case, Hazlewood became something of a celebrity in Sweden, even winning a major European film award in the early 1970s. He continued to write and record, and toured from time to time with Sinatra over the next three decades. But as a songwriter, his lasting impact had already been made.

Lee Hazlewood died during the early summer of 2007, leaving behind a rabid cult following for his albums and songs. His impact on American Popular Song is still best identified with the inescapable bass line and provocative lyrics of “Boots.” As time passes, future recordings of “Summer Wine” and “Some Velvet Morning” will continue to rewrite Hazlewood’s legacy.