Something of a country music godfather, the vocal style, ostentatious clothing – and self-destructive tendencies – of Lefty Frizzell left their mark on the careers of countless performers ranging from Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam to Gram Parsons and Roy Orbison. Despite a turbulent life though, the Texas Tornado remains in the shade of more illustrious hell-raisers such as Hank Williams.
Country singer/songwriter William Orville Frizzell died at the age of 47, after suffering a stroke brought on by alcohol abuse.
Born in March 1928, Texan Frizzell was raised in Arkansas and although nicknamed Sonny by his family, became widely known as Lefty for his southpaw boxing style.
Making his radio performing debut aged just 12, Lefty was strongly influenced by Jimmy Rodgers but began to develop his own phrasing over the following decade as he played countless gigs, working for a time in the oil industry
Despite having served a six month prison sentence for rape, Frizzell made a commercial breakthrough in 1950 when Columbia Records supremo Don Law added him to the label’s roster. Stints on influential shows the Grand Ole Opry, Louisiana Hayride and Town Hall Party followed, while he toured with Hank Williams.
Taking the country charts by storm with an unprecedented four simultaneous entries in the top 10 at one point in 1951, he also provided repertoire for rival artists via his contract with the influential Acuff-Rose publishing company.
However Frizzell’s career would suffer significant peaks and troughs, partly due to the changing face of popular music in America but also a consequence of his unreliability, lack of business acumen and liquor-affected mood swings.
After earning a Grammy nomination for his 1964 crossover hit “Saginaw, Michigan” (recently covered by Jimmy Dale Gilmore), little was heard from him during the remainder of the decade, his Colombia albums and singles selling only to hard-core fans and barely scraping into the Country listings.
A trio of albums recorded for the ABC label in the early 1970s (“Mark of Time”, “The Legendary….” and “Classic Style”) were overlooked at the time due to a lack of commercial hit material, but Lefty’s maudlin, world-weary delivery has been retrospectively praised – although full remastered versions have frustratingly never appeared, only tracks on compilations.
Following his passing in 1975, Willie Nelson scored a country chart-topper with a cover of Lefty’s 1950 debut single “If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got the Time” and followed that up with an album of Frizell covers -1977′s “To Lefty From Willie.” Fellow fan Roy Orbison meanwhile adopted his “Lefty” non-de-plume on the Travelling Wilburys records as a nod to his fellow Texan.
A comprehensive warts-and-all written account of Lefty’s life then appeared in 2011, “I Love You A Thousand Ways” written by his younger brother, David finally introducing the life and work of Frizzell to a younger audience.
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And here’s some footage of Lefty in action: