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Frizzell in 1951
|William Orville Frizzell|
March 31, 1928|
Corsicana, Texas, United States
|Origin||El Dorado, Arkansas|
|Died||July 19, 1975
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
|1942 - 1975|
|Hank Williams, David Frizzell, June Stearns|
William Orville Frizzell, known as Lefty Frizzell (March 31, 1928 - July 19, 1975), was an American country music singer-songwriter and honky-tonk singer. A vocalist who set the style of singing "the country way" for the generations that followed, Frizzell became one of the most successful and influential artists of country music throughout his career. He gained prominence in 1950 after two major hits, and throughout the decade was a very popular country performer. He smoothed out the rough edges of a honky tonk song by sounding out syllables longer and singing longer. Because of this, his music become much more mainstream without losing its honky-tonk attitude and persona.
Frizzell influenced a number of other country singers, including George Jones, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, Keith Whitley, Merle Haggard, and John Fogerty. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982. After the death of Hank Williams in 1953, Frizzell released many songs that charted in the Top 10 of the Hot Country Songs charts. His success did not carry on into the 1960s, and after suffering from alcoholism, he died at age 47.
William Orville Frizzell was born the son of an oilman, the first of eight children, in Corsicana in Navarro County in Central Texas. During his childhood, his family moved to El Dorado in Union County in south Arkansas. As a child he was called "Sonny," but later took the name "Lefty." It was believed they called him "Lefty" because he had won a neighborhood fight, however it turned out that this tale was a part of a fake publicity stunt set up by his label. Frizzell's largest influences included the blue yodeler Jimmie Rodgers. He began listening to Rodgers' records as a boy. He began singing professionally before his teens, even earning a spot on the local radio-station KELD El Dorado. Frizzell's teens were spent singing in nightclubs and radio and talent shows throughout the south. During his tour of Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Las Vegas, he began to draw a style of his own, shaped from artists like Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Ted Daffan.
In 1947, the 19-year old Frizzell was arrested for having sex with an underage fan. He had been married only a year, and filled with guilt, he wrote poems to his wife from his cell; one of them would become his first big record. After release in late 1949, he was led away from music, and back to the oil fields with his father. However, soon he was performing in nightclubs again. By 1950, he had landed a regular job at the Big Spring, Texas nightclub "Ace of Clubs" where he developed a dedicated fan following. During a show there, Jim Beck, owner of a local recording studio, was starting to take notice of Frizzell. Beck had deals with several major record producing labels and maintained connections with the many publishers. Impressed with Frizzell's performance, he invited him to make a free demo at the studio. In April 1950, he cut several demos of Frizzell singing his own songs, including "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)," which Beck took to Nashville where he pitched it to Little Jimmy Dickens, who disliked the song. However, Columbia Records producer Don Law heard the cut and liked it. After hearing Lefty in concert, he signed the singer and recorded him for the first time.
In 1954, Frizzell had an automobile accident near E.S. Richardson Elementary School in Minden in Webster Parish, Louisiana, through which he passed after leaving the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport en route to a concert in Mississippi. His Cadillac struck the Nash station wagon parked at the home of its owner, R. Harmon Drew, Sr., the former city judge and later a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Frizzell apologized, said that he hoped to visit Minden again under more favorable circumstances, posted bond, and took a taxicab back to Shreveport, from which he flew to his destination.
Frizzell's signature guitar was a 1949 Gibson J-200 (Model SJ-200). Originally built by the Gibson Guitar Corporation, it was retrofitted in early 1951 with a custom neck and pickguard by guitar maker and innovator Paul Bigsby. In a 2003 interview Merle Haggard recalled, "When I was a teenager, Lefty got me onstage [at the Rainbow Garden in Bakersfield, California] and handed me that guitar. That is the first guitar I played on a professional stage." For many years it had been on loan to and displayed at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In January 2005 it was returned to the Frizzell family.
"If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)" became a two-sided smash hit in 1950 upon its release. The b-side being the song Frizzell wrote to his grief-stricken wife from jail, "I Love You A Thousand Ways." The songs launched him into stardom and within two years, he had gone to register 13 Top 10 Country hits. By 1951, he had perfected his vocal style and refined his guitar skills. He began working with a core group of Dallas-based studio musicians, including pianist Madge Suttee. In the beginning of 1951, he formed the Western Cherokees, led by Blackie Crawford, and soon they became his primary band for both live and recording sessions. During his early career, Lefty was in the studio extensively, recording singles. His third "I Want to Be With You Always" was #1 for 11 weeks.
By mid-1951, Frizzell had become one of the only people that could be considered to match the popularity of Hank Williams; he had even toured with Williams. "There is enough stories in that tour to fill a book..." Frizzell once said, although he never told those stories. He had three more Top 10 hits in 1951; "Mom and Dad's Waltz, "Travelin' Blues," and the #1 hit "Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses)." By 1952, he was a very popular stage performer and in heavy demand, being included on The Grand Ole Opry and The Louisiana Hayride multiple times throughout the 1950s. The hits continued throughout 1952, with "How Long Will It Take (To Stop Loving You)," "Don't Stay Away ('Till Love Grows Cold)", "Forever (And Always)", and "I'm An Old, Old Man (Try'n'a Live While I Can)".
Despite his massive success, things began to get worse for Frizzell. He fired his manager and band, and joined the Grand Ole Opry, however, he quit very soon thereafter. Even though he was earning a lot of money, he was spending almost all of it. He began to work with Wayne Raney, but the sessions were considered a failure. He had an automobile accident in 1952, moved to Los Angeles in early 1953, and earned a spot on the Town Hall Party. His songs began to chart worse, only having one song enter the Top 10 that year, and in early 1954, he reached the Top 10 for the last time in five years.
Having had few hits in the middle to late 1950s, he felt burnt out and had little energy for his career. He became frustrated that Columbia Records did not release what he thought to be his best material, so he stopped writing and recording songs. He toured extensively, however. Deciding on change, he began to work at Nashville's Cedarwood Publishing Company in 1959 with Jim Denny. Frizzell's first Top 10 hit in years came with "The Long Black Veil" in mid-1959. He moved to Nashville in 1960 after the Town Hall Party closed, and began touring and recording more and more, scoring some minor hits. Lefty's last big hit came in 1964 with the #1 hit "Saginaw, Michigan" and earned him a Grammy nomination. The next year, "She's Gone, Gone, Gone" was his last Top 20 hit.
Frizzell began a downward spiral after he developed a debilitating alcohol problem. He recorded many songs, but Columbia only released very few. Because of the decrease in his record sales, he began to perform live less. His worsening record sales led to more and more drinking. In 1968, he recorded with June Stearns as Agnes and Orville. In early 1972, he left Columbia records and signed with ABC Records. Despite the new signing and his growing interest in recording albums and performing in concerts, his sales were still in the decline. He soon developed high blood pressure, and would not take the medicine because it interfered with his worsening alcoholism. His appearance changed drastically and his voice was deteriorating. In 1972, Frizzell was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his song "If You've Got the Money (I've Got the Time)" earned him the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. This success and money began to fund his growing dependency on alcohol. On July 19, 1975, at age 47, Frizzell died of a massive stroke. Because of his alcoholic ways, he looked at least 20 or 30 years older. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. Despite the disheartening end to one of country's most legendary performers, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October 1982, posthumously.
Frizzell's style of singing influenced a great many singers, particularly Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Keith Whitley. In addition, he was widely recognized for his songwriting talents. In the foreword to a biography of Frizzell by his younger brother David Frizzell, Merle Haggard said, "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." 
George Strait recorded a Sanger D. Shafer song called "Lefty's Gone" on the album Something Special. In addition, Willie Nelson's 1977 album, To Lefty From Willie was a tribute to Frizzell and consisted entirely of cover versions of Frizzell songs. Frizzell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982 and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is also in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame along with his son Crockett Frizzell. Frizzell ranked number 31 on CMT's 2003 40 Greatest Men of Country Music.
Fellow Texan Roy Orbison was a devout fan of Frizzell's sound, and in 1988, as a part of the Traveling Wilburys, he chose the name "Lefty Wilbury" to honor his musical hero.
Maine singer/songwriter David Mallett included Frizell's "Saginaw, Michigan" on his 2014 album The Horse I Rode In On.
His younger brother, David Frizzell, is also a country singer. His biggest hits were 1982's "I'm Gonna Hire a Wino (To Decorate Our Home)" and "You're the Reason God Made Oklahoma", a 1981 duet with Shelly West. The youngest brother, Allen Frizzell followed in his older brothers' footsteps in the country field. He was an opening performer for Dottie West. He was also married to Shelly West, daughter of Dottie West. Allen also played with Keith Whitley. He now plays country gospel music.
In 2006, J.D. Crowe and The New South released the album Lefty's Old Guitar. The song "Lefty's Old Guitar" was written about his custom Gibson J-200.
In 2015, Brennen Leigh released the album "Brennen Leigh sings Lefty Frizzell," distributed by South Central Music.