Rebel Rouser

The recently rediscovered Lee Hazlewood finds his place among a new generation of fans

Summer 1954. As the rickety Greyhound bus winds down Interstate 10 toward Arizona, the ocean breeze slowly melts into the hot desert air. Sitting in the back of the dusty coach, with tears streaming down his face, is a 25-year-old aspiring songwriter named Lee Hazlewood.

Stinging bitterly from yet another rejection, the erstwhile radio DJ with bigger aspirations has reached a critical turning point. It's the fourth or fifth time he's bought the $9 round-trip ticket from Phoenix to L.A. and tried hustling his songs door-to-door along the row of publishing houses -- each time with increasingly disastrous results.

One of the music men even took him out to lunch, told him he liked him, but that his songs were just no damn good. It wasn't the first time he'd suffered such discouragement, but Hazlewood vowed to himself it would be the last.

Cult icon Lee Hazlewood: Somewhere between 
obscure and infamous.
Cult icon Lee Hazlewood: Somewhere between obscure and infamous.
A young Hazlewood deep in thought.
A young Hazlewood deep in thought.


Scheduled to perform on Monday, July 9, with the Al Casey Combo and Tommy Parsons. Showtime is 8 p.m
Rhythm Room

"It really broke my heart. It was very sad, an awful, awful rejection," he says.

Hazlewood delivers these words almost 50 years after the fact, with the quiet confidence of a man who's risen above his deepest disappointments and scaled heights that must've seemed impossible so long ago.

A ferociously gifted and ambitious visionary, Hazlewood turned his defeats into motivation, staking out territory that few dared enter during the early '50s. Electing to record, produce and release his own songs, Hazlewood labored in the primitive confines of a tiny Valley studio honing his craft. After penning a smash called "The Fool" in 1956, he went on to guide the career of guitarist Duane Eddy and helped put Arizona on the music-industry map.

Later, his records would sell millions more. The man whose songs were "no damn good" would be covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra -- and so many others that he soon lost count.

Hazlewood -- a gifted raconteur with a taste for good Scotch -- would go on to pal around and produce the likes of Dean Martin, Chet Atkins and other show-biz heavyweights. Along the way, he became a star himself, serving as duet partner and Svengali to Nancy Sinatra, acting in films and running several labels -- before leaving the United States for a self-imposed exile in Sweden, and eventually fading into obscurity.

The very mention of his name has long engendered excitement from any number of groups. Rockabilly cats and guitar heads worship his influence, aficionados of camp herald his ribald wit, while music historians cite his seminal production techniques as a crucial step toward the development of rock 'n' roll.

Mostly these days, he invites the attention of a new generation of artists and fans who've passionately taken to an overlooked aspect of his career -- his work as a solo recording artist. Gravitating to the two-dozen or so albums he released between the early '60s and late '70s -- moody, existential records filled with a delicate balance of fatalism and romanticism -- his almost accidental career as a singer has seen a full-scale revival.

For the last half-decade, Hazlewood has been deified by Gen X and Yers as a long-lost treasure, an M.O.R. demigod. Tribute records and shows are held in his honor; hip indie labels anthologize him; artists such as Beck and Courtney Love offer hosannas.

Up until his recent renaissance, Hazlewood was a notorious recluse, preferring to hop from continent to continent, rarely sticking around in one place long enough to grant journalists many interviews. So ensconced was he in his retirement, that when interest in his work exploded in the mid-'90s, it caught even the normally prescient music vet totally by surprise.

As he returns to the Valley for a special concert marking his 72nd birthday, just what the future holds is unclear. But if there's been a single constant in the life and career of Lee Hazlewood, it's certain that there are more strange twists yet to come.

The singular story of Barton Lee Hazlewood begins in July of 1929, just months before the great stock-market crash.

Hazlewood was born in Southern Oklahoma into a strange brood, a mix of Creek Indians, cattle ranchers and educated professionals. Rebellion ran strong in the Hazlewood blood. His father, Gabe -- the product of a clan of lawyers and judges -- had gone against the family grain early on.

"He was the strange one, alright," remembers Lee. "Over-educated, that's what all the Hazlewoods were. All the rest of his brothers were lawyers. But he didn't want to do that."

The elder Hazlewood decided to try his hand as an oilman instead, becoming a wildcatter in East Texas. "He got in the oil fields and drilled a lot of good wells in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. He made a bunch of money. He lost it all but he never did care about that. He just wanted to make it."

While no one in the family played an instrument, music was a daily part of young Lee's home life -- though the tastes of Hazlewood's parents were constantly at odds.

"It was terribly divided. My mother liked pop -- Bing Crosby and all that stuff -- and my dad liked bluegrass only," he says with a laugh. "In their later years I had to buy them two record players because they did not agree musically."

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