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Hazlewood's own musical aspirations at the time were limited to a brief turn playing drum and timpani in the school orchestra. Still, he gradually began to develop his own tastes, which, he says, included "any blues artist or Stan Kenton."
"With the blues it was so loose, you could do anything you wanted to," he notes wryly, adding, "and I was sort of that way. And I loved Kenton because it was like classical music to me, just so locked together and perfect."
While living in Port Arthur, Texas, a high-school-aged Hazlewood began sneaking into a local blues club also frequented by a young Janis Joplin. He was, as he puts it, "a very white spot in a very dark audience. But it was great. That was the first time I had seen music being played up close like that."
In the summers, Hazlewood would return to visit relatives in the town of his birth, a tiny Oklahoma backwater called Mannford. The experiences and characters he would encounter there would serve as the basis for his first two LPs, a pair of concept albums released in the early '60s called Trouble Is a Lonesome Town and the N.S.V.I.P.s (The Not So Very Important People). Populated by characters with names like Emery Zickafuce Brown, Sleepy Giloreeth and Windfield Bloodsaw, Hazlewood's half-spoken, half-sung narratives depicted a sleepy burg filled with a cast of misconstrued oddballs and anti-heroes -- a kind of Our Town on acid.
As bizarre as his tales were, Hazlewood says the truth was far stranger than his semi-fiction.
"I used to tell people stories from this small town, and they'd say 'C'mon Lee, you're making up stuff.' I left some of the stories completely [off the records] 'cause nobody would believe that in a town of 365 people that two guys went off to World War I and one guy came back with his left foot gone and one came back with his right foot gone and once a year they'd get on a bus and ride into Tulsa and buy a pair of shoes," he says, laughing. "See, you can't do that 'cause people think you're lying. This town was just loaded with people like that. Shakespeare never had characters this good. At least not as many as I had growing up."
With such a colorful upbringing as his foundation, Hazlewood quickly proved himself a gifted storyteller and writer. "In school I wrote quite a bit. I didn't have any music to go with it or anything like that. It was just funny stories. In those days -- especially in Texas -- it wasn't a good idea to be 'creative.' Creative people walk funny and stuff like that. I didn't write anything tender about the beautiful leaves and trees, it was all humorous."
Not quite sure how to direct his unique talent into a career, Hazlewood decided to follow his family's professional path, enrolling in college in Jacksonville, Texas, as a pre-med student. But the Army snuffed out the budding practice of the future Dr. Hazlewood when he was drafted and sent to fight in the Korean war. (Hazlewood is uncharacteristically muted about his war experience: "It was mostly being shot at . . . learning to run and cry," he says.)
After Korea, Hazlewood decided he'd had his fill of blood and bodies, and scuttled his plans to finish med school. Instead, he headed to Los Angeles, where he thought he'd try his luck as a disc jockey, enrolling at the Spears Broadcasting School as part of the G.I. Bill. "I went there to get rid of my drawl. They took all the southerness out of my voice. Then I got it back all on my own," he jokes in a thick twang.
Fresh out of Spears, Hazlewood landed the first job he applied for -- a slot DJing at pop station KCKY in Coolidge, Arizona. "I got paid $55 a week -- which was about $15 less than good jockeys were paid."
In the meantime, Hazlewood had married his high-school sweetheart, Naomi Shackelford, and fathered his first child, daughter Debby. A son, Mark, would soon follow.
After about a year, Hazlewood got word that he was being fired from KCKY. With a young family and only $5 in the bank, he was fretting over his future when fate stepped in.
"There was this knock on the door," he remembers "Like a messenger from whatever god you believe in." It turned out to be a program director from Phoenix country station KRUX with a job offer.
Moving to the big city, Hazlewood found even greater success working for Valley broadcasting magnate Red Harkins at KTYL ("for the unheard-of salary of $105 a week," he notes proudly) where he was the first person to spin a record by a then-unknown singer by the name of Elvis Presley.
During this period, Hazlewood also began writing songs. Every few weeks, he would quietly hop the Greyhound to Los Angeles, and beat the pavement, peddling his wares to song publishers. "I could get in the door, but that was about it," he confesses. "Nobody was biting."