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The steady stream of rejections stirred something deep inside Hazlewood, leading to a decision that would change his life and alter the history of pop music. "To get past the [rejection], and deep down knowing how great I was," he chuckles, "I decided to become a record producer."
Today, if it seems unlikely that someone with little musical background or experience could become a successful record producer, then in 1954 the idea was downright laughable.
In the early '50s, independent producers were the exception to the rule. Most smaller cities, including Phoenix, had perhaps a single recording studio, while the industry was governed by large companies headquartered out of major metropolises such as New York and Los Angeles exclusively.
Still, Hazlewood was determined to get his songs recorded and he figured the only way was to produce and release them himself. Setting up shop at Floyd Ramsey's studio on 7th and Weldon, Hazlewood established his own label, Viv, and publishing company, Debra. To the rest of the world, Hazlewood's ambition seemed far-fetched at best.
"One guy told me, 'You guys must be out of your mind, you're wasting your money. You think you can compete with Capitol and Decca?' And with some smart-ass in my voice I said, 'Well, we're sure gonna try,'" recalls Hazlewood.
"I knew a couple of independent record producers and knew they didn't work for any company, so I figured I could do my own stuff. Then it started to sell, but that was a surprise to everyone -- including me."
Initially, the acts Hazlewood was recording -- country and rockabilly cats like Jimmy Spellman, Loy Clingman and Jimmy Johnson -- didn't exactly burn up the charts.
Running out of money and time, and desperately in need of a hit, Hazlewood was eager to find new talent. Specifically, he maintained he was on the hunt for a "a tall, good-looking kid who thinks he can sing."
It was Al Casey -- then an 18-year-old country picker and lead guitarist for Hazlewood's sessions -- who came up with the answer. Casey offered an old high-school buddy of his, a gangly, fresh-faced fellow named Sanford Clark. Clark's 1956 recording of Hazlewood's "The Fool" proved the elusive breakthrough the young producer was looking for.
Although Hazlewood had originally envisioned the track as a country number, the song found a much broader audience. Leased to Dot Records, the single turned into a crossover sensation, landing in the Billboard Top 10, selling more than 800,000 copies and becoming the first hit record ever cut in Phoenix.
Listening to "The Fool" now, the template for Hazlewood's later solo work is readily apparent. Merging a dramatic lyric and atmospheric production with Clark's laconic reading and Casey's signature riffage, the Hazlewood sound had quickly taken shape.
"I knew what I wanted to hear because I was still spinning records as a disc jockey," he offers. Hazlewood was after a "hot" sound, eager to make records that jumped off the turntable.
"The sound had a lot to do with it, but what was happening on the record had a lot to do with it too," he says. "Get the story told and get the hell out of there; I didn't make too long a records."
The next few years would usher in an even greater success with the rise of another young talent, guitarist Duane Eddy. Eddy and Hazlewood had first met in Coolidge, while the latter was a DJ and Eddy had come to the station looking to score some free records. The two maintained a friendship while Eddy spent the ensuing years working as half of a duo called Jimmy & Duane (the pair cut one Hazlewood composition "Soda Fountain Girl" in 1954.)
Recording Eddy's first solo sides in 1957, Hazlewood had definitive ideas on how he should develop his six-string sound. "I always wanted someone that played guitar like (jazzman) Eddie Duchin played piano -- who was one of my favorites -- 'cause it was so simple. I don't know why somebody hadn't done that in rock or country before. God knows plenty of 'em did it afterward."
The result of Hazlewood's direction was Eddy's signature "twang" -- a low, meaty, sound that rang like artillery fire from his big, hollow-body Gretsch.
In working with Eddy, Hazlewood also acquired his well-earned reputation as a sonic visionary -- and a temperamental perfectionist. Much of his early innovation in the studio was born purely out necessity, as Ramsey's place was a tiny shack with little in the way of modern technology.
"How can you know that you're wrong when you don't know what's right? That was all there was to it," says Hazlewood of his m.o. at the time. "I worked fairly fast, but I worked until I got what I wanted, which drove musicians crazy sometimes. But they were young guys and they went along with it."
"None us really had any experience in the studio when we first started," recalls right-hand man Al Casey. "Lee would have ideas and we just worked on them for as long as it took. In those days we didn't have all the restrictions of the unions. We stayed there until we got it."