Rebel Rouser

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

Still, Hazlewood remained the creative force behind the persona. In an unlikely twist, the producer would emerge from the shadows to team with Sinatra after the search for a suitable duet partner failed.

"I had these 'boy-girl songs,' I called them. So we auditioned a bunch of people -- some of them were Nancy's friends -- and at the end of it she said, 'I like the way you do 'em better, Lee.' See, I'd been teaching her the songs. So she asked me to sing with her," he says.

Hazlewood reluctantly agreed, thus giving birth to one of the most famous -- and certainly more unlikely -- pairings in pop history.

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.

If the contrast had been in age and appearance alone, the teaming might only have been novel; Hazlewood's mustachioed Marlboro man appearance and decade of seniority over Sinatra certainly lent the act an unusual quality. But the more powerful juxtaposition lay in the disparate quality of their voices; the sound of Sinatra's honeyed purr as it nestled against Hazlewood's feral growl was simply impossible to ignore.

"It was 'Beauty and the Beast' -- that was our joke about it. And the engineers' joke about it. They'd say, 'God, Lee. You sound like the Devil coming out of there.' But it just all fell into place. It was a weird chemistry."

Hazlewood would go on to write several evocative duets, cinematic classics like "Sugar Town," "Summer Wine" and "Some Velvet Morning" -- the latter once described by author Richie Unterberger as the "strangest record" ever to glean commercial success in the U.S.

"Don't blame me for that one," insists Hazlewood. "I mean, I wrote it and produced it and I'm on it, but don't ever blame me for it being on the charts."

What most folks missed at the time was that beneath the obvious layers of kitsch was a wealth of multiple entendres and complex subtext. "Something like 'Velvet,' to me that was kinda cowboy in a way," argues Hazlewood. "A line like 'Open up your gate' -- that's cowboy. But, sure, there were double and triple meanings on all those songs. That was intentional."

Hazlewood was quietly subverting the mainstream with his own bizarre vision and peculiar songwriting style, something he continued to offer with a series of his own albums. After the small-town "dualogy" of Trouble and the N.S.V.I..P.s, Hazlewood released a string of LPs he essentially viewed as demos for other artists. Highlights included 1966's The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood (which contains a side-splitting reading of "Boots" and the beautifully fatalistic "My Autumn's Done Come") as well as '67s cheekily titled Lee Hazlewoodism: Its Cause and Cure, and the following year's cocktail-hour collection Love and Other Crimes.

In the last half of the '60s, it seemed Hazlewood could do no wrong. In addition to writing the better part of nine albums for Sinatra (including 1968's seminal Nancy & Lee), he sired hits for Dean Martin and produced sessions for country stars Waylon Jennings, Eddy Arnold and Chet Atkins.

MCA Records came calling in 1967, offering Hazlewood a deal to start his own label. Lee Hazlewood Industries (LHI), was the only black mark on an otherwise sterling record. With little patience for the niceties required to do business, Hazlewood's interest in the company flagged and LHI never found its footing. Even now, Hazlewood regards the whole endeavor with a certain amount of disdain. "Ahhh, it was a failure," he snorts. "But in a weird way, from that I've got some things that are really worthwhile that I own."

Today, the imprint is most remembered for releasing the International Submarine Band's Safe at Home, an album which captures country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons in the embryonic stages of his career. (In fact, it was a legal dust-up with LHI that resulted in Parsons' voice being stripped from the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo.)

During this period Hazlewood also began to branch out, acting in films (the Prohibition-era drama The Moonshine War) and scripting a handful of TV specials for the likes of Jose Feliciano, Lena Horne and Flip Wilson, among others.

The constant whir of musical activity had begun to wear on Hazlewood again. By 1968 he was eager to get away from the studio and focus his energies on writing for film and TV. But the old Hollywood guard was still firmly in place and wasn't receptive to the ornery and opinionated Texan.

"It really bothered me. I wanted so much to write for television -- or anything else," he says. "And I got turned down. And it was like being back in Phoenix again on that Greyhound bus. 'Cause they were rejecting me."

That, in part, is what led to Hazlewood's decision to move to Sweden at the end of the '60s. Asked for the reason behind his abrupt departure, he chides, "No one could find me there," adding somewhat more genuinely, "I was able to do the TV and film work that they wouldn't let me do over here."

In Sweden, he collaborated with director Torbjörn Axelman on a number of well-received and award-winning projects. Overseas, a chuffed Hazlewood was afforded adulation and respect as a multifaceted talent -- something that had eluded him in the States.

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