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.
"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."
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."
Hazlewood quickly developed a patented and popular shtick, creating a series of recurring characters like Eb X. Preston and Bolliver Gowdy, with whom he would engage in running on-air conversations.
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."
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."
One of those ideas was using a $200 grain elevator as an echo chamber, a discovery that gave his recordings a cavernous sound and helped advance the development of rock 'n' roll recording beyond the rudimentary.
Between 1958 and 1963, Eddy scored 15 Top 40 hits, among them "Rebel Rouser," "Cannonball" and "Forty Miles of Bad Road." Merging Eddy's "twang thang" with backing hoots 'n' hollers and the honking sax solos of Steve Douglas, Hazlewood fashioned a handful of the most memorable instrumentals of all time.
The up-and-coming producer/songwriter would continue to work with several Phoenix acts, including the Tads and Ray Sharpe (who scored a minor hit with "Linda Lu"), before moving to Los Angeles, where he continued to produce Eddy and others, including folk combo The Shackelfords.
But it was Hazlewood's lasting influence as a music-biz mover and shaker that would leave an even greater mark. Initially partnering up with Lester Sill, and later with Dick Clark and Jamie Records, the self-made Hazlewood had become an industry player on a mix of guile and gruffness.
More important, his pioneering work with reverb and echo provided the inspiration for a young Phil Spector, who came to Phoenix to study his technique. Hazlewood's eye for talent was equally influential as he launched the career of arranger Jack Nitzsche -- who would become a behind-the-scenes force in rock for 40 years, aiding Spector, the Rolling Stones and Neil Young. Hazlewood's close-knit cadre of session players would go on to form the famed the Wrecking Crew, musicians who would become the bricks and mortar in Spector's Wall of Sound and later create the foundation for Brian Wilson's sun-kissed California odysseys.
But by 1964, Hazlewood had grown tired of the music business. Put off by the British Invasion and financially secure, the 31-year-old decided to retire.
It was Jimmy Bowen, then head of the singles department at Warner Bros., who badgered him back to work. "Jimmy would call me all the time with offers. I said, 'Don't ask me to do anything.' So for about six or eight months I didn't."
Hazlewood finally relented when Bowen bandied a deal for Hazlewood to produce Dino, Desi & Billy, a teen combo that included the celebrity offspring of Dean Martin and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. "[Bowen] said 'You have to do this and you can name your price.' So I got a terribly sweet deal out of it."
Writing and producing a quartet of chart hits for the group, Hazlewood worked for another year, but "went back out and sat by the pool" after his contract was up. Not long into his second retirement, Bowen and Mo Ostin -- the head of Frank Sinatra's Reprise label -- came calling again.
This time they wanted coax to Hazlewood back for an even bigger project -- one that would have him working with the "boss's daughter."
To say that Nancy Sinatra's recording career prior to 1965 was something less than stellar is a rather generous appraisal.
"The joke with Nancy's records was that they used to ship out a hundred and get two hundred sent back," chuckles Hazlewood.
Lobbied by Bowen and Ostin, and convinced after a meeting with Nancy and father Frank, Hazlewood signed on to help salvage the 24-year-old singer's fledgling career.
"The only thing I thought was that there was no personality on her records," remembers Hazlewood of her early sides. The first thing he did was drop her singing voice a key, getting her into a more natural and comfortable range. "From then on it was hoping to hell we grabbed on to something people liked," he adds.
The pair's first collaboration, the Hazlewood-penned and produced "So Long Babe," made a respectable impression on the charts, selling 150,000 copies. But it was the duo's second offering which caused a real sensation.
"I was sitting [in the studio] with the guitar player who's an old Texan too, and we're doing dirty old Texas songs. And [Nancy's] breaking up 'cause she's a New Jersey kid and hasn't heard anything like that. And I said, 'Oh, I got one. Give me the guitar.'"
Hazlewood began playing a hilarious but half-finished party number called "These Boots Are Made for Walking." Sinatra flipped for the song and insisted that she record it. However, Hazlewood was reticent to let the innocent Sinatra tackle the song's coarse colloquialisms, specifically language about "messin'" (an East Texas euphemism for screwing).
"But she didn't care. She said 'I'm gonna do it with you or without you.' She just knew it was gonna be a hit."
Hazlewood's now-famous direction for Sinatra to sing it like "a 16-year-old girl who goes out with 45-year-old truck drivers" worked, as the brassy vocal and over-the-top arrangement shot the song straight to No 1.
"Boots" and subsequent hits such as "How Does That Grab You Darlin'" (as well as a turn in director Roger Corman's The Wild Angels) transformed Sinatra's image from well-kept daddy's girl to miniskirted pop vixen. "She gets all the credit for that," says Hazlewood. "Every time I saw her she was changing more and more into that character that was on 'Boots.' She became [that] person."
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.
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.
The solo records also continued. 1971 brought the landmark, Requiem for an Almost Lady. A dark, harrowing concept piece about a failed relationship (actually based on several soured romances, insists Hazlewood) the album was not released in the U.S. at the time, but its reputation would grow legendary in the interceding years.
"I was always criticized by people who asked me 'Why don't you ever write something personal,'" says Hazlewood of the genesis of the album. "[Requiem] was really written with that in mind."
Cast against a sparse musical backdrop and chocked with piercing anti-love songs like "I'd Rather Be Your Enemy" and "I'm Glad I Never" (as in "had a gun"), Hazlewood painted an impossibly maudlin portrait of a man in pain. Adding further depth to the hurt were Hazlewood's spaced-out spoken intros, like this nugget from "L.A. Lady": "It's been said that all good things are made in heaven, but somehow I have the feeling the first time we said 'I love you' to each other the gods must have turned their backs and laughed out loud."
"To know that we did it in about six hours is amazing to me," recalls Hazlewood. "We cut it in two sessions. [The sound] of the record is very small and open; that guitar just winds in back of me. I'm a little proud of that album."
His output during the period -- in fact, for much of his career -- was well ahead of its time. Pieces like Requiem anticipated the doom and goth-country movements and heralded the bleak musings found in the catalogues of Nick Cave and the Tindersticks.
Hazlewood's work placed him in a unique position -- somewhere between Americana songsmiths like Johnny Cash and European chamber pop crooners like Serge Gainsbourg and Scott Walker -- occupying a space very much his own.
The early '70s also witnessed the release of the sublime Cowboy in Sweden (Hazlewood starred in a film of the same name). The album paired the craggy-voiced singer with another fair-haired beauty, Swedish chanteuse Nina Lizzell, on duets of "Hey Cowboy" and "Leather and Lace." The record also featured a subtle and moving anti-war anthem called "No Train To Stockholm" -- something of a surprise for those who assumed the self- proclaimed "redneck injun" would be a flag-waving right-winger. "Yeah," agrees Hazlewood, "Nobody quite expected that from a supposed good ole boy like me."
The swinging, horn-heavy 13 (featuring a tan and long-haired Hazlewood on the cover) followed in 1972, as did a number of subsequent albums which saw limited European release.
"That was really nothing but work over there for four years," he says of his Swedish sojourn, which ended in 1974. "But it was fun."
Aside from a brief stateside comeback with Nancy Sinatra, Hazlewood gradually receded from the spotlight. Although he continued to write songs, his recording and production work became increasingly sporadic as the years went on. "For a while I was approached a lot," he says "Then it became less and less, and then eventually nothing."
The end of the '70s saw the release of some new material for MCA Nashville, which went largely unheralded.
Aside from a thwarted collaboration with Al Casey on an album of standards, the 1980s were particularly quiet as Hazlewood devoted himself to raising his youngest child, daughter Samantha. (Hazlewood married and divorced twice.)
Content to spend the better part of the next decade in a state of roving retirement, the nomadic Hazlewood became something of a globetrotter. Relocating almost annually, he logged time in Helsinki, Paris and London before eventually returning to Phoenix for a spell in the mid '80s.
Regardless of where he hung his hat, Hazlewood was happy to settle back into the life of a retiree, spending the days sipping his beloved Chivas Regal and watching the royalty checks roll in. (A cover of "Boots" by country lunkhead Billy Ray Cyrus netted Hazlewood a cool million.)
By the outset of the 1990s, he'd completely disappeared from sight, if not from public consciousness. And it looked as if Hazlewood -- already into his 60s -- would spend the remainder of his days in blissful anonymity.
Little could he know it then, but the most unlikely twist of Lee Hazlewood's career was yet to come.
For a generation of kids weaned on their parents' vinyl copies of Nancy & Lee, Hazlewood was a vague memory from childhood, the dark, mysterious figure standing next to the pretty blonde. Most probably couldn't have imagined the amazing diversity of his career, or that a veritable trove of his solo material existed. One of those was Screaming Trees drummer Mark Pickerel.
Like most, Pickerel's exposure to Hazlewood's oeuvre had initially come through his duets with Sinatra. It was Trees bandmate Steve Fisk who tipped the trapsman to Hazlewood's "other stuff."
"Soon enough I found copy of The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood, Love and Other Crimes several others," says Pickerel. "And I was hooked."
In 1990, Pickerel -- then an employee of Seattle label SubPop -- began circulating some homemade compilation tapes of his favorite Hazlewood tracks.
"I had been telling the guys that ran SubPop, Bruce [Pavitt] and Jon [Poneman] about all these great records I'd found over the years and they asked me to make them a tape of some Lee Hazlewood songs."
Accompanying Nirvana on a West Coast road trip, Pavitt popped the cassette in the van's tape deck. "I guess he'd been playing it and Kurt [Cobain] really fell in love with it and asked if he could have it," says Pickerel.
Cobain was not the only Hazlewood convert. Up-and-coming folkie Beck became a fan after Pickerel presented the future "Loser" with one of his comps.
One thing led to another, and eventually SubPop decided to try and contact Hazlewood about officially reissuing his long-dormant catalogue; Hazlewood bootlegs had become coveted and costly finds among collectors. The archival effort also spawned the notion of a tribute album.
"I thought we should try and sort of connect the reissues with something new," says Pickerel. "So I was the one tapped to handle the tribute."
Pickerel quickly secured interest and commitments from a who's who of underground rock royalty: Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave, Mazzy Star, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Mark Lanegan, Courtney Love, Beck, the Breeders, etc.
"Unfortunately, when I proposed this to Lee, I wrote to him and said 'I've got the Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave, Nirvana and all these wonderful people wanting to do this record," recounts Pickerel. "And he wrote me back completely unaware of who they were."
In fact, instead of being flattered, Hazlewood seemed downright hostile to the idea. Looking back, Pickerel is sympathetic. "[His reaction] makes sense. At the time it was probably so out of left field that it must've seemed like a joke."
Negotiations to reissue Hazlewood's solo LHI material also broke down when the cantankerous producer demanded an exorbitant fee for each song. "He was unwilling to budge and I understand that," says Pickerel. "I mean, he was used to dealing with figures much larger than what [SubPop] could offer."
Though his own dealings with Hazlewood yielded little, Pickerel's efforts were part of a much larger trend.
The Cult of Lee had been growing quietly for some years on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1982, punk queen Lydia Lunch and Birthday Party guitarist Rowland Howard covered "Some Velvet Morning," opening the doors for the underground's gradual awakening to Hazlewood the songwriter.
That successive generations of musicians would record his songs is testament to the enduring legacy of his work. In a career that's now stretched into a sixth decade, Hazlewood is the only man who can say he's had his material covered by Pat Boone and Einstürzende Neubauten, Dusty Springfield and Courtney Love -- not to mention several hundred other artists who've tackled his songbook.
"Over the years you become known for one thing. When people talk about me they say 'famed producer' as opposed to songwriter, even though I was writing the majority of the things I was producing," says Hazlewood. "Well, they may not know who I am, but ASCAP sure does," he adds with a laugh.
By the mid-'90s, a more mellowed Hazlewood had learned to accept the curiosity and adulation being heaped on him by kids young enough to be his grandchildren. Friends and associates say the change was sparked by new girlfriend Jeanie, as well as the very genuine outpouring he received from a fresh generation of fans.
"All these alternative artists started doing [my] songs. People would tell me about it. But then it kind of got serious," says Hazlewood. "Not only did they start doing 'em, but they wanted the guy who did 'em originally to start doing 'em again.
"I was offered opportunities to record with people -- it's a hell of a compliment. I mean, I wouldn't want my grandfather in the studio with me."
In 1995 Hazlewood returned to the stage, making a series of special "surprise" appearances on Nancy Sinatra's One More Time tour. In city after city, the crowd's faces grew younger, as legions of twentysomethings turned up clutching obscure, long out-of-print Hazlewood albums they'd paid hundreds of dollars for.
By the time the tour reached New York City's Limelite, the audience of old Nancy and Lee aficionados had been replaced by a crowd of hipsters and indie-rock celebs.
"It was packed from one end to the other, you couldn't move," recalls Hazlewood. "That's when I met Steve [Shelley] from Sonic Youth and all the rest of them. I remember some kid said, 'If Sonic Youth comes, you've got it made.' And I said, 'Who?' Of course, they all showed up and that was the start of a great thing."
In 1999 Hazlewood handpicked several albums for release on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records. Among the reissued titles were Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, The Cowboy and the Lady (a 1969 duet platter recorded with actress Ann Margaret), Cowboy in Sweden, Requiem for an Almost Lady and 13.
Also part of the Smells Like series was a new disc of jazzy standards featuring Hazlewood backed by the Al Casey Combo. The album, Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! and me . . . , was recorded in the Valley with producer Clarke Rigsby in fits and starts over a three-year period. (Hazlewood ended his relationship with Smells Like earlier this year.)
Occasional solo appearances in Europe followed, including a sold-out show with Nick Cave at London's Meltdown Festival in 1999.
"The place was not only full of his older fans, but young kids," says Casey, who still performs with Hazlewood. "The young kids have latched on to those dark songs. I don't know what the reason is, but who am I to question it?" he laughs, adding "If it's working, it's working."
"Isn't that strange?" says Hazlewood of his rediscovery. "I'd have picked on somebody else myself. I certainly never thought any of my stuff would be appreciated 30 years down the line."
However, to many it seemed inevitable that the surreal Zeitgeist of the '90s would bring with it a renewed fascination with Hazlewood's skewed songscapes. More artists -- from ambient electronic duo Air to country songsmith Johnny Dowd -- began to recognize Hazlewood's influence, namechecking him in interviews.
Joey Burns of Tucson's Giant Sand-Calexico contingent says his bands' desert-noir style owes a particularly large debt to Hazlewood. "For me his production was pivotal. It was really eye-opening. His work helped provide a lot of inspiration that went into making the past few Calexico albums especially."
Burns also points to the power of Hazlewood's music in conjuring up a broad panorama of images and emotions.
"The key is that he's got such a great sense of humor and imagination. I think for a lot of people -- despite the fact of him being slightly campy or whatever -- his stuff really does hold true and sink deeper," enthuses Burns. "He was able to tap into something that had never been done before."
Another aspect of Hazlewood that clearly appeals to the current generation of indie rockers is his reputation as a D.I.Y. pioneer -- the self-made maverick who went against the prevailing winds of the industry and emerged triumphant.
"I love his spirit -- of being someone very tough and strong-minded and strong-willed. He's like a Clint Eastwood of the rock world," says Burns. "And I think he personifies that perfectly. Not only did he do that with his music, but with his business dealings as well. His whole story of going to Hollywood and, when he faces rejection, he says, 'Well, fuck it. I'll just do it myself.' That spirit totally correlates and relates to what's going on today."
Wyndham Wallace, head of U.K.'s City Slang Records -- the label currently handling Hazlewood's recordings -- sees his appeal as a combination of visceral and aesthetic delights.
"First, there's the glory of his voice. One of those remarkable voices that just gets you and you can't say quite why. He constantly refers to the fact that he's got probably one of the worst voices that ever walked this earth. But it's not, it's really one of the most amazing things you'll ever hear. That's one of those things that draws people in straightaway.
"Plus there is beautiful melancholy that's at the heart of his songs," adds Wallace. "Which is normally so smothered that you don't realize there's this bittersweet thing going on. And there's his lyrics, which are funny, miserable, extraordinarily sexy and sometime perverse. I don't think many people have ever managed to make pop records be quite so intelligent as he did."
Wallace has been busy readying a new Hazlewood collection. The disc -- going under the working title of For Every Solution There Is a Problem -- features three new Hazlewood originals and collection of unreleased demos. "There's two dozen or so pieces of unreleased material from the last 25 years," says Wallace, "And there's some magnificent songs on there, as you might expect."
City Slang plans to pare down the collection to about 14 tracks and release it in January 2002. Also set to bow at the same time is a Hazlewood tribute album.
"I've gotten really, really exciting responses so far. I'm kind of loath to say exactly who is taking part at this point," says Wallace. "But there is going to be a diversity of established names, exciting up-and-coming artists and one or two of the old guard involved as well."
Rumored participants include Calexico, Nick Cave and Beck, as well as several others linked to the proposed 1991 SubPop salute.
"It is very gratifying that they'd even bother to do it," says Hazlewood. "The silliest word I can think of is that it tickles me. If you can be tickled at my age. But it really does."
Also pending it the release of a Hazlewood novel, The Pope's Daughter. Described by Hazlewood as "the Story of the Creation and Nancy," Wallace adds that the book is a "short, very funny semi-fictional account of his time working with Sinatra. There's absolutely no doubt that it captures the quintessential essence of Lee."
For Wallace -- who's grown close working with Hazlewood over the past few years -- spreading the word about his rich body of work is the real aim of the myriad projects.
"His music is recognized by 90 percent of people who've ever listened to a record in their life. They just don't know that it's him," Wallace says. "My prime objective is to try within the next year to see that Lee has gone from being someone people say, "Was that the guy who did that?' to "That was the guy who did that!"
As for his own goals, Hazlewood notes, "I'd like to do one more album of all originals before they put me in my urn." Still, that day looks to be a long way in the distance, as the robust and ever irascible Hazlewood celebrates his birthday with a show in the Valley this week.
"I'll be 72 and I've never played in the Valley, never played by myself in America," says Hazlewood. "Al [Casey] has been trying to get me to do this for 150 years -- or at least half that long 'cause we're about half that old."
There is something suitably poignant in that fact that Hazlewood returns to the city that launched his career some 50 years later, arguably the most crucial figure in the history of Arizona music.
The show, subtitled "Somewhere Between Obscure and Infamous," will include a night-capping medley of Hazlewood hits, but the real treat for fans will be a slew of rarely (if ever) performed nuggets.
"I'll play all these obscure songs and hopefully people will get a kick out of it. I'll be getting a free birthday party out of it anyway," chuckles Hazlewood.
Even as he approaches the autumn of his life, it's hard to pin down the inscrutable legend as to the precise motivations and inspirations for his work. Those closest to him have never fully understood quite where his unique brand of creativity -- or the twisted melancholy of songs -- springs from. Or why he's only recently allowed an adoring public to get close to him.
"I think he wanted to write and perform his music but he didn't want to necessarily be accountable," suggests Pickerel. "He wanted it out there because it was an expression, but he didn't want to have people talk about it or ask him about it. And it's taken 30 years to do just that." Echoing the sentiments of Lee-o-philes everywhere, Pickerel adds, "I'm just so thrilled that he's finally accepted this newfound fascination with his work. And that he's finally indulging us a little bit.
"It would've been a shame if he never did."
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.