Music Features

Lee Hazlewood's Earliest Demos Are Featured in a New Collection

A new collection of demos by Lee Hazlewood was just released.
A new collection of demos by Lee Hazlewood was just released. Light In The Attic Records
On Lee Hazlewood's 72nd birthday in 2001, the legendary singer, songwriter, and producer performed at a party at The Rhythm Room. The night's curator was Arizona music historian and legendary DJ John "Johnny D" Dixon, who recently assisted the independent label Light In The Attic in compiling a collection of Hazlewood's earliest demos titled 400 Miles From L.A. 1955-1956.

"That early time was not successful," says Dixon, recalling the interview he had with the "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" writer included in the release. "So he wasn't glossing over what a wonderful time it was when he was pitching the songs and taking the Greyhound bus over to L.A. and getting turned down. That to me has always been the most fascinating thing of the whole Lee Hazlewood story, that he continued to be turned down by all these people."

The reason why Hazelwood started Viv Records was that he needed people to record his songs. But when Hazlewood wrote the song "The Fool," he had to make a deal with MCI Records, another Phoenix label, to release it. Recorded by Sanford Clark, it was picked up nationally by Dot Records. It gave Hazlewood the credibility he needed.

"That’s why 'The Fool' is such an important part of Arizona history," maintains Dixon. "It didn’t come out on Viv ... Lee was out of money so he went to MCI and because they had access to Floyd Ramsey’s recording studio. It was a real leap of faith on MCI’s part. Here’s a guy who’s put out all these stiffs on his own little record label. He needed time to perfect the backing track with Al Casey and didn't even have a demo he could play them."

In an ironic twist, the songwriting credits on these Viv compositions read Naomi Ford, a shortened version of his wife's name maiden name, Shackleford. The first pressings of "The Fool" included Hazlewood's name by mistake, so it was scratched out manually.

"For some reason, he didn't want his name on the record," says Dixon. "It's all conjecture but maybe he didn't want other people judging his songwriting or maybe people didn't like him or because he was a DJ, and he felt you can't be spinning your own record on the radio. I don't know there was ever a law that said you couldn't."

Another major discovery on 400 Miles From L.A. is the complete set of demos featuring the narration for the Trouble Is a Lonesome Town album that Mercury Records released in 1963.

"It's mind-boggling that he would have been sitting on this idea of a concept album for seven years. That he could string 10 songs together with a little narrative in between," says Dixon. "The Viv demos are very close to the Mercury demos. It didn't change too much in between. Lee wanted to re-record the Mercury demos but when he took them to Jack Tracy, a more free-wheeling, freethinking A&R guy, Jack said, 'No man, this is fine, we’re putting it out.'"

Hazlewood was still gung-ho enough on the concept of a town of lovable losers in 1968. Supposedly, there were discussions to develop it as a TV series, but nothing came of it. Some say that this latter cycle of rejection is was what led to him to move to Stockholm, Sweden. There he was able to write and produce an hourlong television show titled Cowboy in Sweden to his specifications.

The timelessness of this lonely voice and guitar demos still resonates for anyone on the outside looking in over six decades later.

Light in the Attic Records' Lee Hazlewood Release Party with music spun by John "Johnny D" Dixon and Jason P. Woodbury is scheduled on Friday, September 13, at The Dirty Drummer.
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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic