Music News

Lee Hazlewood Re-Issues Chart an Unexpected Trajectory

Lee Hazlewood cuts an imposing figure on the cover of the 2012 collection The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes, & Backsides (1968-71). Clad in undertaker black (with a white turtleneck under his coat), he stands with his head cocked slightly, a shaggy bowl-cut hairdo adorning his famously mustachioed face. He's surrounded by 10 topless women, each impossibly gorgeous in that late-'60s way, each one sporting a fake mustache as they gaze up at Hazlewood from plush, white carpet.

As improbable as it sounds, the music found in the collection is every bit as idiosyncratic, sexually mystifying, poignant, and funny as the cover implies. Recorded during Hazlewood's "Cowboy in Sweden" days, the record is one of the two re-issued by Seattle record label Light in the Attic in 2012. It's joined by the baffling original soundtrack recording A House Safe for Tigers, and in early 2013, the label will re-issue Hazlewood's debut, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, recorded at Audio Recorders in Phoenix, where the songwriter/arranger/producer got his start before finding massive success with Nancy Sinatra with hits like "These Boots Are Made for Walking."

The string of re-released records not only shines new light on some of Hazlewood's less-heralded moments but demonstrates the remarkable scope of his work. Trouble Is a Lonesome Town acts something like a psychedelic children's record, LHI Years features whiskey-soaked compositions and duets with Suzi Jane Hokum, Nina Lizell, and Ann-Margret that rival his work with Sinatra while spanning the gap between country, folk, and pop, and A House Safe for Tigers (or Må Vårt Hus Förskonas Från Tigrar), named for the half-English, half-Swedish "semi-documentary" by director Torbjörn Axelman, veers off wildly in any direction it pleases, from the sweeping, string-draped "Souls Island" to the crushing "The Nights" to the straight-up dirty funk of "Las Vegas."

"[A House Safe for Tigers] is arguably one of the great masterpieces of his career," says Wyndham Wallace, who acted as Hazlewood's unofficial "manager" (he's hesitant to use the term) from 1999 until Hazlewood's death in 2007.

"It's a surreal, slightly offbeat one," Wallace laughs. "But then again, what did Lee make that wasn't slightly surreal and offbeat?"

The singular sounds find a nice home in the Light in the Attic catalog, which features overlooked gems from raspy funk songstress Betty Davis, agit-proto punk from The Monks (comprising U.S. GIs stationed in Germany during the late 1960s), the beatifically stoned freak-folk of Michael Chapman, and revolutionary soul-pop from Rodriguez (plus dozens of other worthy records). But originally, the sounds were issued on a variety of labels, including Mercury Records, Reprise Records, and Hazlewood's own LHI (Lee Hazlewood Industries).

By the time Trouble Is a Lonesome Town was released in 1963, Hazlewood already was something of an industry star. Born in Mannford, Oklahoma, Hazlewood spent his youth moving around the South. After military deployment in Korea, Hazlewood and his then wife Naomi settled in Coolidge in 1953. He landed a job spinning records at radio station KCKY when he wasn't honing his songwriting craft. A move to Phoenix followed, where Hazlewood would DJ at Mesa radio station KTYL and Phoenix's KRUX (where he reportedly was the first to play Elvis Presley in Arizona) and begin crafting his signature "twangy" sound at Audio Recorders Studios with artists like Sanford Clark, Duane Eddy, Al Casey, producer Lester Sill, and Audio Recorders owner Floyd Ramsey.

"[Hazlewood] basically invented the 'Wall of Sound,' by [recording in a] grain tank outside the studio," Wallace says, "sticking an amplifier on one end and a microphone at the other, running that into the desk, and sending somebody out to shoot the birds off the grain tank so that you wouldn't hear the tweeting when the musicians were playing."

Hazlewood finally scored a hit in 1956, with the "The Fool," featuring vocals from Clark. 1956's "Rebel Rouser," featuring the slinky, early rock 'n' roll "twangy guitar" of Duane Eddy, followed. Hazlewood moved to Los Angles in 1957, serving as a staff producer at Dot Records. He traveled back and forth between Phoenix and Los Angeles, working on what would become his solo debut, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town.

"In his mind, [Trouble Is a Lonesome Town] was a demo," says John "Johnny D" Dixon, an Arizona music historian, DJ, and author of the extensive liner notes in Light in the Attic's reissue of the record. "But Jack Tracy at Mercury Records [heard it and] said, 'That's it. I think we're going to put it out like this.'"

The "like this" of the equation still puzzles Dixon, and the record's linear, single-free format (with clear nods to the Sun Records sound, though Hazlewood adamantly denied such connections) is indeed one strange trip, darkly funny and filled with oddball characters (the tragic Emery Zickafoos Brown in "Ugly Brown," the warring brothers of "Six Feet of Chain," Sleepy Gilloreeth and his "embalming fluid"-drinking Native American assistant Charlie Flood in "We All Make the Flowers Grow") and spoken-word narration from Hazlewood that recalled his cast of various on-air voices and characters he'd employ during radio broadcasts.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.