Editor's Note: An abridged version of this article appears in this week's issue, featuring 100 Songs that Defined Arizona. In celebration of Arizona's centennial, John "Johnny D" Dixon, host of Mostly Vinyl with Johnny D on KWSS 106.7 and unofficial Arizona music historian, shares a little history about Sanford Clark's hit, "The Fool."
Gather 'round me buddies, Hold your glasses high And drink to a fool, a crazy fool, Who told his baby goodbye...
In March 1956, KTYL disc jockey, producer, and songwriter Lee Hazlewood was out of money -- to pay for more recording sessions and record-pressings, that is. After more than a year of trying for a hit on his Viv Records imprint, his closets were full of unsold boxes of the half-dozen country 45 and 78 RPM records by local artists that he had financed. It was all about Hazlewood's deep-seated desire to be a songwriter, and so far it all had gone bust.
He had been working on a new song he called "The Fool" with a young friend, guitarist Al Casey of The Sunset Riders. Hazlewood could handle the lyric and melody, but he needed a real musician to fine-tune the music and transcribe it. Casey also suggested his school pal Sanford Clark as the singer Hazlewood sought to deliver his new creation to vinyl.
With no more cash for a recording session, let alone pressing costs, Hazlewood approached the new MCI (Music Counselors Inc.) label that operated from a desk in the front of Ramsey's Recording Studio on 7th Street and Weldon. In return for financing the studio time and paying for the records he would record an MCI published song (Lonesome For A Letter) on the flip. This was not something that he wanted to do, but he just had to get "The Fool" on tape and see what would happen.
In the studio, working on the backing track, Casey took the guitar riff from "Smokestack Lightning" and flipped it, as his wife, Corky, strummed rhythm guitar while MCI owner Connie Conway tapped a screwdriver on the side of a snare drum and his partner, Jimmy Wilcox, plucked on his acoustic bass. At the controls, teen engineer Ray Stofer drenched the audio track with lots of tape echo, to Hazlewood's satisfaction.
Days later, a well-rehearsed Clark was singing into a new Neumann U-47 microphone, overdubbing his vocal on top of the reverberating backing track. It still took several days and dozens of takes and false starts before Hazlewood finally had what he wanted. He wasn't paying for the studio time, so he could afford to work with Clark to get his latest composition fully realized.
A week later, 500 records were ordered and mailed out to radio stations and record distributors around the country -- and the wait began for a response, any response. After several weeks, MCI got a call from a DJ in Cincinnati telling Hazlewood that he had a smash. He also informed the producer that his record was a "pop" record, not the "country" hit he thought it was. As the orders for records mounted, MCI realized it didn't have the money to pay for more pressings, so in May, it reluctantly sold the masters to Dot Records for a $2,500 advance. By the end of '57, "The Fool" had sold more than 800,000 copies.
As 1957 dawned, Hazlewood was off the air and on to Los Angeles, accepting a job as a producer at Dot. After a fruitless year working at Dot, he partnered up with Lester Sill and made a deal with Jamie Records to release "twangy" instrumental recordings by a good-looking young man relocated to Phoenix by way of Coolidge.
His name was Duane Eddy. Their second release, "Rebel Rouser," produced and co-written by Hazlewood, became a worldwide, multimillion-selling smash in the summer of 1958 -- and the rest, as they say, is history. Arizona history.