(Image credit: Country Music Hall of Fame)
Lefty Frizzell was born in Corsicana, Texas in 1928 to Naaman Orville and Ades D. Cox Frizzell. His father was an oilfield worker who followed the drilling rigs. Lefty was the oldest of eight children and his family moved around as the oil exploration business required. There are several explanations of how he came by the nickname of Lefty. The one seeming told most often (and perhaps a legend) was that his classmates began calling him this after a schoolyard fight. He was called Sonny when he was growing up, but he was left handed, which is possibly also the source of his nickname.
He started singing as a career while he was still a teenager after learning to play the guitar in public at around the age of twelve. His first guitar cost two dollars and was a gift from an uncle. It is said that he received lessons from an African-American neighbor, whose name was not given. Though Frizzell was left handed, he learned to play the guitar right handed. He did everything else left handed. Like a lot of musicians and their first instruments, Lefty was nostalgic about his old two dollar guitar in later years.
He learned to sing by listing to recordings on an old Victor Victrola phonograph. Frizzell looked upon the singer Jimmie Rogers as the person he wanted to emulate. One report says that he performed on a children’s radio program when he was twelve years old in El Dorado, Arkansas. Another says that when Naaman was stationed at Majors Field during World War II that Lefty began to perform on a Paris, Texas radio station. After the war, the family moved to Roswell, New Mexico where Lefty is said to have had his own radio program on a station there, as well.
He married and continued to play wherever he could. It is no secret that he served six months in jail after being accused of statutory rape when he was about nineteen years old. It apparently had a profound effect on him and he is known to have composed a number of songs to his wife during his confinement including “I Love You a Thousand Ways.”
His other early appearances were local events, including fairs. One of his earliest West Texas engagements was the Ace of Clubs, pictured below and still standing, at the last report. The venue was a long time dance hall/honky tonk/beer joint on old Highway 80 in Big Spring, Texas that featured local country acts and artists who might be passing through. Lefty and his band performed here many times over the years.
(Image credit: Screen capture from Google Maps)
In the early 1950s, Lefty did a recording session at Jim Beck’s recording studio in downtown Dallas. Beck was a producer, recording engineer and studio owner who is known to have recorded Frizzell and many other top artists early in their careers. Frizzell was then introduced to people at Columbia Records who signed Lefty to the label and helped him launch his recording career. As the saying goes in music, after toiling for many years on the fringes of the business, Lefty became an “overnight” success.
His first hit was “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” and several of his next singles reached the top ten in 1951. At one time, he had four singles on the top ten list, an accomplishment not repeated even by The Beatles. He continued to record at Columbia for another twelve to thirteen years. His signature style and delivery led many country singers such as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard to list him as an important influence in their careers.
He was a sought after performer and was invited to perform on the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. He formed his own band called the Western Cherokees who worked with him for many years.
Life on the road took its toll, and along with his health, his career began to decline in the late 1950s. However, he continued to tour and record from Nashville, switching labels. His last big hit was “Saginaw, Michigan” that reached the charts in 1964, but he continued to work and record until he not long before passed away, which is a tribute to just how gifted and talented he was.
After a short time in Nashville Memorial Hospital, Frizzell died in the summer of 1975 from complications of high blood pressure and a stroke, believed to have been aggravated by years of alcohol use. He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. Frizzell is interred there on “Music Row” along with many other musicians including Patsy Cline, David “Stringbean” Akeman, Jack Anglin, Jimmie Crawford, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Randy Hughes, Benny Martin and Paul Warren. Lefty was forty-seven years old at the time of his death.
His honors include being inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in Nashville in 1972. Frizzell was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982 and was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 1998.
Do you have a favorite Lefty Frizzell song? For me it is “That’s The Way Love Goes” which Lefty co-wrote with native Texan Sanger D. “Whitey” Shafer. The song was written by the pair in the 1960s and released by singer Johnny Rodriguez. It was later covered by many other artists including Merle Haggard, who sang it much like Lefty did in his surviving recordings. If you have a favorite Frizzell tune of your own, feel free to list it in the comments section below.
For more reading:
“Growing Up Kilgore, the Lefty Frizzell Story” by Steven Merle Kilgore
Lefty Frizzell’s custom Gibson guitar
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