Lee Hazlewood didn’t give a damn. He never concerned himself with pleasing critics, following convention or satiating record executives. While best known for penning the Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’,” he was an influential and multi-faceted force in the music industry. Hazlewood was a disc jockey, production pioneer, songwriter, record label manager and singer; the cowboy wore a lot of hats in his day. Hazlewood was an iconoclast who consistently defied categorisation, crafting exuberant orchestral pop, hauntingly ethereal ballads, guttural surf and gothic country gems. In his vast catalogue of music, he cast himself as a wanderer, a rambling man, a comedian, a tough guy, a poet, a deadbeat, a heartbroken fool and a hero. The man himself was any number of these or none; his mystique was always part of his charm.
1929 to 1951
Barton Lee Hazlewood is born on July 9, 1929 in Mannford, Oklahoma (population: 356). His father Gabriel is an oil wildcatter who sometimes books musicians for local dances. In his semi-fictionalised 2002 autobiography The Pope’s Daughter, he describes his mother Eva Lee as, “a small, 80 lb, sanity-challenged, hyper, extremely verbal woman… [who] often explode[d] in a one-woman chorus of words that would embarrass a seasoned sailor.” She could also bake a mean pastry. The Hazlewoods move from place to place during Barton’s childhood and adolescence; he attends five different schools while in the eighth grade alone. The family eventually settled in Port Neches, Texas. Hazlewood studies medicine at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and marries his high school sweetheart, Naomi Shackleford.
1951 to 1952
Hazlewood serves with the U.S. Army for 18 months. While stationed overseas during the Korean War, he works as a disc jockey for American Forces Radio Service.
Once back in the United States, Hazlewood attends Spears Broadcasting School in Los Angeles. He is hired as a disc jockey at KCKY, a radio station in Coolidge, Arizona where he makes $55 a week. Hazlewood develops a cult following due to his irreverence and the different characters that he plays while on the air. “I used to get letters to the station addressed to these characters,” Hazlewood would tell The New York Times in 1999. “Some of them suggested they get rid of me. I gave them three people for the price of one.” One of Hazlewood’s fans is 15-year-old guitarist Duane Eddy.
Hazlewood and teenager Eddy become friends and collaborate on music together, with Hazlewood writing and producing. After enlisting pianist James “Jimmy Dell” Delbridge, the trio often travel to Phoenix to perform. When Hazlewood is fired from KCKY, he lands a job at KRUX in Phoenix (for $105 a week), and Eddy moves to Phoenix along with him. Lee’s wife Naomi gives birth to their first child, Debra.
While living in Phoenix, Hazlewood recruits several session players, including guitarist Al Casey, to help out with his recordings. Hazlewood begins Viv, his own record label, with Eddy and singer Sanford Clark, a friend he meets through Casey. Having experimented with recording at various radio stations, Hazlewood strives to add new dimensions to Eddy’s Chet Atkins-inspired guitar playing. He wants to incorporate an echo chamber and decides to attach a grain elevator to the side of the studio. “I went all over Phoenix, and I finally found one that gave me a little something back,” he’ll tell The New York Times. “I told the guy, ‘How much do you want for it?’ He said, ‘$200.’ I said, ‘Delivered.’ We drove it back to the studio. It looked like Lee’s Folly.” This strange new technique gives Eddy his distinctively eerie reverberating sound and helps him to become one of the most celebrated rock’n’roll instrumentalists of all time. At KRUX, Hazlewood is the first disc jockey in Phoenix to play the music of Elvis Presley. The Hazlewoods welcome their second child, Mark.
Hazlewood writes and produces the song “The Fool” for Sanford Clark, crediting it to Naomi Ford (a shortened version of his wife’s name). Initially, Hazlewood doesn’t want his name associated with the song because he is concerned about the potential conflict of interest of playing his own records on the radio. “The Fool” is initially released on MCI, but is ignored until Dot Records (home of Pat Boone) scoops it up; “The Fool” eventually cracks the Billboard top ten and Hazlewood has his first hit. Buoyed by his success, Hazlewood leaves Phoenix behind and moves to Los Angeles where he joins Dot Records as a full-time producer. He leaves the label the following year, unimpressed by Dot Records president Randy Wood’s criticism of his records. “I didn’t need a critique,” Hazlewood would tell The New York Times. “If I had listened to critiques, I’d probably still be in Phoenix, making maybe $110 a week.” Hazlewood’s instincts are dead on; Wood had passed on catchy instrumental “Rebel Rouser,” a song that would later become a top ten hit and an enduring and instantly familiar classic.
During his time at Dot Records, Hazlewood meets fellow producer Lester Sill (the Crystals, the Ronettes). Along with 27-year-old American Bandstand host Dick Clark, Sill and Hazlewood launch Jamie Records, and Duane Eddy churns out numerous hit singles on the label over the next few years. Having the luxury of creative control once again, Hazlewood continues to experiment with music production, refining old techniques and creating new ones. According to the Smells Like Records website, Hazlewood would “stack” bass sounds — the sound of an upright bass would meld with a Fender bass, creating greater depth and resonance. A teenaged associate of Sill’s, Phil Spector, is obviously paying very close attention.
The song that prompted Hazlewood’s departure from Dot Records — “Rebel Rouser” — hits the number six on the Billboard charts.
Hazlewood continues to write and produce, recording several more songs with Sanford Clark, including “Run Boy Run,” “New Kind Of Fool” and “Son Of A Gun.” None make any headway on the charts.
Hazlewood records the ominous lament “The Girl On Death Row” for the film Why Must I Die? starring Terry Moore and Debra Paget. On the flipside of the 45 is “Words Mean Nothing.” Hazlewood sings on both tracks while Duane Eddy and His Orchestra back him up. Hazlewood begins playing with sound distortion during this period. “Lee knew a guy who worked at a radio station and he built a little box for that,” Al Casey says. “This happened before all the fuzz tones. We were trying to get a good, nice clean sound. Lee wanted the distorted sound.” Frank Sinatra’s 20-year-old daughter Nancy makes her professional singing debut, duetting with Elvis Presley during the television special Welcome Home Elvis, when he returns from the Army.
A young Phil Spector produces tracks for the Paris Sisters for Hazlewood and Sill’s new record label, Gregmark. Hazlewood records “Don’t Cry (No More)” with the flip side of “Della” for Smash Records.
Hazlewood records and releases Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, his full-length solo debut. The songs are inspired by the stories of the small town inhabitants of his birthplace, Mannford, Oklahoma. Trouble Is A Lonesome Town takes shape at Western Studios, where most of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds would later be recorded. Lee also releases Until You’ve Heard The Shacklefords, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet by the Shacklefords (another of Lee’s references to Naomi), in collaboration with Al Casey and arranger Billy Strange, among others.
At the ripe age of 35, Hazlewood decides to quit the music business. He has been successful enough as a producer to live comfortably and spends his days lounging by his pool, Chivas Regal in hand. “I was just sittin’ in my backyard, watchin’ the bugs swim,” he tells The London Guardian in 2002. Hazlewood’s retirement turns out to be short-lived — eight months. Because of his reputation as an innovative producer, he’s approached by Frank Sinatra’s daughter Nancy. But Hazlewood isn’t sure about giving up his life of leisure and needs some convincing, so Ol’ Blue Eyes pays him a visit. As Hazlewood would tell The Guardian, “[He] gave me a little hug and a handshake and said, ‘I’m glad you kids are gonna be working together, Lee.’ And he left. And I hadn’t even said yes yet!”
Hazlewood and Sinatra’s working relationship grows into mutual respect and adoration that became a lifelong friendship. In 2007, Sinatra would tell The New York Times, “I had a horrible crush on [Hazlewood], but he was married then.” In a 1995 interview with Toronto’s Eye Weekly, Hazlewood speaks highly of Sinatra: “I love her to pieces. I’ve always loved her.” Hazlewood and Sinatra have always maintained that their affection for one another were purely platonic and if it had been anything more, “now we’re old enough to tell you.” “So Long, Babe” becomes Nancy Sinatra’s first (minor) hit. His “retirement” behind him, Hazlewood releases another solo record The N.S.V.I.P.s on Frank Sinatra’s own label, Reprise (a subsidiary of Warner) and produces Reprise’s teen act Dino, Desi & Billy (which features the sons of Dean Martin, and Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball). The trio’s songs “I’m A Fool” and “Not The Lovin’ Kind” became moderate hits. Hazlewood also writes the Dean Martin hit “Houston,” which reaches number two on the Billboard charts.
Hazlewood writes the song that will come to define both his and Nancy Sinatra’s career. In 1999, Hazlewood will reveal its inspiration to Esquire magazine: “I was sittin’ in this bar in southern Texas and there’s this fella in there who’s about 35, who had just married an 18-year-old girl. And they’re teasin’ him and tellin’ him his wife had called and he better get on home and all this kind of stuff. So we all had a few more drinks, and then he says ‘I just wanna tell you guys somethin’. In my house, I’m boss, ’cause if I’m not the boss’ — and he threw his foot up on one of the barstools — ‘these boots are gonna walk all over her!’ I just said ‘God almighty!’” In the hands — and black go-go boots — of Nancy Sinatra, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” becomes an international smash and symbol for the counterculture and emerging feminist movement both. “Boots” itself is a catchy song, but Sinatra’s kittenish vocals add an undercurrent of innocence that dazzles, which Lee also had a hand in — he instructs her at the recording session to sing the song “like a 14-year-old girl who fucks truck drivers” according to the 2002 interview with The Guardian. The duo has a second huge hit on their hands the same year with the release of “How Does That Grab You Darlin’?,” which sells 1.2 million copies worldwide. “[Lee] is not a country-bumpkin shit kicker,” Nancy Sinatra would tell Billboard in 2007. “He’s a brainy, highly intelligent intellectual who happens to have retained his child inside — intact. That’s the force I believe that creates the fairy tales.”
Hazlewood begins his own label under the umbrella of MCA, dubbed Lee Hazlewood Industries (LHI). The label is best known for releasing 1968’s Safe At Home by the International Submarine Band, featuring Gram Parsons before he met Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Safe At Home is widely regarded as the first country-rock album ever recorded. Hazlewood spends much of 1967 writing. He composes the music for the 1967 film Tony Rome, starring Frank Sinatra as a private eye and consummate ladies man; Nancy Sinatra sings the theme song. A composition that Hazlewood has been tinkering with for some time makes its debut on the Emmy Award-winning television special Movin’ With Nancy. Jarring, haunting and unforgettable, “Some Velvet Morning” is arguably Hazlewood’s finest song; it will eventually be covered by countless musicians including Vanilla Fudge, Lost and Profound, Slowdive, Lydia Lunch and Primal Scream (featuring Kate Moss). Hazlewood confesses that he doesn’t actually know what the enigmatic lyrics mean. “It’s not meant to mean so much,” Hazlewood will tell Eye Magazine. “I’m not a druggie, so it was never to do with that.” When Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra tour together two decades later, she would lament on stage, “I’ve been singing this song for over 20 years and I still don’t know what the damned thing means.” Hazlewood’s cryptic rely is “Ask me some velvet morning when I’m straight.”
Sinatra and Hazlewood’s first album of duets, Nancy & Lee, is released on Reprise. With its mixture of hard-luck tales, heady romance, high camp and ostensible spontaneity, it is absorbing and endlessly entertaining. The album unravels like a movie soundtrack and is deceptively profound and multi-layered, despite moments of cheeseball theatricality. Hazlewood is cast as a rambling, world-weary cowboy and Nancy, the angelic naïf; the duo’s chemistry on wax is undeniable. Nancy & Lee includes “Some Velvet Morning,” “Lady Bird,” “Sundown, Sundown,” the hedonistic “Summer Wine,” and a playfully antagonistic cover version of “Jackson,” made famous by Johnny Cash and June Carter. Love And Other Crimes is also released this year. Dismissed by some as a vanity project, it contains one personal favourite, “She Comes Running,” an exuberant and touching song about a woman’s admirable devotion to the restless man she loves. Waylon Jennings will cover it two years on Singer Of Sad Songs, produced by Hazlewood.
Having grown weary of the United States for a variety of reasons, Hazlewood heads to Europe, settling (if a cowboy can ever really settle) in Sweden. (Though always loathe to discuss the details of his personal life — and there’s little information about it — Hazlewood’s first marriage dissolves at some point during this period.) He releases The Cowboy & The Lady, an album of country duets with Swedish actress Ann-Margret. Despite its tongue-in-cheek nature, the album contains a multitude of gems, including the wistful “Victims Of The Night,” arguably the prettiest song ever written about one-night stands. The Cowboy & The Lady is Hazlewood’s personal debut on LHI.
Hazlewood stars in Swedish director Torbjörn Axelman’s film Cowboy in Sweden and creates a psychedelic country soundtrack of the same name. The album is magnificently evocative and contains several memorable songs, including “Hey Cowboy,” “Cold Hard Times” and “Easy And Me.”
One of Hazlewood’s most extraordinary talents is mining absurdity and comedy from just about any subject, and on Requiem For An Almost Lady, he manages to find humour in heartache. On the spoken word intro to the song “Come On Home To Me” he murmurs, “And you wake up one morning and you say, ‘I feel good. I don’t miss her. I can live without her.’ And you soon learn that time will come — but it wasn’t that day.” Requiem For An Almost Lady isn’t written about any woman in particular. As Hazlewood will write in the liner notes for the 1999 reissue on Smells Like Records, it is “a composite of all my memories of ladies since I became aware of memories and ladies.” Of lovers past, he quipped to The Guardian, “I’ve had my pocketbook bent with some of them but I’ve never had my heart broken.”
Hazlewood’s weird and wonderful album 13 is released. Arranged by Larry Marks (a composer of theme songs for Saturday morning cartoons), the album includes “You Look Like A Lady” and a bombastic, orchestral new version of “She Comes Running.” Also released this year is Hazlewood and Sinatra’s reunion album, Nancy & Lee Again, which contains the hit “Did You Ever?,” which reaches #2 on the U.K. charts.
1973 to 1975
Hazlewood is awarded with the prestigious Rose d’Or (Golden Rose) at Switzerland’s Montreux Festival for The N.S.V.I.P.’s in 1973. Also that year, his solo albums I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Poet, Fool Or Bum are released; both go practically unnoticed. His 1974 concert at Berns Salonger is released as The Stockholm Kid. The following year, he stars in two more Torbjörn Axelman films, A House Safe For Tigers (for which he records an obscure album of the same name) and Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas. Both are filmed in documentary style and offer insights into Hazlewood’s life and career.
20th Century Lee is released; with the exception of the Sanford Clark hit “The Fool,” the album is all covers. All Music Guide describes it as follows: “If by chance you think you’ve heard it all, nothing can prepare you for the ambiguous highlights of 20th Century Lee, as Hazlewood takes both ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ to a high and unforeseen level. While the former wouldn’t be out of place in a ’70s soft porn pic, the latter — with its interrupting pan flute solos — is on the verge of a porno itself.”
Back On The Street Again is released exclusively in Europe (but not the UK). Hazlewood will not release another album for more than two decades.
1978 to 1992
Hazlewood largely disappears from the music industry, releasing nothing of his own during this time period. He lives on royalty cheques, copyrights and sound investments. In the words of Nancy Sinatra, Hazlewood “sat on his assets.” He travels widely and lives intermittently in various places across Europe, including Sweden, Spain, Finland and Germany.
Hazlewood collaborates with Finnish singer Anna Hanski on Gypsies & Indians. The band Tindersticks pay tribute to Hazlewood by placing his photograph on the cover of their seven-inch “A Marriage Made In Heaven.” Hazlewood’s gorgeous “Sand” inspires the song itself.
Forrest Gump kicks off his leg braces and learns to run to the tune of “Rebel Rouser.”
Hazlewood and Sinatra embark on a reunion tour across Canada, the U.S. and Scandinavia. “There’s only one person on this earth who could ever have gotten me on the stage again, and that’s Nancy,” Hazlewood tells Eye. Backstage at their New York City date, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley introduces himself. The two men strike up a friendship and set the wheels in motion for a business deal that would allow Shelley to open Hazlewood’s catalogue up to a new generation of fans.
Hazlewood records Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!!, and Me, his first solo project in 22 years. The album, featuring Hazlewood singing versions of other people’s songs (backed by long-time friend Al Casey), is not released for another two years. Included are standards like “The Very Thought Of You,” “Makin’ Whoopee” and the Otis Redding classic “Try A Little Tenderness.” “I call them two-beer songs,” Hazlewood would tell The New York Times. “When my dad had two beers, he sang these around the house.”
Hazlewood’s granddaughter, Phaedra Dawn Stewart, is born. Named after the goddess in “Some Velvet Morning,” Phaedra Dawn grows up with a special affinity for her grandfather’s pretty, mind-bending tune. When she’s eight years old, Phaedra Dawn’s loving granddad allows her sing to sing a portion of “her song” on his final album, Cake Or Death.
Seven of Hazlewood’s solo recordings are reissued on Steve Shelley’s independent label, Smells Like Records, prompting renewed interest in Hazlewood’s music.
The man who would eventually become Hazlewood’s manager, Wyndham Wallace, releases For Every Solution There’s A Problem, a compilation of unreleased Hazlewood material. A companion disc, For Every Question There’s An Answer, contains interviews. Bootleg Dreams & Counterfeit Demos is also released this year. In support of this slew of new/old releases, Hazlewood tours Europe, backed by members of Stereolab and the High Llamas. The Lycanthrope Tour: Europe 2002, containing live material recorded on the tour, is released the following year. Hazlewood’s first and only book, The Pope’s Daughter: His Fantasy Life with Nancy and Other Sinatras is published. In this wildly funny, semi-fictionalised memoir, Sinatra is depicted as a girl who pirouettes about and whose gleeful refrain to Hazlewood is, “Hi, dummy! I’m Nancy with the laughing face, ha ha ha!” At the peak of Hazlewood’s musical renaissance, Astralwerks releases Total Lee! The Songs Of Lee Hazlewood, featuring covers by artists like Calexico, Jarvis Cocker, Evan Dando, Lambchop and the Tindersticks.
“Some Velvet Morning” is voted the best duet in pop history by The London Daily Telegraph.
Hazlewood and Sinatra reunite to record the brand new collective Nancy & Lee 3. Billy Strange (who worked on the original Nancy & Lee) takes the reigns as arranger. Duane Eddy also peeks his head in with a cameo on a song he co-wrote, “She Won’t.” It is only released in Australia.
Jessica Simpson covers “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” for the movie The Dukes Of Hazzard. When asked by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007 what he thinks of Simpson’s version, Hazlewood slyly replies, “I thought it was very profitable for me. That’s what I thought of that. It made money.”
Barton Lee Hazlewood is diagnosed with terminal renal cancer and given one year to live. He weds his girlfriend of 15 years, Jeane Kelly, in a quickie Las Vegas ceremony. “It was like going to McDonald’s,” Hazlewood tells The New York Times. “You stay in the car and go up to the window. The preacher was a Frenchman. Afterwards my granddaughter threw rose petals on the hood.” Never being one to take anything in life too seriously Hazlewood heads to the studio to record his swan song, Cake or Death. The album is brilliant and eclectic, full of Hazlewood’s quirky humour and an unchecked joie de vivre. It’s a far cry from the introspective ballads and lamentations one might expect from a dying man.
On August 4, Hazlewood dies at age 78. He is survived by his devoted wife, Jeane Kelly-Hazlewood, his children Mark, Debbie and Samantha, and numerous adoring grandchildren. Later this year, Rhino Records will release a special two-CD set that will include three of Hazlewood’s albums and some rare production work. “I’ve been around long enough now,” he tells The New York Times in one of his last interviews. “I’ve lived a pretty interesting life — not too much sadness, a lot of happiness, lots of fun. And I didn’t do much of anything I didn’t want to do.”