Updated: May 30
45 years ago we lost Lefty Frizzell. His influence is immeasurable counting some of the brightest stars as fans. Willie Nelson recorded a tribute in 1977 titled "From Willie To Lefty" as he was a fan of his songwriting. High praise from someone who has written some of the biggest hits in country music such as "Crazy", "Hello Walls", and "On The Road Again".
Merle Haggard described Lefty as the most unique thing to happen to country music. His vocal stylings, tone, and inflections have become the golden standard for vocal delivery, and singing overall. Roy Orbison was such a devoted fan that he named his Traveling Wilbury character Lefty after the legendary singer. His short life was fun, but tragic full of unbelievable success, and unfathomable sorrow. Some of the things I've learned about his life can be found on previous posts. Also, Lefty was mentioned several times in my "Honky Tonkin" series. I will probably write a multi part series on Lefty in the future, but for now, I really want to focus on his accomplishments, and impact.
Lefty might be the most routinely underrated tastemaker. Unlike Hank Williams, whose story has been told, and retold from different perspectives several times over. Lefty's legacy is yet to be fully explored by country music fans, let alone the masses..To date, there are no official movies, documentaries or made for tv, cable or on-demand features detailing Lefty's life. I find this astounding to say the least. If anyone's life was a country song, it surely had to be Lefty's.
He was barely a teen, when he found himself partially supporting his momma, and siblings with a newspaper route. By the time he was 16 he was married. At 19 he was in jail, and started his music career shortly after. Right out the gate, his singles were wildly successful. He really did not get a chance to grow up. It was sink or swim from the outside looking in. It's probably one of the reasons why he was a tough guy, but with a heart of pure gold when it came to his friends, and family. Lefty's cultural impact can be felt, and heard in the Bakersfield sound that gave birth to Merle Haggard, and the hordes of artists that revered him, and count him as a major influence.
Lefty's life is really a lesson in decision making. There were lapses of judgement, misplaced trust, missed opportunities, and the drinking..Yet, he was an incredibly talented, hard livin',emotional man. Almost everyone says he had a gentle spirit, but was tough as nails at the same time. This is a rare trait, the best of both worlds when managed properly. In his ending years, he did not have a manager, publicist or marketing agency working on his behalf. Just a booking agent, and a very close knit group of songwriters he loved writing, and hanging out with.
He was truly devoted to his small circle of friends. Before he died, he was at a point in his life where what he wanted was to hang out w/ his friends, and write songs. Sounds good to me.. When Lefty died on July 19th, 1975, he was living in the basement of his home. I remember reading "I Lived To Tell It All" the George Jones' autobiography, where he said the last time he saw Lefty was at his basement, drunk on vodka at 9:00 AM. George said all Lefty had was a bed, stove, and canned food.
Lefty was scheduled to play the Delaware State Fair on July 19th. He had packed his things, and was going to take a red eye flight. All that saw him said he looked horrible. He also said that he did not want to go. At the time, his most recent release was "Falling",. It was peaking at 50. His voice still sounded good on that song, I just don't really like the song all that much. "Life's Like Poetry" was released earlier in the year. It was written by longtime fan Merle Haggard. When I hear that song, Lefty sounds like Lefty. His voice complete with some slight note bending along with the flow of the song is classic Lefty Frizzell.
On July 19th, Lefty woke up in the middle of the night. He was in a pile of his vomit, and unable to move his left side. Some reports say, he called his daughter, others say his estranged wife Alice came to help. She had filed for divorce some months before. The bottom line is, it appears he had suffered a stroke. Once in the ambulance, he was in good spirits, but right before reaching the hospital, he suffered a massive stroke and went into a coma. He never regained consciousness, and died later that evening. Lefty was 47 years old.
Lefty influenced all of my heroes either directly or indirectly. Daryle Singletary, Randy Travis, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Ken Mellons, George Strait the list goes on, and on. And the artists Lefty influenced have fans that grew up listening to his influence on their favorite artists without even knowing Lefty was the vocal architect of the sound they love so much..
I was fortunate enough to hear Lefty throughout my early life. Though he had been long gone, his voice was undeniable to me. Drenched with emotion, heartfelt, and true. Very few have that quality that is so hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it. Keith,Ken, Daryle, Vern, George ,Joe, and a few others have "it". I come back often to George Jones words "Who's gonna give their heart, and soul to get to me, and you.." Though the song is over 30 years old it still rings true. Lefty was the kind of singer George was singing about in the song, no doubt about it.
Lefty Frizzell had much success in a variety of ways. below you will find segmented bulleted points of interest. It's meant to be a cheat sheet of sorts on some of Lefty's notable accomplishments. Also don't forget to celebrate Lefty every Friday by using the hashtag #FrizzellFriday when you post something about the talented Lefty, and or his incredibly gifted family, some are still performing.
In 1951, Lefty Frizzell was the first artist to chart 4 songs in the top ten simultaneously on the Billboard Country Chart. In 1964, The Beatles mirrored Lefty's success on Billboard 100 all genre chart.
Lefty was the first to record "Long Black Veil" which became a folk standard. Despite the illustrious list of stars that have since recorded the song such as Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash, only Lefty's version was picked by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Lefty was the first country singer to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Lefty was the first to wear rhinestones on his clothing. Liberace, Elvis, Porter Wagoner among others are indebted to Lefty.
Lefty was also the first to record "Saginaw, Michigan". His version went to #1.
Lefty was the first country artist to perform at the Hollywood Bowl.
Lefty was the first famous person to let Merle Haggard get on stage with him
1951 Toured as co-headliner with Hank Williams
Grand Ole Opry member
1972 Nashville Songwriter's Association International Hall of Fame
1982 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee
1998 Grammy Hall of Fame Award
Rockabilly Hall of Fame Inductee
Listen to Lefty (1952)
The Sad Side of Love (1965)
The Classic Style Of Lefty Frizzell
Life's Like Poetry (1992)
My Favorite Lefty Quote:
"When I sing every word has a feeling about it. I have to linger, have to hold it. I don’t want to let go of it. I want to hold one word through a whole line of melody, to linger with it all the way down. I don’t want to let go of that no more than I want to let go of the woman I love.”
Stage Name: Lefty Frizzell
Birth Name: William Orville"Frizzell
Birth Date: March 31,1928
Heaven Date: July 19, 1975
I wanted to dispel this theory about how Lefty earned his moniker. He was never a boxer. He earned the name Lefty after a school yard fight with some bullies. One of the kids said something to the effect of watch out, he's a lefty.. The rest is country music history.
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