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Lee Hazlewood, talkin' before it's sundown

January 21, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

It also has typically potent music. His blast at the United States' Iraq adventure, "Baghdad Knights," is driven by a bluesy, bugle-call of a guitar hook Duane Eddy, whose 1950s hits such as "Cannonball" and "Rebel Rouser" were produced by Hazlewood, adds his trademark twangy guitar behind the singer on a jazzy version of "Boots."

Hazlewood's distinctive, deep voice -- a sort of cross between Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash -- sounds rich and strong throughout the record, a result of restricting the vocal dates to days when he was feeling good.

"I don't think it has any sickness in it," says Hazlewood, eyes twinkling behind his lightly tinted sunglasses. "Except perhaps the lyrics or something like that."

An artist's artistry

HAZLEWOOD'S fondness for a quip has helped his reputation as an irreverent character who doesn't take anything too seriously, but when you sample a range of his music, it's clear that he's not just a prankster.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Sinatra song: A Sunday Calendar profile of musician Lee Hazlewood referred to his influence as a writer-producer on works by Nancy Sinatra, including the record "Somethin Stupid," but was unclear about his exact role in that song. The 1967 hit by Nancy and Frank Sinatra was written by Carson Parks and was produced by Hazlewood.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Sinatra song: Last Sunday's profile of musician Lee Hazlewood referred to his influence as a writer-producer on works by Nancy Sinatra, including the record "Somethin' Stupid," but it was unclear about his exact role in that song. The 1967 hit by Nancy and Frank Sinatra was produced by Hazlewood but written by Carson Parks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Sinatra song: A Jan. 21 Calendar profile of musician Lee Hazlewood referred to his influence as a writer-producer on works by Nancy Sinatra, including the record "Somethin Stupid," but was unclear about his exact role in that song. The 1967 hit by Nancy and Frank Sinatra was written by Carson Parks and was produced by Hazlewood.

His first album, 1963's "Trouble Is a Lonesome Town," a series of character sketches linked by Hazlewood's spoken narration, was ahead of its time, sounding like something Cash might have conjured, with a trace of Roger Miller.

He continued in that country-folk vein in his subsequent solo releases, but his greatest influence came in his work with Nancy Sinatra -- not just the big hits such as "Boots" and "Somethin' Stupid," her teaming with her dad, but also on the Lee and Nancy duets.

In songs such as "Summer Wine," "Sundown, Sundown" and the haunting "Some Velvet Morning," Hazlewood, often in partnership with arranger Billy Strange, played with pop conventions with an eccentric, experimental spirit. His current admirers see a distinctive form of psychedelia and the seeds of baroque pop in these subversive singles.

But he never considered himself much of a singer or performer. His primary occupation was writing and producing, roles he'd assumed in Phoenix in the mid-'50s. He had a national chart hit in 1956 with singer Sanford Clark's recording of his song "The Fool," and then greater success with Eddy's twangy instrumentals. He was drawn to Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll and pictured his Viv label as a western counterpart to Sam Phillips' Sun Records.

Those simple rock records were a long way from the music of his earliest musical idols, Stan Kenton and Johnny Mercer. Growing up mainly in Port Neches, Texas, the Oklahoma-born son of an oil-field wildcatter was exposed to blues and country, but he was a demanding listener, responding mainly to a clever lyric.

He lived what he called a "Huck Finn childhood," part of a liberal family in conservative country. He went to Southern Methodist University to study medicine but was drafted into the Army, serving in Korea.

After establishing his musical credentials with his work in Arizona, he moved to Los Angeles in the early '60s. He was brought into Sinatra's Reprise label to produce Dino, Desi & Billy, the rock band that included the sons of Dean Martin and Desi Arnaz. Pretty soon the kid from Oklahoma was rubbing elbows with the Rat Pack.

"They were fun to work with and fun to have a couple of drinks with, but I wasn't in their social life or didn't lead the kind of life they did," says Hazlewood. "It wasn't because I was so pure. It was because I didn't really have time. I worked all the time. They played a lot more than I did.... They accepted me great. They were telling me jokes, and they thought I was kind of funny."

He was also kind of savvy in the studio. Nancy Sinatra's fledgling singing career had been sputtering, but Hazlewood got her on the chart with "So Long Babe" in 1965. Between then and the end of 1968 he teamed with her on nine Top 40 singles, including a version of "Jackson" that did better on the charts than Johnny Cash and June Carter's original, reaching No. 14 in 1967.

For a while, they even looked like a potential rival to pop's first couple, Sonny and Cher. In the Emmy-winning NBC television special "Movin' With Nancy," the mustachioed country boy and the California pop princess displayed a playful rapport in their production numbers.

"We created a persona that people liked," says Sinatra, who recorded three duet albums with Hazlewood, the last in 2003. "It was a sexy thing. There was no behind-the-scenes relationship going on, so the chemistry we created probably came from a certain amount of sexual tension, because I think there was that underlying force with us."

Hazlewood is often portrayed as a Svengali figure in the partnership, but Sinatra sees it differently.

"He knew how to reach the core of a person, and he knew how to take that information and create something with it. He really turned my life around in that sense as well. Finding the truth in the core of me.... Not a Svengali kind of thing. Maybe it's more like a Henry Higgins. But there's a lot of Freud attached to it. He was brilliant in that."

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