Personalities | Lefty Frizzell | War Years | Country

Corsicana, Texas-born William Orville ‘Lefty’ Frizzell (1928–75) was the son of an oilfield worker who grew up in various ‘oil patch’ settlements in East Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

His clenched-note, note-bending vocal style (characterized by a penchant for stretching and rephrasing individual words and lyric passages for heightened emphasis) and chart-topping early 1950s hits – ‘If You’ve Got The Money I’ve Got The Time’, ‘Always Late’ and ‘Travelin’ Blues’– created a template for honky-tonk that endures. Merle Haggard and George Jones are two of many latter-day honky-tonk stars who evince the Frizzell influence with nearly every note they sing.

Troubled Youth

Like many singers of his generation Frizzell was heavily influenced by the music of Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb as a youth. By age 12, he had his own radio show on a station in El Dorado, Arkansas, where his family lived briefly. In the late 1940s, he began singing in clubs and on radio stations in Paris and Big Spring, Texas, Roswell, New Mexico and elsewhere. He built a particularly large local following with his regular appearances at a dancehall in Big Springs called The Ace Of Clubs.

As a youngster, Frizzell earned the nickname Lefty for his prowess with his fists, and from an early age, he was no stranger to hard living – something that later caught up with him and undermined both his career and creativity. In 1947, he was charged and convicted of statutory rape and served six months in a New Mexico jail.

Frizzell was signed to Columbia Records in Nashville, in 1950, by producer Don Law. Within a single month – October 1951 – he made musical history when four of his single releases simultaneously reached Billboard’s country Top 10. For the next couple of years, nearly every record he released made the country Top 10, including classics like ‘Mom And Dad’s Waltz’, ‘Forever’, ‘Always Late’ and his rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Travelin’ Blues’.

But Frizzell’s chart dominance and his stint with the Grand Ole Opry were cut short, largely due to his alcoholism and accompanying legal and financial problems. In the summer of 1951, he was arrested backstage at the Opry on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Though he was never prosecuted, he also became mired in a succession of contractual disputes and lawsuits that often hampered his recording and performing career.

It Hurts To Face Reality

Though his popularity, like that of many of his honky-tonk contemporaries, was also thwarted by the advent of rock’n’roll in the mid-1950s, Frizzell bounced back in 1959 with his recorded version of Marijohn Wilken’s ‘Long Black Veil’. In 1962, he recorded a signature story-song called ‘Saginaw, Michigan’, which was also his final No. 1 single.

During his last years, Frizzell had the occasional hit and also wrote and recorded two more enduring honky-tonk classics: ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ and ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’. But his personal life often remained in turmoil. Though he suffered from...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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