LEE Hazlewood interview
Let’s talk about when you first became interested in music. Was there music around your house when you were growing up?
Oh yeah. Just normal musicians. Nobody who did it for a living. There was loads of music. My mom liked pop music and my dad liked bluegrass. So she complained always about his liking bluegrass (laughs)—which, by the way was a “love” complaint…I grew up kinda all mixed up. I mean with music. And then I fell in love with Stan Kenton, and the blues, ‘cause blues comes from this part of the world. So everything’s all mixed up.
When I listen to your records, you can hear both of those elements. There’s a great rootsy feel, but there’s also this elaborate orchestration.
It all goes together. I had never heard any classical music but then I had a year or two (or six months, or 4 months—I can’t remember) of music appreciation. I kind of liked those kinds of strings but it sounded very complicated. The teacher that I had, well he just took it apart and showed how simple it was. He made it as simple as it can be: “Listen to the orchestration and not the melody.” And I thought, “Oh, it is kind of simple, isn’t it.” So I appreciated that a little bit. I hope there’s a little of that in there, too.
Certainly, “Some Velvet Morning”….
(laughs) In those days there was a lot of that kind of stuff
That’s actually an interesting song. Because I had to learn it, I know how tricky it is. It switches tempos, and time signatures…
When I wrote it, I did it just for pure orneriness of the musicians, more than anything else. I said “You see the ending here, it goes 4/4 into 3/4. Don’t worry about it because I can cut it together. We’ll do all the 4/4, then we’ll do the 3/4.” Well, about half of them stood up very, very insulted They really came down on me heavy—“Who do you think we are?” and they were not happy. They just set up and played right through it. And I go, “Okay, all right smartasses, then we’ll do it your way.” Which I thought might happen. I got a lot of good music by pushing guys and doing stuff like that.
By challenging them?
Yeah, and I think some of them knew it, the ones that had been around me. Some of them really got a little bit insulted—that I would suggest that I’d have to cut together something as simple as that. But I’d say “well, you never know”.
It was nice to know that you had the option.
I knew I could cut it together, but I didn’t think I was gonna have to.
The strings on that song are so high, and ethereal. Is there some sort of special effect on them?
I had string players mostly from the LA Philharmonic. They got to like playing that goose-egg rock and roll, because they’d make so much money. They only thing they hated to do was that high string stuff. Actually, they didn’t mind it. I made them stand up.
No string player likes to stand up to play ‘cause he thinks he’s playing fiddle if he does that. I’d say ”This is a stand-up part.” They’d be “Oh, Lee, we don’t wanna stand.” “This is a stand-up part. It’s out of sight. It’s for dogs, and me. So guys,, stand up and go through this a couple of times.” And a lot of times I’d have them stand up and go through it twice (and record) and not tell ‘em. So I’d have two tracks of them put together. And they’d be just that much different.—just an nth off. And I always thought that little nth made an interesting sound. Somebody thought “you put stuff on that” and I said “No, I just recorded ‘em. I had the guys stand up. No secrets. You can come down and watch me stand ‘em up. They hate me for it.” (laughs)
Did you look at them as a whole bunch of fiddles?
A whole bunch. No, I looked at them as a whole bunch of violins. When they worked for me they’d say “You have us doing everything but standing on our heads.” The cello players particularly. We didn’t have viola players. In fact, they (viola players) came to me almost as a union and said “Why don’t you use us?” I said “Because you muddy up my record. I want real high, and I want bottom, and I don’t want you people in there messin’ it up.” They said “We never get to play anything for you, Lee” and I said “Yeah, well, we’ll find somethin’.” I just didn’t like violas. On one song I had 12 cellos. A dumb song, called “My Baby Cried All Night Long”.
That was probably unheard of at the time.
Oh, it was. But the cello players had so much fun, because it was so dumb and almost bluesy, and they could bend notes and stuff. They’d be really vibed. And we got through it, and they’d look up at me, and I’d say ”Aren’t you glad your mother made you practice?” And they’d tap on their little cellos and have a beer, and I’d say “Good night, go home.” I liked those guys. They were weird guys when we first started using them ‘cause they were right out of the orchestra. All of them had their suits and ties on. And then my crew would be sittin’ around: jeans, cigarette hangin’ out of their mouth, everything else. They got to watchin’ my rhythm sections, and trumpet sections, and all the other bums. It wasn’t three months before they were showin’ up with jean shirts on. After six months they were as cool as anybody. They had their tuxes that they’d wear at the Hollywood Bowl, but that’s not what they wore around us. They were great guys. I enjoyed ‘em very, very much.
Was it difficult for them to adapt to rock & roll? Because rhythms and syncopation are different in classical music.
No, because I had the best of ‘em. They played with the greatest conductors in the world, we just had to count ‘em in: ”1, 2, 3, 4…” But they always had a section leader, and they’d watch him, and he’d watch me. I’d say “Lay back a little bit.” They were used to conductors telling them exactly what to play: “A dotted quarter is played da de da.” I would tell ‘em, “Yeah, it may be, but in this instance, let’s just don’t get into it as fast” I don’t think any of them were over 5’6’ and they were just great. Just unbelievable guys. They’d take turns being concertmaster, because concertmaster got paid double. So I would be “today it’s you, tomorrow it’s you, and so on.” It was the same guys used by Jimmy Poole and Snuff Garret.
The Wrecking Crew?
I didn’t call ‘em the Wrecking Crew, that wasn’t my name. I brought Al Casey with me from Phoenix. I used a rhythm guitarist that nobody else used, a guy named Donnie Owens. Hal Blaine worked for me before he worked for anybody. He was working for Patti Page, then he worked for me, then of course we all spread the word about Hal and all the rest of the guys. Over here they were called the Wrecking Team, but when they worked for Sinatra they were called the B Team. I just called them my rhythm section ‘cause I started a lot of them. Not started, but I got a lot of them a lot of work. And sometimes I couldn’t get ‘em, and that really broke my heart. A year earlier you could call Hal and get him anytime. But there were 4 or 5 producers wanting the same few musicians. But it takes care of itself, ‘cause you’d get some new guys in. And they were good too. They wouldn’t dare show up if they weren’t good.
I want to talk about Duane Eddy, Phil Spector and some of your early recording experiences.
Phil worked for us for awhile. Phil had just started to make records and he came over to Phoenix a few times. I liked Phil. He was more Lester Sills’ protégé than mine. Although Phil asked a lot of questions, and I answered as many as I could.
Do you feel that you were an influence on him?
No, Phil had his own genius. He didn’t need anybody’s influence. He knew what he wanted, went after it, and did one hell of a job.
And what about the famous “grain tank” reverb sound?
Oh that story’s been told about a million times. That was me and Al Casey. Lloyd Ramsey, who owned the studio, likes to take credit for it, but he wasn’t even around. But that’s alright. I had to have an echo. We just wen t out driving around, ‘cause there’s a lot of places around Phoenix with small grain elevators. So we just went out and yelled in ‘em all day. I yelled, and yelled, and yelled ‘til I found one. So I told the guy, “I’ll take this one.” I said “How much?” And he said “$200.” And I said “$200. Delivered.” He delivered it and there was no room for it in our little studio. So we set it up outside the studio, and put a little microphone at one end and a little speaker at the other. It worked very nice. Gave Duane a lot of hits. It wasn’t all that. But it started up that boomy kind of thing. The only problem that we ever had with it is that birds would sit and chirp on it. It wasn’t a problem on the heavy stuff, but on the ballads, the quiet things, the birds would like to sing along. So we had to have someone out there to shoo the birds away.
How did you get started with Duane Eddy?
I met Duane down in Coolidge, Arizona. He used to come down to the radio station and pick up the country records because we didn’t play much country. He played pretty good Chet Atkins style in those days. Then we used him on some sessions in Phoenix when I moved there. We had tried this kind of thing (that Duane plays) with a couple of other people but it didn’t sound right. When Duane played, it sounded right—that was it! The others sounded like they were doing it for me. Duane sounded like he was doing it for himself. It felt pretty good…a couple million records later! (laughs)
Those records inspired a lot of guitar players.
The thing I like about them, and the thing Duane likes about them, is to read so many times—God, so many times: “I wouldn’t have played guitar if it wasn’t for Duane Eddy.”
I guess putting the guitar in front like that wasn’t so common in those days.
It wasn’t common in rock. You have to remember, there wasn’t anybody doing anything. So it didn’t matter.
It was all new.
You stumbled on to something. This wasn’t stumbled, this was planned. When I was in high school I used to like Eddy Duchin. The one-fingered low piano, on “The Very Thought Of You”, and I thought it would be very nice on guitar and it was. I don’t know why somebody (else) didn’t think of it. That was my contribution. And Duane’s contribution is that he took it and really made something out of it.
He certainly has a unique sound.
His playing is so heavy, it could make you think the Russians are in Brooklyn. I love it!
Was that the first chart success that you had?
The first one was Sanford Clarke, in 1956, “The Fool”.
What prompted the move to LA?
Dot records. They offered me a job that I didn’t want to take, except the money kept going up. After 3 months I knew it was a bad move. But it was a good move in the long run, because I met other people, and I quit Dot way before my year was over. But Andy Wood was very nice. He kept paying me (he thought I was crazy). My deal was such that I could do outside stuff as long as I presented it to him first. So I presented him Duane Eddy, and he turned it down. I did it on the outside. He wouldn’t let me out of my contract. It was all right to do it. He didn’t say I was free (from my contract) or anything. He kept sending me my check every week even though I wasn’t showing up at the office. He did that for a long time, and then finally he quit. (laughs)
How did you hook up with Nancy Sinatra?
Jimmy Bowen. They were kind of going together then. Jimmy lived next door to me—I found his house for him, next door to me in Taluca Lake, North Hollywood. He asked if I was interested in producing Nancy. I said “I’m not interested in producing any second generation artists.” I had spent a year producing Dino, Desi, and Billy. I made a lot of money with it, but I had the option to drop it, and I really did. I told him, “I don’t want to do that anymore. “ He said, “Well, just meet her.” So I did, and I agreed to do one (record). She’s just so personable. The Sinatras have this weird way about ‘em.
Everbody knows I drink Chivas. When I walked in their house to meet with Nancy (she was living with her mom then), all along the walls, cleverly displayed, were all these bottles of Chivas lined up. And a bunch of my friends were there. It was Bobby Darin, a bunch more, and I’m thinkin’ “Wait a minute, What is this? I haven’t seen these people in months.”
So they threw a little party for you!
In a way. We were getting along alright, ‘cause Nancy and I, we never had any problems. Halfway through the evening her dad comes through the door and meets me. They go in the kitchen and they’re talking. He comes out, shakes my hand and says “I’m glad you kids are going to be working together” and then walks out the door. I had only said that I’d come over and meet her!
I guess once Frank says that…
Well, I gave ’em one shot. We did alright together.
“These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” certainly defines the swingin’ 60s era…
It’s been good. It’s been kind.
How did that song evolve? The bass line is such a hook in that song.
It’s all mine. I used to sing it. All the time. It’s all I used to sing. It was written as a party song, with only two verses.
And there was some controversy about the lyrics?
The controversy was “mess.” “Mess” down here where I live, in those days was “fuck.” If somebody said “What’d you do last night?” “I was out messin’.” I thought it was that way all over the world. But it wasn’t that way in Chicago, New York, or LA.
So it didn’t get a warning sticker from the PMRC?
I’d like to talk about Suzi Jane Hokum. You guys worked together a lot.
Oh yeah. We had a lot of fun. I used her to do Nancy’s demos, which she hated. She said, “I really hate to do the demos for her, cause she does them exactly like me, dammit!”
Also, she produced the International Submarine Band…
She did, for my little label. She said, “I wanna do these.” I said, “Do ‘em.” I had nothing to do with it. They always associate that with me, but I’ve told everybody over the years that she did it.
When the Byrds recorded “Sweethearts of the Rodeo” and Gram Parsons was still under contract to you…
We had some problems there, but we straightened them out. He had to pay back all his royalties and everything. But he had to pay back through earnings, and I knew he never would.
There must have been something special about him, when you signed him to your label..
No. I signed him because of Suzi Jane. I’m not as clever as people think sometimes. She’s clever. She heard something that I didn’t. I heard a little of it. It was fine with me. I promised her that she could do it.
You recorded a lot of music. Were you completely busy all the time?
Quite a bit ‘til I stopped. When your children start calling you “Uncle Daddy” it’s time to stop. I seldom get asked to do anything now, which is really great. Even up until the 90s, people would ask, “Would you be interested in doing this group?,” and if there’s anything I hate now, it’s the studio. Too many hours. People forget.
Certainly a lot of time went into making your records. People don’t make records that way any more.
They don’t take the time.
A room filled with musicians, playing together live…
Sometimes Al (Casey) and I go in and do a few things now and then, but I even dislike the time it takes to do that.
You don’t have the patience?
Not the patience…
You’re just enjoying life now…
Yeah, but it’s fun. I enjoy it for the time that I do it.
Your new songs sound great!
All 3 of them. And you got one of ‘em!
(A new Lee Hazlewood song, “For My Birthday (A Pear of Apple or Blue Jaguar)” appears on the upcoming Loser’s Lounge CD)
Yes, and everybody’s very excited about it!
(laughs) I’ll bet!
Another favorite record of mine is the 1929 Crash Band
Oh, that’s fun. That’s another thing I did for me. I wanted to do some ricky-tick things.
Those are great versions of those songs.
And great guys on there playing.
Who played on it?
I don’t remember all of ‘em. It’s Hal Blaine, Don Randi. All those guys.
You had a long relationship with Billy Strange.
He’s so tall. I screamed at his belt buckle a lot. Bill and I got along great
Those arrangements are great.
I’d sing parts to him a lot. That bugged him a lot. I’d sing parts, sing string lines, sing this, sing that. Not all of the time, but a lot of the time. He used to write these arrangements that were so cool, and I’d tear ‘em all apart and break his heart. It bothered Bill a lot. But, we got along fine. I’ll tell you where he was great: out on the road. Havin’ Billy out there was great.
You didn’t play live that much.
We did Vegas, Tahoe, and stuff like that. In ’95 she (Nancy) did about 10 or 12 dates. Billy wasn’t on that tour, though. We had Don Randi.
I saw the Limelight show. It was exciting!
Limelight’s a weird place. Kind of weird for an old cowboy.
It was packed to the gills. Everybody was there.
Oh, it was fun. My part’s easy. I’d just come in, stumble through a couple of songs, and go home. That’s what I liked about that.
When you guys did “Summer Wine” there was such an air of anticipation, because you don’t come in ‘til the second verse. I thought that was clever staging.
That’s all Nancy. She’s really good at stuff like that.
I guess she has showbiz in her blood.
Exactly, (imitates snare hits) “Ta-da, ta-da.” Of course, she was a little anxious too, that I’d show up and everything.
You made a lot of records. Is there anything you expected to be a big hit that wasn’t?
Every one of ‘em (laughs). No, I didn’t. Most of the ones that I wanted to sell, sold something. Some of them have sold over the years that are surprising. For a guy that’s written around 200 songs, I guess the average is pretty good.
When did it start to occur to you that there’s a resurgence of interest in your music.
I didn’t know there was. People would tell me about it in the beginning of the 90s. A few things, like the tour in 95: People paying money to see a couple of old son of a bitches get up and stumble through some songs—it’s remarkable!
There was excitement about that tour, because you hadn’t been heard from in a long time. I guess you’re regarded as a mystery.
Well, I am. Let’s keep it that way!
Plus, neither Nancy or you fell into the trap of the “oldies” circuit.
We never worked enough. I never did, with Nancy, except for a few of the big things. Most of the work I did (playing live) was in Europe. I knew exactly what I could do in Europe. It’s so much easier.
Even still, many American artists are much more appreciated over there.
Well, if I’m considered an “artist.” I’m gonna work over there this summer. 4 or 5 cities. They’re adding a few more.
I’m a fan of piano bars, and you had a good piano bar story last time we met.
That was out on the strip. (Excitedly) Oh, that was great! ‘Cause everybody had their song, and you daren’t (to use an old word)—you dare not—sing their song. Of course you could walk in and think, “I’ll do (whatever ) song.” And then there’s these 15 people at the bar. So there’d be 30 eyes of hate. And you’d go, “What did I do? What did I do?” They’d say, “You know, that’s Harold’s song. He’s not here tonight. He’s got a cold.” “Harold who? Harold Arlen, the songwriter?” “No. Harold sings that song!” And these people, they owned the bar. They didn’t really own the bar, but they owned the bar as far as they were concerned. My friend told me, “You gotta see this!” And I said, “I don’t like piano bars” He says, “You’re gonna love this one. You’ve never seen people own songs!” Al (Casey) and I would sit there and watch these people. Of course, they all sang, and when they sang, all the other 14 applauded.
And it was set up so anyone could wander in off the strip and sing. They had lyrics there in front of you and everything. So if you got up to sing, you’d get hate looks throughout the whole song and then afterwards (unless you had your people in a table close by), you wouldn’t hear any applause. You wouldn’t even hear nice, kind, “courage” applause (that you had the courage to get up there). Not even two hands clapping together! Just these people staring at you like this: “That’s Harold’s song.”
Did you ever get up and sing?
No, no. They were singing my songs, but it was so much fun to watch. They were all about the age of 65 on up. It was their roost. And they roosted. They would roast you at their roost! I took a lot of people there. They’d say, “How did you find this place?” I mean these guys were like the Attila the Hun group. Really! And you’d break up. I don’t know if other people came for that reason. But whoever told me about it (I can’t remember) said, “Sit close to the piano, but not at the piano bar—that would ruin it (because you might take Harold’s seat). And just listen.” By the way, it wasn’t (whispers) “He’s singing Harold’s song!” in a stage whisper. It was (loudly) “THAT”S HAROLD’S SONG!”
Sounds like it’d be great movie.
Oh, it is. It was so funny! So much fun. At least a short film: The Piano Bar. At most piano bars, they want you get up and sing. And I don’t like ‘em (piano bars), but I went to this one. Friends would say “What are doing going there?” I’d say, “You’ve got to go with me.” They’d say, “I’ll go with you, because I can’t imagine you sitting through this stuff. Bad singers, songs you don’t like.” But this I liked!
Was there a wide range of singers, some good some bad?
They were all my (present) age or older. They know only 2 or 3 songs each. 15 people sitting around the piano bar, that’s 45 songs. And the songbook had about 50 lyrics in it. The only song left that they didn’t bother with was the lyrics from “Rocky” (laughter). That’s probably the only kind of song that would be left for you to sing. All the other songs: “That’s Harold’s song!”