The music of William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell (1928-1975), one of the most influential honky-tonk singers of all time, has long been a cornerstone of the Bear Family catalogue. The German reissue specialists first compiled the Frizzell oeuvre in 1984 as a 14-LP box set, updating that in 1992 on 12 CDs. Now, more than 25 years later, the Bears have returned to the country-and-western troubadour’s career for the most definitive chronicle ever. An Article from Life: The Complete Recordings has every one of Frizzell’s original recordings presented on 20 CDs in a package also including a comprehensive hardcover book.
Inspired by his hero, “the singing brakeman” Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty (so named for his left hook in a schoolyard fight, not a Golden Gloves match as legend has sometimes had it) had sensed by age twelve that his destiny was in song. In his earliest performing gigs, he began to broaden his repertoire to tunes by Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff. Born in Texas and raised in Arkansas, the local talent made waves on radio in New Mexico. While his theme song was Ernest Tubb’s “I Ain’t Going Honky-Tonking Any More,” he not only kept honky-tonking, but made the country-and-western style his own. His burgeoning career was almost derailed in 1947 when he was found guilty of statutory rape. He served six-months in the Roswell, NM county jail, and while there wrote the words that would later be fashioned into one of his most memorable songs. “I Love You, I’ll Prove It a Thousand Ways” was addressed to his wife Alice, who was left behind with their daughter Lois while he served his time.
Despite having to hold down day jobs (ranging from picking cotton to working alongside his father in the oilfields), Lefty never gave up on his musical dream. Back in Texas, he scored a residency at the Ace of Clubs in Big Spring, Texas which lasted for over a year as his reputation grew. In 1950, he moved to Dallas, correctly figuring that being in the big city would be more conducive to becoming a recording artist. Studio owner Jim Beck became an early champion of Lefty’s, though not for purely altruistic reasons. Beck knew that the real money in music was in publishing, and he was more interested in Lefty as a songwriter than as a singer. As they recorded demos in his studio, Beck was able to get his name onto Lefty’s early compositions including “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time.” It’s believed that the arrangement wasn’t completely unfair; Beck would often offer suggestions to Frizzell to hone his songs. Stories vary, but it seems that Beck took “If You’ve Got the Money” to Columbia’s Nashville producer Don Law with the intention of getting it to recording star Jimmy Dickens. But Law, a British-born expatriate with a love of American country-and-western, wanted the demo singer, too. Law offered Lefty a contract on June 15, 1950, officially inaugurating a quarter-century in music. Beck agreed to becoming his manager and booking agent.
His early musicians played a crucial role in the development of the Frizzell sound, including lead guitarist Norman Stephens, guitarist Buddy Griffin, steel guitarist Jimmy Kelley, bassist Bobby Williamson, fiddle player R.L. “Pee Wee” Stewart, and pianist Madge Suttee. At their very first session, the band nailed both “If You’ve Got the Money” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” Those two songs would be released by Columbia and earn Frizzell his very first, double-sided chart-topping single. “If You’ve Got the Money” was covered by over 40 artists, with Jo Stafford spinning it into pop gold.
An Article from Life begins with that inaugural Columbia session of July 25, 1950 at Beck’s Dallas studio under the supervision of Don Law. Although Lefty would part ways with Beck in early 1951, the entrepreneur’s studio (relocated from Ross Avenue to Forrest Avenue in 1953) would remain the artist’s primary recording locale for the next five-plus years, while Law would remain at the controls until 1963, when he began to share duties with Frank Jones (who would eventually succeed him in the producer’s chair altogether). Law encouraged Lefty to develop the modern honky-tonk sound that would become his signature, incorporating elements of western swing, blues, jazz, and traditional “cowboy” music. With Madge Settee or one of her disciples supplying the barroom piano, the “Dallas” sound honed by Law also featured the tight pairing of a slap rhythm guitar with an electric lead. Lefty stood out from many of the pack in that he primarily wrote or co-wrote his own songs, which seemed natural for the born storyteller with the intimate, welcoming voice. He made exceptions for sessions like his fine, heartfelt Songs of Jimmie Rodgers album paying tribute to his hero in 1951 (on CD 1). In and of itself, an album was a rarity for a country artist at that time; that Columbia allowed him to record one was a measure of his rapid success. Among his own successful songs on the Country charts that year alone were “Look What Thoughts Will Do” (No. 4); “Shine, Shave, Shower (It’s Saturday)” (No. 7); the crossover hit “I Want to Be with You Always” (No. 1/also No. 29 Pop); “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” (No. 1); and “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” (No. 2) while he took Rodgers’ 1931 composition “Travellin’ Blues” to No. 6. With four of those songs in the Country top ten at once, Lefty made history. That same year, Lefty toured alongside Hank Williams and joined the Grand Ole Opry, though he couldn’t resist getting himself in legal trouble once again when he shared an evening on tour with a 17-year old girl.
He scored another quartet of top ten successes in a tumultuous 1952, and another pair in 1953. That year also saw the release of an EP and two singles of more Rodgers songs. The hits were drying up by 1954, and Columbia only brought him into the studio once that year. “Run ‘Em Off,” from a November ’53 session, did reach the top ten. None of his releases in 1955 would accomplish the feat, and he began to slow down his songwriting. It reflected a frustration with the number of fine songs Law had left on the shelf (all of which, of course, have been excavated by Bear Family).
Following Jim Beck’s untimely death and the closing of his Dallas studio, Frizzell’s first session of 1956 took place at Nashville’s Music City Recording, and from that point on, Frizzell would call Nashville his recording home (usually at Bradley Film and Recording, which became Columbia Studio B in 1962) with occasional trips to Radio Recorders in far-flung Hollywood. Other than a handful of forays in the young rockabilly idiom, Frizzell steadfastly refused to abandon his core country principles for pop or rock-and-roll. But his sound did subtly change, if largely due to the new musicians in Music City (such as pianist Floyd Cramer, guitarists Grady Martin and Harold Bradley and bassist Ray Edenton) and the addition of a vocal chorus to many tracks.
The Hollywood sessions of February 1958 (on CD 4), still helmed by Laws, featured fine, pop-oriented renditions of Lefty’s oldies as well as tunes by Cowboy Copas, Hank Williams, and Jimmie Rodgers, yet only a few of the tracks were issued at the time. A March 1959 session (CD 5) yielded the first recording of Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill’s “Long Black Veil.” It became a top ten hit for Lefty and inspired countless covers, including by Johnny Cash, Sammi Smith, David Allan Coe, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, and Nick Cave.
The early 1960s was a fruitful period for Lefty, who was writing more of his material again. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Abe Mulkey became a trusted aide de camp for Frizzell as well as a frequent harmony singer and touring partner. 1963’s “Saginaw, Michigan,” penned by Bill Anderson and Don Wayne, captured the old Frizzell magic and gave Lefty his first Number One in 13 years, crossed over to the Hot 100 Pop chart, and earned him a Grammy nomination. But Lefty wasn’t able to capitalize upon its success, only releasing three albums in the latter part of the 1960s. Surprisingly, Columbia either failed or didn’t even bother trying to convince him to record contemporary pop material favorable to country artists from songwriters like Jimmy Webb, Bob Dylan, John Hartford, or even Lee Hazlewood. He did cover Hank Mills and Dick Jennings’ “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me” in 1967, the same year Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum both scored hits with it, as well as Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton’s “Almost Persuaded,” a major C&W hit for David Houston on Columbia’s sister label Epic in 1966. But Lefty avoided the pop-influenced countrypolitan style that was sweeping the C&W genre, perhaps to the detriment of his sales.
By the time Lefty split with Columbia in 1972, the parting of the ways had seemed inevitable. Younger, hitmaking producers like Larry Butler (the fiddle-heavy “Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy” and plaintive “What Am I Gonna Do”) and Glenn Sutton (a revival of Lefty’s 1952 No. 1 “Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses)” plus two Sanger Shafer compositions, one co-written with Dallas Frazier) had tried to capture Lefty’s singular essence on record, but the results hadn’t gelled completely. All of the sides were in a squarely traditional vein, somewhat limiting their commercial prospects.
The main studio portion of An Article from Life concludes with his little-known recordings for ABC Records made in 1972-1974 (CD 9). Recording in Nashville, producer Don Gant gave Lefty room to continue being true to himself, so his personal style changed very little in the jump to ABC. The production was a bit smoother, however, as Lefty tackled more traditionally-styled songs by Shafer and Frazier as well as the sad tale of a “Railroad Lady” from young ABC labelmate Jimmy Buffett. Though Lefty hadn’t been doing much writing, he co-authored a clutch of top-notch songs with Shafer including the upbeat, piano-driven “Lucky Arms” (“I ain’t got no money/But I got honey”), the three-hanky weepers “I Can’t Get Over You To Save My Life,” “I Never Go Around Mirrors (I’ve Got a Heartache to Hide),” and “That’s the Way Love Goes,” to name a few of these fruitful co-writes. “Lucky Arms” even hit the Country top 40. Lefty sounded refreshed at ABC, clearly invested on tracks like “My House is Your Honky Tonk,” the chugging, atypically string-enhanced “Falling,” Charlie Rich’s saloon song “Sittin’ and Thinkin’,” and Merle Haggard’s “Life’s Like Poetry.”
The Legendary Lefty Frizzell arrived from ABC in 1973, but a second album (The Classic Style of Lefty Frizzell) wasn’t released until late spring 1975. But a lifetime of hard living caught up with him, and sadly, he died on July 19 at just 47 years of age. His voice was never silenced, though, inspiring countless reissues of his classic material and tributes from younger artists including Willie Nelson’s heartfelt To Lefty from Willie (recorded in 1975 but released in 1977).
That would typically be the end of the Lefty Frizzell story, but An Article from Life is a Bear Family box, after all. Nine discs of Lefty’s commercially released output still leaves 11 discs to fill – no small feat. The box’s next two CDs bring together 71 demos and private recordings, the earliest of which dates back to the 1940s before his Columbia debut. These are, naturally, in variable sound quality, but are worthwhile additions due to their historical significance. Then, An Article from Life compiles radio recordings made by Frizzell for the U.S. Armed Forces on such programs as Country Music Time and Country Style USA. These are particularly fascinating due to their repertoire, including covers of Marty Robbins, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, and of course, Jimmie Rodgers, and even an off-the-beaten path version of Bobby Darin’s “Things.” The three discs of demos, private recordings, and transcriptions differ from the presentation of this material on Bear Family’s 1992 box Life’s Like Poetry, featuring 110 tracks on three CDs, up from 78 tracks on the earlier collection.
The remaining eight discs are dedicated to an audiobook reading of the now out-of-print 2011 biography I Love You a Thousand Ways: The Lefty Frizzell Story read by its author, David Frizzell. David, of course, is Lefty’s younger brother and an accomplished recording artist in his own right with hits like “I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home” and “Lost My Baby Blues” under his belt. He brings a personal perspective to Lefty’s life and times that few others could have delivered, but doesn’t shy away from the demons that Lefty faced, either.
All that’s missing in this incredible collection are the ten tracks overdubbed in 1983 by David Frizzell for the Columbia Records release The Legend Lives On. While the argument can be made that these posthumously overdubbed tracks don’t belong in the official canon, An Article from Life is otherwise so truly complete that their absence is felt. (The ten tracks are included in the official discography.)
Mastering by Bob Jones and Christian Zwarg is superb throughout. As per Bear Family standards, the immense 264-page hardcover book is worth the price of admission. It’s scrupulously researched, and while Charles Wolfe’s comprehensive main essay is based upon the version printed in 1992, it’s been amended by Daniel Cooper and Kevin Coffey to reflect new information in both the text and credits. Lavishly illustrated, the book reprints the Lefty Frizzell Souvenir Album as well as a trio of scrapbooks. Naturally, the discography is indispensable, as well. The book is a simply grand and essential companion to the complete recordings.
The influence of Lefty Frizzell is felt today by any artist who’s ever picked up a guitar and sang stories of life, love, despair, and joy in an intimate style. This Article from Life is one to savor, from start to finish.