Lefty Frizzell just may be the most influential vocalist in country music history. His signature honky-tonk style has been the foundational template for several generations of traditional country vocalists, smoothing out the twangy edges just enough to please the ears of mainstream audiences without compromising its hillbilly roots.
Frizzell was born in Texas, but moved to Arkansas at a young age. He earned the nickname Lefty in a schoolyard fight at the age of fourteen, and it followed him from that point on. Though he was singing on the radio in his teens and performing locally, run-ins with the law sidelined his music career in the mid-forties.
He retreated to work in the oil fields for a brief time, but was back doing music full-time by the late forties. He landed a steady gig at the Ace of Clubs in Texas, where he developed enough of a following to land a recording contract. His first hit, “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” was written with Little Jimmy Dickens in mind, but when Dickens passed on the song, it ended up a hit for Frizzell instead, his first release for Columbia Records.
Frizzell formed a backing band called the Western Cherokees, and together they recorded a string of big hits, with Frizzell becoming one of the most popular recording artists of the early fifties. The hits slowed thereafter, and Frizzell grew frustrated with his label’s handling of his material. But he was newly invigorated when he heard “The Long Black Veil”, which became a big comeback hit for him in 1959. Frizzell’s renewed success peaked with “Saginaw, Michigan”, an enormous hit that topped the charts in 1964. That was the last of his big hits, and his struggles with alcoholism limited his ability to record and perform as much as was needed to maintain a mainstream career.
He was only 47 when he died of a stroke in 1975. But rather than being forgotten since then, his legacy has only grown stronger, as a new generation of country superstars cited him as a primary influence, starting with George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson, but later including George Strait, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam. Nelson recorded a popular tribute album, To Lefty From Willie, and returned “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve got the Time” to #1 on the country singles charts.
Frizzell was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1982, a Hall that now includes two further generations of country legends that his influence helped to shape.
- I Love You a Thousand Ways, 1950
- If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time, 1950
- Look What Thoughts Will Do, 1951
- I Want to Be With You Always, 1951
- Always Late (With Your Kisses), 1951
- Mom and Dad’s Waltz, 1951
- Give Me More, More, More (of Your Kisses), 1951
- The Long Black Veil, 1959
- Saginaw, Michigan, 1964
- Songs of Jimmie Rodgers, 1952
- Saginaw, Michigan, 1964
- The Sad Side of Love, 1965
- Look What Thoughts Will Do, 1997
- That’s the Way Life Goes: The Hit Songs 1950-1975, 2004
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