Tom Maxwell | Longreads | June 2019 | 20 minutes (2,599 words)
Discouraged by the British Invasion, producer and songwriter Lee Hazlewood was planning to retire in 1964. The 35-year-old had certainly earned enough money to do it. Then Hazlewood’s next-door neighbor asked if he wanted to produce Nancy Sinatra, daughter of Frank.
“I’m not interested in producing second-generation artists,” Hazlewood said flatly — he’d already done that with Dean Martin’s son’s band — but then he agreed to a meeting.
“Everybody knows I drink Chivas,” Hazlewood remembered about that night. “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.’ … 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!”
Having accepted an offer he couldn’t really refuse, Hazlewood set about updating Nancy’s image. “You’ve been married and now you’re divorced, and people know that,” Nancy said he told her. “So, let’s lose this virgin image. Let’s get rid of it.” He had Sinatra sing in a lower register. “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” his original song that she agreed to record, became a No. 1 hit. The lyrics caused a bit of a stir.
“The controversy was [the word] ‘mess,’” Hazlewood, who grew up in the South, said. “‘Mess,’ down here where I live, in those days, was ‘fuck.’ If somebody said, ‘What did 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 L.A.”
And that is the story of Lee Hazlewood’s most famous song and collaboration. Not as well-known are Hazlewood’s many other songwriting credits, his groundbreaking production techniques, or his foundational work creating a voice for the electric lead guitar. Then there’s the previously unreleased surf music record that Hazlewood wrote and produced.
“What I was struck with right off the top,” Hazlewood friend and collaborator Marty Cooper said about Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies, “it sounds to me, because it’s got 12 songs on it, and the albums in those days had 12 songs on them, this is an album in search of a band, in the sense that it doesn’t actually sound like a band, but it’s too complete to not have been submitted as … ‘find a band.’ Maybe even like the Monkees or find the successors to the Beach Boys over on Capitol. I got that impression. There are certain things about it — the fact that Lee did not write all of [the songs]. It’s very meticulous.”
No one knows exactly why Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies by Lee Hazlewood’s Woodchucks (a catch all name for his studio band) was shelved. When it was issued in September 2018, 11 years after his death, it seemed an odd postscript to an already iconoclastic career. Instead of an outlier, it’s further proof that, as a sculptor of sound, Hazlewood’s life as a songwriter and producer ranged more widely than most of his successful peers.
Born in Oklahoma in 1929, Hazlewood and his family moved with his itinerant oilfield father’s jobs through Louisiana and Arkansas, and finally wound up in Texas. He studied medicine before leaving university to serve in the Korean War. “My mom liked pop music and my dad liked bluegrass,” Lee once said. “So she complained always about his liking bluegrass — 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.”
Instead of an outlier, Cruisin’ for Surf Bunnies is further proof that, as a sculptor of sound, Hazlewood’s life as a songwriter and producer ranged more widely than most of his successful peers.
By 1955, Hazlewood found himself working as a radio DJ and the owner of his own small record label in Phoenix, Arizona. He was also writing new material. Borrowing a riff from Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, he wrote and produced the song “The Fool” for rockabilly singer Sanford Clark in 1956 — Hazlewood’s third single — a hit later covered by Elvis. Hazlewood also developed a new sound for local session guitarist Al Casey, who played on “The Fool.”
“I had to have an echo,” Hazlewood explained years later. “We just went 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 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. …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.”
The grain silo echo effect proved popular with Hazlewood’s other collaborator, twangy instrumental guitarist Duane Eddy. Eddy’s 1958 anthem “Rebel-‘Rouser” — another Hazlewood composition — began a streak of big sellers. Hazlewood helped create a new lead guitar sound in the process.
“When I was in high school, there was a piano player I admired with slicked-back oily hair from New York called Eddy Duchin,” Hazlewood said, “and he played the melody way down there. I always thought that it would be nice if a guitarist did the same thing. When I first met Duane, I told him that I wanted to make a record with those low notes and he said, ‘I can do that.’ … We sold 25 million records over four years, which wasn’t bad.”
Hazlewood released his first solo record in 1963, a concept album called Trouble Is a Lonesome Town.
You won’t find it on any map
But take a step in any direction and
You’re in Trouble
It’s at once wry, hokey, and perceptive. Hazlewood has the vocal authority of Johnny Cash, the melodic sense of Roger Miller, and the just-this-side-of-parody folksiness of Tom T. Hall. He introduces songs on Trouble Is a Lonesome Town with extended spoken-word character sketches and cowboy poems. The instrumentation is acoustic and spare, and the touch of reverb transforms the songs into a dreamscape. Musically and thematically, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town is entirely self-contained and uniquely Lee Hazlewood. “That was a demo,” Hazlewood revealed in 2000. “I didn’t know it was a concept album. I wrote a complete story of a make-believe town.”
It says a lot that Hazlewood could put so much effort into a project he would later dismiss as only a demo. His success gave him the luxury to tinker in the studio, regardless of expense, in the same year when the Beatles recorded their first album in less than ten hours.
With this understanding, it’s easy to see how Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies came into being. Surf music, popular since 1962, was largely instrumental and featured a typically reverb-laden lead guitar. In other words, whether its practitioners knew it or not, surf owed much of its expression to Lee Hazlewood. Working with Duane Eddy and using his grain silo reverb, he’d helped develop the technique. He had the producer’s savvy to take advantage of America’s latest musical craze. Now living in Los Angeles, Hazlewood had the connections to assemble the best studio band available — one that would famously become known as the Wrecking Crew.
“I didn’t call em the Wrecking Crew,” Hazlewood recalled. “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. [Drummer] 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.”
The reason for this is that Blaine and the rest of the Crew had become the most in-demand session players in the business, backing Jan and Dean, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, Herb Alpert, and Sonny and Cher, among others. They became the Beach Boys’ house band at the time of Brian Wilson’s greatest musical achievements, and were often employed by “wall of sound” producer Phil Spector, who began his career working for Lee Hazlewood.
“Phil had just started to make records and he came over to Phoenix a few times,” Hazlewood once said plainly. “I liked Phil. He was more Lester Sills’s protégé than mine. Although Phil asked a lot of questions, and I answered as many as I could.”
In other words, whether its practitioners knew it or not, surf music owed much of its expression to Lee Hazlewood.
“I told him on a number of occasions that I reckoned Spector had stolen his ideas: You only have to listen to Lee’s early work and then compare it to Spector’s to suspect that they may well be connected,” Hazlewood biographer Wyndham Wallace once said. “But Lee would dismiss this suggestion with a wave of the hand.”
As would be expected, when the prolific Hazlewood died, he left a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of both finished and unfinished recordings in his studio vaults. Matt Sullivan, music lover and entrepreneur, gained access to Hazlewood’s vault, and Sullivan’s Light in the Attic record label began releasing material as part of their Hazlewood archive series. “Deep in the LHI tape archive,” the label wrote on their website, “hid a mysterious tape marked ‘Woodchucks.’” When you write and record as much as Hazlewood, you leave a trail of tapes in your wake that others get tasked with sifting through. Only a talent who could dismiss a fully realized record as a demo could so casually shelve a session as complete as Surf Bunnies. Unfortunately, Hazlewood didn’t leave many details about the writing or recording of the record.
Some version of the Wrecking Crew assembled to cut Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies on October 26, 1964, in Studio E at United Records studios in Los Angeles. “I’m not sure everybody that played on it,” Hazlewood collaborator Marty Cooper said after hearing the tapes, “but I can tell you that I can’t imagine anybody but Al Casey being the guitarist on that. If you go back to [Casey’s] ‘Surfin’ Hootenanny,’ which was on that label out of Chicago that Lee got a bunch of money for … there again, he could depend on Al to give him these various sounds. That’s my first impression.”
Cooper was interviewed by Hunter Lea, who wrote the liner notes for the album when Light in the Attic Records issued Cruisin’ For Surf Bunnies in 2018. Cooper had his own surf music credentials, having written “The Lonely Surfer,” a hit for Jack Nitzsche in 1963.
“It’s got every gimmick on it that you can have,” Cooper continued. “The other thing that makes me feel like it was a project as opposed to demos: it’s so assiduously non–Duane Eddy. One of the tracks has a little bit of tremolo, but there’s no tremolo guitar, there’s no lonely surfer guitar, there’s no Duane Eddy Fender tremolo. It’s just not there. That’s what makes me think [Lee] must’ve had a grand plan for [the project] that didn’t work out.”
Only one single from the project, “Angry Generation,” was released at the time, after being “sweetened,” in Lea’s words, “with overdubs.” Later covered by surf music architect Dick Dale, it communicates an incandescent menace.
Dale wasn’t the only artist to help himself to this musical buffet. Other Surf Bunnies songs were covered by the Astronauts, Jack Nitzsche, the Ventures, and the Surfaris — as well as John Paul Jones, later to become Led Zeppelin’s bassist. The Duane Eddy low-note lead guitar is present and correct on Jones’s version of “Baja.”
The next year Hazlewood would consider retirement, then enjoy the career catapult of “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Hazlewood and Sinatra would also duet with great success, most notably with 1967’s lush “Some Velvet Morning.”
“Some velvet morning when I’m straight,” Hazlewood sings without fear of censorship, “I’m gonna open up your gate.”
“I write songs with double and triple meanings,” Hazlewood told writer Spencer Leigh in 2004. “I know that my songs are a little different and I would say that I am the best writer of Lee Hazlewood songs.”
Another Hazlewood/Sinatra production, the Les Paul–inflected bonbon “Sugar Town” was actually about drugs.
As would be expected, when the prolific Hazlewood died, he left a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of both finished and unfinished recordings in his studio vaults.
“In those days they were taking sugar cubes and putting acid on ’em,” he told rock ‘n’ roll archivist and collector Billy Miller. “And of course that would be ‘Sugar Town,’ wouldn’t it? You had to make the lyric dingy enough where the kids knew what you were talking about — and they did. Double entendre. But not much more if you wanted to get it played on the radio. We used to have lots of trouble with lyrics, but I think it’s fun to keep it hidden a little bit.”
Hazlewood continued releasing solo albums, as well as duetting with actress and singer Ann Margret. He founded a new record label, Lee Hazlewood Industries, which signed country rock pioneer Gram Parsons’s first group, the International Submarine Band. When Parsons later joined the Byrds, his vocals on Sweetheart of the Rodeo had to be erased because of a contractual dispute with LHI. (“We had some problems there,” Hazlewood remembered, “but we straightened them out. [Parsons] had to pay back all his royalties and everything. But he had to pay back through earnings, and I knew he never would.”)
After moving to Sweden in 1970, Hazlewood kept a low profile, releasing albums in a fitfull manner. In the late ’90s, Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley began reissuing Hazlewood records to a receptive crowd that included Beck and Jarvis Cocker. Lee’s final album, 2006’s Cake or Death, contains his epitaph, the string-laden “T.O.M. (The Old Man)”:
Have you seen the mountains? They still hug the snow
And have you seen the old man? He’s ready to go
And his tongue — his tongue tastes forever, and his mind wonders what forever will bring
In this place they call forever, will there be any songs to sing?
Hazlewood died of renal cancer the following year. “I’ve been around long enough now,” he told the New York Times shortly before his death. “I’ve lived a pretty interesting life — not too much sadness, a lot of happiness, lots of fun. And I didn’t do much of anything I didn’t want to do.”
“He was a master — there’s no question about it,” Marty Cooper noted. “He invented sounds that no one was doing.” When genres like surf music employed some of those sounds, Hazlewood played with those expressions too. Then he moved on.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.