The Billboard Q&A: Lee Hazlewood

Lee Hazlewood is one of a kind. Bridging country and pop music through a five-decade career, Hazlewood has brought his own unique and irrepressible personality to the roles of artist, actor, songwrite

Lee Hazlewood is one of a kind. Bridging country and pop music through a five-decade career, Hazlewood has brought his own unique and irrepressible personality to the roles of artist, actor, songwriter, record producer, film producer, record company executive and more.

His work with Nancy Sinatra -- as the writer of her signature hit "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" and producer of her classic duet "Somethin' Stupid" with father Frank -- are just some of the best-known moments in a lifetime of creativity.

Along the way, Hazlewood has earned scores of admirers, not only with country veterans like Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn, but among pop stars like Bono (who teamed up with the Corrs to cover Hazlewood's "Summer Wine") and a who's who of alternative rockers, like Sonic Youth's Pete Shelley, Beck, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp and others.

Now 77, Lee Hazlewood is dying of kidney cancer. Yet, he has released a new album and spoke about that project and his rich life in a recent phone interview.

You've titled your new album "Cake or Death." Any relation to the routine by British-based comic Eddie Izzard?

It's the one where he discusses the fact that English people are so much kinder than Spanish people. That if they had held the Spanish Inquisition in London and offered everyone cake or death and if someone accidentally said "death" when he meant "cake" -- and then said, "But I meant cake" -- they'd go "Oh, all right. Here's a nice piece of cake." Silly stuff like that.

Not too many people know him in America, but the man is funny with a very dark sense of humor -- my kind of humor! He makes fun of us because we don't know anything about ourselves. I've introduced a lot of people to him through his tapes and credit him on the album. He's brought so much pleasure to me.

As you have, too, to so many music fans and with your own unique brand of wordplay.

I read this, Nancy's [Sinatra] best comment concerning me, "Do you understand that Lee's songs have double and triple meanings sometimes? They have more than one meaning to them." Then she said, "He writes them, I sing them," and that's the best answer I've ever heard in my life to any question about my songs.

But you started out in radio.

I first went to L.A. because I was offered twice as much as I was making as a DJ in Phoenix, which was $105 a week. And I was the second highest-paid DJ in town.

Then you produced for Dot Records?

[Label owner] Randy Wood was moving Dot Records from Gallatin, Tenn., to L.A. and hired me to produce. I'd had a little success with [Sanford Clark's Hazlewood-penned hit] "The Fool" and a couple other things, country things.

But he didn't like the way I produced when I got to L.A., and I only worked with him for about six months. I made a record with Duane Eddy ["Rebel Rouser"] and offered it to Randy but he didn't give me an answer. So I worked out a deal back East with Jamie Records.

He later told me, "If I heard that record I would have taken it!"

I said, "You missed a few million there, Randy!" But he was still paying me. He said, "You're difficult and your independence might not work out for you."

Your approach was a lot different than other producers at the time.

Randy said, "I cover a lot of records, but you start from scratch." If Sonny James did something, Tab Hunter, of all people, did it!

It was the days when the so-called white radio stations weren't playing originals. But I was playing the originals in Phoenix on a Perry Como/Bing Crosby white station -- Little Willie John and all that kind of stuff.

The manager was going to fire me every week, but the ratings kept going up! My problem in this life has always been with music, what you like and what you fight for. Of course, you're wrong more than you're right, God damn it.

Steve Sholes, the man who signed Elvis, told me when I bought his house in L.A. -- when he moved back to New York and I said, "You got all that from Elvis" -- he said, "Yes, but when we cut ëHeartbreak Hotel' I sat down and cried! I just believed the record was so bad I would lose my job!"

He was my idol. I said, "I don't know if I ever cried except that I know I sold a million records, and they paid me for 250,000!"

So, how do you feel about the music business?

Some of these bastards will outlive me! You produce things for some people and don't exactly get a fair count. I was talking to Duane within the last month, and he said, "I wonder how many records I sold." And I said, "There are two or three ways you can count. One is by how much you got paid for. But then there's whoever owns the pressing plant, and there were a lot of secret pressing plants in those days!"

What was your influence on Phil Spector?

People make so much about it, but I think he was in the studio with me for 30 minutes once in Phoenix. If I had come up with the Wall of Sound, do you think I'd have given it to Phil? I'd have kept it for my greedy self!

Were you always writing songs?

I was always writing songs. But I became a publisher and thank you, God, or whatever supreme being you believe in, because I used to take a bus in Phoenix to L.A. for $9.99 round trip -- and that's a hard $9.99 when you're making $100 a week! I'd take my songs over to various and sundry people I'd met along the way.

A couple of them said, "Lee, you write very strange songs. I know you want to be in the music business but your songs aren't good enough." I went, "Well, they might be." So I started a little publishing company because nobody wanted them. But they did when I started making the charts! So I said, "I think I'll hang on."

What was the name of your publishing company?

It was originally named Debra Music, BMI, named after my daughter. Now, it's all Mother Texas, ASCAP and Brother Texas, BMI. When I went to ASCAP, I wanted an ASCAP company. I tried to get out of BMI. It was easy to get in but not get out of in those days.

Then one year I got it all figured out and [Criterion Music Corp. music publisher] Mickey Goldsen signed me to write. But I was so damn busy producing. And I got into ASCAP because he was a member. ASCAP had changed its mind about us outlaw writers and decided to let us in.

I wanted to be in because I knew some of the writers, and they drove around in Cadillacs and had nice homes, and BMI writers had patches on their pants.

ASCAP stretched the money out in those days and BMI paid all at once. So one year you'd get $30,000, which is a lot, but the next year $2,000. I didn't like that, thinking that some day I'd be 77, which I am. BMI still [has] some of the Duane Eddy stuff. But ASCAP's taken care of me since I was over 50.

Were there any writers who stood out for you?

I needed someone to sign my ASCAP contract, and the guy in the office was Hank -- Hank [Henry] Mancini! He said, "Give me that damn thing."

And the only big hero songwriter in my life was at the office late one night -- Johnny Mercer. So Hank Mancini and Johnny Mercer signed my ASCAP application and I cleared three songs: "Houston," which was a hit for Dean Martin, "Boots," and I can't remember the third one. It might have been the back side of "Boots," "The City Never Sleeps at Night," which I promised would sell three times more -- and made the charts for 27 seconds.

How did your association with Nancy Sinatra come about?

Jimmy Bowen was head of singles at Reprise and forced Dino, Desi & Billy on me. So when he first asked me to produce Nancy I said, "I think I've had my fill of second-generation artists. But I'll meet her."

So we all met at her mother's house. I walked in, and dramatically placed around the living room were several bottles of Chivas and cleverly seated were Bobby Darin and a bunch of other old friends who had come over to be there at the time I met her.

Mama was in the kitchen making, guess what? Italian food -- which I don't really care for unless she makes it.

Here comes a guy who hangs up his coat. And of course that's Daddy. And he goes in the kitchen and we're all sitting around with Bobby at the piano playing every song he ever knew.

We hadn't talked about working together and here comes Frank and he puts on [arranger] Billy Strange's coat -- I invited Billy -- gives Nancy a hug and shook my hand and said, "Glad you kids will be working together" and left.

I hadn't even heard the girl sing, but I agreed to do the session with her. With Sinatra, all my friends and Chivas, I can't lose in those days!

How did you and Nancy start singing together?

It came about because of my greed! I put a record out [with] her three or four times a year that would last about three months. But now and then it would be two, two-and-a-half months. And a month without Nancy Sinatra on the radio drove me crazy because I'm so greedy! So I wrote boy/girl songs that everybody at Reprise wanted to record with Nancy, but she insisted on me.

She said, "It doesn't sound right without you." I said, "OK, if we don't get arrested!"

So we put one on each album and then [Reprise head] Mo Ostin started getting calls from distributors wanting to put out "Summer Wine" as a single, and I said "Tell them to go f*ck themselves!" I didn't want to ruin an artist that was half of what I make! So they put it on the back side of Nancy's next single, which was "Sugar Town." National anthem time, as we said in those days. It was a B-side hit, and I don't like B-side hits, because you're giving them a $2 record for a dollar.

Had you secretly wanted to be a singer?

The first time I sang in front of an audience, outside of high school or college, was with Nancy. Why not start at the top?

What about your own recordings?

In those days, when you had a couple hits, labels came out and said, "Put them in an album and write some other songs for it." It was the cheapest way I could do expensive demos in the world. Then sometime in the late '80s or early '90s, all of a sudden Europe started selling my CDs, and I got good musicians and started working by myself and they paid me damn good, because I wouldn't do it for nothing, because I'm not a singer.

How was the response?

My audience was very strange, quite a few thousand and not one gray hair! All were under 30 and applauded and yelled. I'd ask, "Where do you know this song from?" And they'd say, "My grandma, Lee!" So I used "Grandmother PR" in Europe, and I had a chance to [tour] all of Europe. But I got sick.

Any final thoughts on the music business today?

I've been asked so many times about the music business now -- which is asking about rap and hip-hop. There's some good stuff, like Black Eyed Peas, and some stuff I don't care for. My kids went through it, and it's great as long as they're protected from some of the language. But I saw the other day that 25% of the records sold now are the old groups. Isn't that kind of nice for a change?

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