Lee Hazlewood: Writer Gave Music Biz the 'Boots'

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, seated at music stands and microphones, sing in a recording studio i i

Singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, with whom he scored his biggest hit, lay down a track in a 1966 studio session. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, seated at music stands and microphones, sing in a recording studio

Singer-songwriter Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, with whom he scored his biggest hit, lay down a track in a 1966 studio session.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hear a Little Hazlewood

Lee Hazlewood's songs have been covered by artists as diverse as British indie-rockers Primal Scream, German experimental- industrial outfit Einstürzende Neubauten, and pop kitten Jessica Simpson. Here's what they sound like in the original:

With Nancy Sinatra:

Songwriter, producer and singer Lee Hazlewood — best known for the No. 1 hit "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" — has died after a long battle with cancer.

The 78-year-old music-industry veteran spent most of his career writing or producing hits for others, while his own records lampooned the business. In fact, Hazlewood became legendary for his independence and for his disdain for the industry — an attitude that earned him the adoration of a later generation of rock musicians that includes Nick Cave and Sonic Youth.

Hazlewood got his start in radio in the 1950s, with a job at a small station in Coolidge, Ariz. While Hazlewood was spinning discs, he was also writing songs.

"I used to spend $9.99 for a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles on the bus," he remembered during a conversation at his home just a few months ago."I knew a couple of publishers over there, and got in. They liked me but didn't like my songs. They thought they were awful."

Rejection became a blessing when Hazlewood started writing music for one of his listeners — a young guitarist by the name of Duane Eddy, whose guitar-driven, rough 'n' ready tune "Rebel Rouser" was the first of several hit collaborations.

And because Hazlewood published his own compositions, he collected the royalties that would otherwise have gone to a publishing company.

"I was writing songs that nobody cared about," he remembered. "When I recorded them, then they cared about 'em. They bought 'em. That's how you become an independent producer."

By the early '60s, Hazlewood was in Los Angeles, writing and producing for Dean Martin, Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield, among others. But just few years later, Hazlewood was hearing the Beatles and Motown all over the radio — and no longer heard a place for himself in pop music. So he took a break.

Then one day, a neighbor asked Hazlewood to produce just one session for his boss' daughter. The neighbor's boss was Frank Sinatra, and the session produced a hit for Nancy Sinatra, called "So Long Babe." But it was the next song that changed their lives. The title, of course, was "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'."

Hazlewood thought the song was a little too risqué for the 25-year-old Sinatra, whose record label was pushing a wholesome image. Nevertheless, once Hazlewood decided to record it, he gave Sinatra very specific instructions in the studio: "Sing it like a 14-year-old girl who goes with truck drivers," he remembered telling her.

Three duo albums followed — and many fans thought they were romantically linked.

Sinatra says the fact that they were not involved was critical to the success of their records.

"I think the sexual tension was always there," she said. "If it had actually been physically expressed ... we would have squandered it."

As it is, "it's there," Sinatra said. "You can cut it with a knife."

The financial independence that came from writing and producing hits for others allowed Hazlewood to give his maverick spirit its own voice — his.

In songs like "Sand" and "L.A. Lady," Hazlewood showcased a fiercely independent streak that endeared him to a generation of rockers in the '80s and '90s, including Kurt Cobain and a young drummer and record-company staffer named Mark Pickerel — who says they all loved the way Hazlewood used his success to thumb his nose at the record business.

"It afforded him the luxury of making the kinds of records he wanted to make," Pickerel says. "Not worrying about whether they were successful or not, because he was always receiving royalty checks and could pretty much count on making a living off his existing catalog. So it was probably pretty liberating for him."

Late last year, Hazlewood released a collection of reworked older tunes, along with some new songs written before his diagnosis. The last cut on the CD, called "T.O.M., The Old Man," is eerily prophetic. "His mind wonders what forever will bring," goes the lyric; "in this place they call forever, will there be any songs to sing?"

"Maybe they do sing songs over there in forever," Hazlewood said. "I don't know — maybe you don't."

If they do, Lee Hazlewood is already writing them.

Correction Aug. 17, 2007

The broadcast version of this story used a snippet of the 'Peter Gunn' theme to illustrate Duane Eddy's singular guitar style, which Lee Hazlewood helped create. That tune was written, however, by Henry Mancini. The audio linked above has been amended.

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