Lee Hazlewood: Writer Gave Music Biz the 'Boots' The music-biz veteran made a fortune writing and producing songs for others — Nancy Sinatra, most famously — but thumbed his nose in his own tunes at an industry whose norms and compromises he viewed with disdain.
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Lee Hazlewood: Writer Gave Music Biz the 'Boots'

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Lee Hazlewood: Writer Gave Music Biz the 'Boots'

Lee Hazlewood: Writer Gave Music Biz the 'Boots'

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Songwriter, producer and singer Lee Hazlewood has died after a long battle with cancer. He was best known for writing Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots are Made for Walkin'." But Hazlewood's success as a notoriously independent producer earned him the adoration of a later generation of rock musicians that includes Nick Cave and Sonic Youth. Hazlewood died Saturday at the age of 78.

NPR's Felix Contreras visited Hazlewood at home just a few months ago. And he has this remembrance.

FELIX CONTRERAS: In a neat two-story house in suburban Las Vegas, Lee Hazlewood remembered getting his start in radio in the 1950s at a small station in Coolidge, Arizona. While Hazlewood was spinning disks, he was also writing songs.

LEE HAZLEWOOD: I used to have spent $9.99 for a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles on the bus. And I knew a couple of publishers over there. I got in. And they liked me, but they didn't like my songs. They just thought that they were awful.

CONTRERAS: Rejection became a blessing when Hazlewood started writing music for one of his listeners - a young guitarist by the name of Duane Eddy.


CONTRERAS: The Duane Eddy and Lee Hazlewood collaborations became hits. Because Hazlewood published them himself, he collected the royalties.

HAZLEWOOD: I was writing songs that nobody care about. And when I recorded them, then they cared about them. They bought them. That's how you become an independent producer.


CONTRERAS: By the early 1960s, Hazlewood was in Los Angeles, working with Dean Martin, Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield among others. But just few years later, Hazlewood heard 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. Her neighbor's boss was Frank Sinatra. The session produced a hit for Nancy Sinatra called "So Long Babe." But it was the next song that changed their lives.


NANCY SINATRA: (Singing) You keep sayin' you've got something for me.

CONTRERAS: Hazlewood thought the song was a little too risque for the 25-year- old, whose record label was pushing a wholesome image.


SINATRA: (Singing) You've been messin' where you shouldn't have been a messin'

CONTRERAS: Nevertheless, once Hazlewood decided to record it, he had very specific instructions for Sinatra in the studio.

HAZLEWOOD: Sing it like a 14-year-old girl who goes with truck drivers.


SINATRA: (Singing) These boots are made for walkin', and that's just what they'll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.

CONTRERAS: Many fans thought Sinatra and Hazlewood were romantically linked. Nancy Sinatra says the fact that they were not was critical to the success of their records.

SINATRA: The sexual tension was always there. You can cut it with a knife. And that's probably why it came across like that on record. If it had actually been physically expressed, it probably wouldn't have been there on the record.


JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout. We've been talkin' 'bout Jackson ever since the fire went out.

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


HAZLEWOOD: (Singing) To their party, they never invite me. Even my own dog bites me. And they call me - they call me Ugly Brown.

These solo records and Hazlewood's fiercely independent streak endeared him to a generation of rockers in the 1980s and '90s that included Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and a young drummer and staffer at SubPop Records named Mark Pickerel, who says they all loved the way Hazlewood manipulated his success to thumb his nose at the record business.

MARK PICKEREL: It afforded him the luxury of making the kind of records he wanted to make, not worrying about whether they're successful or not because he was already receiving royalty checks. So it was probably pretty liberating for him.

CONTRERAS: Late last year, Lee Hazlewood released a new C.D. that included the eerily prophetic song "T.O.M. (The Old Man)."

(Soundbite of song "T.O.M. (The Old Man)")

HAZLEWOOD: (Singing) And his mind wonders what forever will bring. In this place they call forever, will there be any songs to sing.

HAZLEWOOD: Maybe they do sing songs over there in forever. I don't know. And maybe you don't.

CONTRERAS: If they do, Lee Hazlewood is already writing them.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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