Graham Reid | | 4 min read
When the producer/songwriter and distinctive singer Lee Hazlewood relocated to Sweden at the end of the Sixties -- he said so his son wouldn't get drafted and end up in Vietnam -- it marked the close of a remarkable decade, and perhaps the last most people heard of that oak-barrel baritone which he used on duets with Nancy Sinatra, for whom he wrote her massive seller These Boots Are Made for Walkin'.
Together they clocked up numerous hits -- Summer Wine, Jackson, Some Velvet Morning, Jackson among them -- but within three years he had shifted to Stockholm and, despite recording over there in a manner not dissimilar to what he'd always done -- his records on his LHI label got no traction internationally.
He recorded again with Sinatra, but they didn't quite have the same frisson in the early Seventies as they'd had five years previous.
To their credit the indie label Light in the Attic (distributed in New Zealand through Southbound) has released two Hazlewood albums, the soundtrack songs for a Swedish cult movie A House Safe for Tigers and a collection of singles and rarities from his final years Stateside.
To be frank, neither would be considered essential for the casual listener (although the singles collection would appeal to Nancy'n'Lee fans because it includes other duets with female singers, including Ann Margaret).
Despite what we must presume are modest sales, LITA are continuing with the project and the two most recent reissues are . . . interesting.
Oklahoma-born Hazlewood got a real kick-start to his career when, in his late 20s, he produced a string of distinctive-sounding hits for guitar twanger Duane Eddy, among them the theme to Peter Gunn, Boss Man and Rebel Rouser. In the following years he started his own label and continued to record other arists, with not quite the same success as "The Twang Heard Around the World".
He'd recorded his vocals previously (as Mark Robinson, and under his own name with Duane Eddy And His Orchestra), but in '63 he released the album Trouble is a Lonesome Town, a concept album -- more correctly a series of songs -- about a town called . . .
Yes, the concept is simple and not a little strained and hokey, and the songs are alarmingly simple in their downhome rhymes. But as a slice of Americana storytelling -- linked by his laconic introductions to the characters -- it is kind of appealing.
And if you rather like Garrison Keilor's radio show A Prairie Home Companion for its understatement, characters and stories, then here's another small town "you won't find on any map" full of characters . . . like the brothers Orville and George.
"I don't know whether you'll believe this or not," he says, "but we have two brothers in Trouble who are the thievinest, sneakinest, just downright crookedest people you'd ever want to meet. Now that might not be too hard to believe . . ."
The joke is the brothers don't steal from any fellow citizens but only from each other, and consequently end up arrested and in jail repeatedly . . . and there follows a prison song Six Feet of Chain you know Johnny Cash would have been at home with when playing in San Quentin.
The other 15 tracks filling this disc include three previously unreleased songs (including the droll It's An Actuality), a couple of songs as Mark Robinson, two with Eddy and Orchestra (one the song-noir The Girl on Death Row) and then a bracket of homespun short autobiographical pieces about his life in the army, as a radio DJ and in the "record biz".
This is certainly aimed at a . . . umm . . . specialised market (very, actually) and is . . . interesting.
Of equal curiosity value is the collection by Detroit girl group Honey Ltd (once on the bill at Caesars Palace down the bill from Eddie Fisher) who -- as the Mama Cats -- were taken on by the young Bob Seger's manager Punch Andrews, and played local clubs alongside Glenn Frey (later of the Eagles).
They worked on their four-part harmonies, Seger wrote a couple of songs for them, then Laura Polkinghome emerged as a songwriter, they relocated to LA, got into a studio with the famous Wrecking Crew musicians, toned down the psychedelic edge and went more Vegas-style, became Honey Ltd, did a Jerry Lewis Show and were spotted by Bob Hope who invited them to join his troupe to Vietnam . . .
But let's not kid ourselves, Hope probably chose them because they were very attractive, more than perhaps for their vocal talent . . . but they were actually very good.
So they recorded an album with Lee Hazlewood credited as producer, although the extensive liner notes on the reissue suggest Hazlewood might not have been quite as hands-on as that title suggests. And they didn't know they were making an album. They just thought they were doing singles.
The LITA reissue of their sole album from '68 which tanked -- with previously unreleased bonus tracks -- showcase a group high on Motown-styled girl group and pot-era energy, covering Laura Nyro's Eli's Coming and Louie Louie along with Polkinghome's often high-anxiety post-Mamas and Papas pop.
The shadow of Vietnam falls over the very earnest The Warrior which sits oddly in a collection which also includes an upbeat horn-driven version of Silver Threads and Golden Needles, and songs which match the early Beach Boys for their complex harmony parts, not the least on Skip James' I'm So Glad (yep, the one Cream covered) which here comes off somewhere closer to the 5th Dimension taking blues to an outdoor stage at Disneyland.
It is . . . ummm . . . interesting.
But in a good way, although it is hard to see why Stateside people are, apparently, paying US$2000 for original copies.
Scattered about are a few very fine songs, but this is another case where you admire Light in the Attic however worry about them balancing the books.