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The life of William ‘Lefty’ Frizzell; A look back at the country singer’s career and his roots in Roswell

May 28, 2017 • Vistas

Pictured is William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell posing with his guitar that bears his nickname. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

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Above: KGFL was the first radio station in Roswell and was located on 310 N. Richardson Ave. It was established in 1931 by W. E. Whitmore. William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell got his start in Roswell when he started performing live on this radio station. Soon after that, he became the local celebrity. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

Below: A young Lefty Frizzell smiles at the camera with his guitar in hand. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)

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I believe I’ve mentioned before that Roswell has produced many celebrities, whether they be movie stars, musicians, scientists, sports heroes, etc. The list is lengthy and perhaps we have had more than our share for a town this size.
Among this number of celebrities is one that many may not be aware that spent time here. His name is Lefty Frizzell. Below is his story.
William Orville “Lefty” Frizzell was born on March 31, 1928, in Corsicana, Texas. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, on July 19, 1975 at the age of 47. The cause of death was a massive stroke.
He was the oldest of nine children born to Naamon and A.D. Frizzell. From an early age, Lefty dreamed of a career in music. His uncle bought him his first guitar when he was 12 years old.
Many stories have been told and written about how he got his nickname “Lefty.”
The real story is that when he was about 14 or 15 years old, he got in a fistfight with the school bully. The bully forgot that Lefty was left-handed and he left himself wide-open for a left hook. Before the boy knew what happened, he was laying on the ground. From then on, he was called “Lefty” Frizzell.
Lefty Frizzell is widely recognized as one of the most influential country singers in history. Willie Nelson and Randy Travis count him among their influences.
When Lefty came on the music scene, country music was going through a transition. It was changing from western swing, as characterized by Bob Wills, to western, or cowboy music. It began to incorporate the earthy ‘honky-tonk” styles of the southwestern territories.
Lefty would soon become the latest proponent of this latter style of music.
Lefty’s dad worked in the oil patch and moved his family around a lot.
Lefty married Alice Harper in Oklahoma just before his 17th birthday. Their daughter was born shortly before they landed in Dexter. There were two bars in Dexter at the time, which faced each other across the street.
He was underaged so he would go with a relative to the bars to sing for tips on Saturday nights. He would make sometimes as much as $50 or $75 –– several times the going rate for honky-tonk musicians at the time.
Lefty soon started a dance band, which played at the Cactus Garden Club, located on East Poe Street on the Dexter Highway outside of Roswell. They would also play at the Top Hat Club, which was between Hagerman and Artesia.
His band also played for dances in Hondo, Carlsbad, Artesia, Tatum and other towns in the area.
Lefty got his start in Roswell when he started performing live on the radio station KGFL. Very soon after that he became the local celebrity. He was a very charming, young man who attracted several of the local single young ladies who followed him and his group when they played.
He had an affair with one such girl, who was under the age of consent. When he dropped her, she became very jealous of him and his other admirers, so she filed statutory rape charges against Lefty and one of his other musicians.
Their trials, as well as those for three other men that concerned another girl, were held on Aug. 21, 1947. All five were given six months to jail time to be served in the Chaves County jail. While in jail, Lefty wrote some songs, including “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways.” The latter song was written for his wife as he begged for her forgiveness.
After being released from jail, Lefty may have played at some of the dance halls occasionally, but he didn’t stay around Roswell for very long. He moved to Loco Hills and went to work in the oilfield with his father and saved his money. After a while, he went to Shreveport to try out for the local Louisiana Hayride, but Hank Williams got the part.
When Lefty came back to New Mexico, he started playing in a little nightspot in Artesia. Later, he went to work in a large club in Big Spring, Texas. Lefty worked for $45 a week at this venue for about two years. In June of 1950, Lefty and the group contacted a gentleman by the name of Jim Beck, who owned a recording studio.
Beck was also a part-time booking agent who arranged for him to audition for Don Law from Columbia Studios. Law was so impressed with the song, “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” he said that it was a hit song for sure. Law wanted the song for Little Jimmy Dickens, but Lefty told him “No, if I can’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.”
They recorded the song that day. The executives of Columbia Studios liked the song and the record was released on Sept. 21 of that year. It was a hit.
His 1951 releases all secured places in the top 10. The following year, he scored three big hits. He stayed at the top of the charts for many years. Frizzell continued to enjoy success as a songwriter into the 1970s.
Lefty met a young man at Beck’s studio and was instrumental in having Don Law of Columbia Records listen to this new talent. Law told him that if he could come up with some original music that he could possibly get him on Columbia. Lefty helped him write the song that got him on record. His name… Ray Price.
One night while working in Phoenix, a tall and lean young man came to Lefty’s hotel room. Lefty liked the young man’s voice and songs and invited him to join him on stage that night. Although he was taller than Lefty, he borrowed one of Lefty’s suits to sing in that night. His name was Freddie Hart.
Lefty was the first country artist to perform at the Hollywood Bowl and he packed the place. In the 1950s, he became featured in The Grand Ole Opry.
In 1959, he hit No. 1 on the charts with a song he didn’t write. It went on to become a classic in country music –– “The Long Black Veil.” The last song recorded by Lefty to hit No. 1 on the charts was in 1964. It was with another song he didn’t write –– “Saginaw, Michigan.” He and Whitey Shafer co-wrote a song, which became a big hit for Johnny Rodriquez, called “That’s the Way Love Goes.”
At the time of his death, Lefty had a song he had written called “Falling,’” which was climbing the charts. Lefty could hold a listener spellbound. His style was full of emotion and deep feeling and it could actually send deep chills up your spine.
In 1975, he suddenly died. Lefty was married to Alice for 30 years and besides his daughter, Lois, he was survived by two sons, Ricky and Marion. The honorary pallbearers at Lefty’s funeral were like The “Who’s Who” of country music.
He was a member of the Texas Hall of Fame, The Songwriter’s Country Music Hall of Fame and was the first country star to have his name enshrined in a star on Hollywood’s famous “Walkway of the Stars.” His star is just outside the Chinese Theatre.
Lefty loved people. When he was on top, he didn’t change. It didn’t matter to him what your status in life was. He was always quoted as saying, “All I want to do is make people happy.”
Credits:
• Elvis Fleming: “I Love You a Thousand Ways” –– Roswell Daily Record, Sept. 6, 2002.
• Manny Alvarez: “The Lefty Frizzell Story,” –– Country Town News, June 1980.
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Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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