Lefty Frizzell rivaled and might have been bigger than Hank Williams in 1951, placing four songs in the top ten at the same time, a feat that’s never been matched. Like Williams, he led a turbulent life, mostly due to his own bad habits, but it was his friend Hank who was immortalized by an early death while Lefty lived to struggle against the incoming Rockabilly era and to eventually become mostly forgotten. His influences have lived on, though. Nudie the Rodeo Tailor fashioned a shirt with an “L” and an “F” on the yoke and filled them with blue rhinestones, starting a trend among country artists of wearing flashy Nudie suits. Merle Haggard, who derived inspiration from Lefty’s music, called him “the most unique thing that ever happened to country music,” and you can’t listen to Randy Travis without catching a glimpse of Lefty Frizzell. It was this month in 1959 when Lefty Frizzell recorded one of his signature songs. The story goes something like this…
Lefty Frizzell’s latest hit, “Cigarettes and Coffee Blues,” was fading when he headed to Nashville with his brother, David, for a recording session. He brought along a song he co-wrote with Eddie Miller called “Sin Will Be The Chaser For the Wine” and still needed three more to fill the usual four-song recording session. So, along with producer Don Law, he put the word out that they were looking for songs and set up a listening room in Law’s suite in the James Robertson Hotel.
The suite soon filled with pickers and songwriters pitching their songs. With only a couple of hours left before the recording session, Marijohn Wilkin showed up at the suite, representing the interests of the Cedarwood publishing company. After listening to a few of the tunes being pitched, she pulled Don Law aside and told him, “Danny Dill and I have a song better than any of these.”
Danny Dill had worked on the song over the course of a few months before the pieces finally fell into place. He pulled the different elements from a few incidents, as he later recounted, “There’s three incidents I’ve read about in my life that really please me. There was a Catholic priest killed in New Jersey many years ago under a town hall light, and there was no less than 50 witnesses. They never found a motive. They never found the man. Until this day, it’s an unsolved murder. That always intrigued me, so that’s ‘under the town hall light.’ Then the Rudolph Valentino story’s always impressed me–about the woman that always used to visit his grave. She always wore a long black veil–now there’s the title for the song. And the third component was Red Foley’s ‘God Walks These Hills With Me.’ I always thought that was a great song, so I got that in there, too. I just scrambled it all up, and that’s what came out.”
The morning after Dill completed the song, he took it to Wilkin and tossed it on her desk and said, “I wrote this thing last night. I don’t know if it’s any good or not. If you like it, why, put a tune to it. If you don’t, why, throw it in the wastebasket.” Wilkin sat down at her piano and as she began playing and singing, the melody just flowed out. She pitched it to Lefty Frizzell and Don Law later that same afternoon. Law wanted to hear a demo of the song, but Wilkin admitted that it had just been written, so she lead Law and Lefty to the kitchen and sang it to them a cappella. They both immediately agreed that it was the best song they had.
Without a demo tape, though, they couldn’t teach the song to the studio band, so Law hired Wilkin to play the piano and behind her lead, the producer and studio players worked out a sparse arrangement consisting of a couple of acoustic guitars to carry the song forward and Don Helm’s steel guitar to add an ethereal element. David Frizzell, who witnessed the recording and was stunned by his brother’s inspired work, later declared that “magic happened that night.”
When “The Long Black Veil” started to break out on pop stations, the head of Columbia sent Don Law a telegram, begging him, “For god’s sakes, stop cutting hits. We can’t promote them all.” Over a ten week period, Law had produced numerous hits, including Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo,” Marty Robbin’s “El Paso,” and Ray Price’s Heartache By The Numbers.” Without the backing of Columbia, “The Long Black Veil” failed to crossover, but even-so, it eventually landed at number six on the country charts and became one of Lefty Frizzell’s signature hits.
** Paraphrased from Lefty Frizzell: The Honky-Tonk Life of Country Music’s Greatest Singer by Daniel Cooper and Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy by Dorothy Horstman