Growing up in the music business was a little different from the rest of the world. My father was Merle Kilgore, and he wrote many big songs including the famous “Ring of Fire.” Without a doubt, we lived an unusual lifestyle. We never knew when famous people like Johnny Cash, Bobby Vinton or Lefty Frizzell would be dropping in on us. I once asked my father who he thought had the best singing voice in the country music business, and he told me Lefty Frizzell. Dad idealized Lefty and was a huge fan of his music.
Years before Lefty got into the music business, his first career was as a boxer. He had super-fast left hook, and that how he got the nickname, “Lefty.” Lefty had a special singing style that made him outstanding from anyone else. My father performed many shows with Lefty, and they became extremely close friends. Merle knew just about everyone in the music industry, but he and Lefty had a special bond. One day in 1969, Lefty’s wife Alice invited us to go to church where Rev. Jimmy Roger Snow was preaching. Jimmy Snow was the son of country music star Hank Snow. Hank Snow had hit songs like ‘’Moving on’’ and ‘’I’ve Been Everywhere’’ and was a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Jimmy Snow was a recording artist himself on the RCA label, and he was married to Carol Lee Copper, the beautiful daughter of the singing couple Wilma Lee and Stony Copper. Jimmy had received the calling from the Lord and became a full-time Evangelist. That night Jimmy was holding revival in Ashland City, a small town just outside of Nashville. My mom, my two sisters and I all received the Lord and became Christians. On that day our lives changed, and the Kilgore and the Frizzell families became one. We were always over at the Frizzell’s house in Hendersonville or they were always at our house in Madison. We all went together to Jimmy Snow’s Church in Nashville, all of us except Dad and Lefty. They were still running wild and Honky Tonkin’. Most country music singers did shows in night clubs, hotels and bars back in those days — it’s all so different now.
One my fondest memories of Lefty is when I was about 10 years old. My dad and Lefty were performing at a small baseball park in Gallatin, Tenn. for a fundraiser. It was a hot Saturday afternoon, and there were about 500 people in the crowd. In those days, folks would bring a blanket and sit on the ground and listen to country music. Lefty and Dad had brought their albums to sell at the show. Back in the day they were the large vinyl LPs. Lefty told his son Marlon and me to walk through the crowd and sell my dad’s and Lefty’s records during the show. Lefty said, “Sell the albums for $3 each, or two for $5.” I noticed that on the bottom of Lefty’s records that it was stamped in gold ink, “Not for Sale, Promotional Copy Only.” Those were the albums that the record company had given Lefty to give away to radio stations and to promote his product. So there I was working the crowd selling albums. This one man said to me,” I want to take a look at Lefty’s album to see what songs are on the record.” Then he noticed the “Not for Sell promotional copy” on the front of the LP, He said, “Hey what’s this about Not for Sale” I said with a smile, “Look sir, the record is three bucks. You want it or not?” In the car on the way home I told Dad and Lefty about the guy who asked me about the promotional copy. They laughed so hard that tears where rolling down their cheeks. Lefty kept saying, “You want it or not?” He almost ran off the road laughing! 45years later, I think back on that day, and I’m sure I must have sounded like a 10-year-old smart aleck! Oh well. The man bought Lefty’s and Dad’s records. He was happy, so what the heck.
My sister Pam and Lefty’s oldest son Ricky fell in love, and they got married in the early 70s. Ricky was an 18-year-old up-and-coming songwriter and played the drums, and Pam was only 16. It was back when Sonny and Cher where at the height of their career, and they had a monster hit called “I Got You, Babe.” Pam and Ricky always called each other “babe.” Lefty would say, “Babe, Babe. What’s wrong with you two? Don’t you remember your real names?” A few years later Lefty co-wrote a million-seller song called, “That’s The Way Love Goes Babe.”
Lefty’s son Marlon and I were always on the mischievous side, and one night after church we talked Lefty’s wife Alice, into stopping at a firework stand in Goodlettsville. We bought a big box of smoke bombs. Little did Alice know we had plans for those smoke bombs! It was around 9:30 on a Sunday night, and we lit about 10 of those smoke bombs in Lefty’s garage just to see how long we could stand the smoke. However, the smoke seeped up though the floor and went directly into Alice and Lefty’s Bedroom. When Lefty opened the door that led out in the garage and saw all that smoke, he freaked out. He said, “Get out, the house is on fire!” and we said, “No it’s just us lighting smoke bombs in a coffee can.” Lefty opened up the garage door to clear the smoke out and saw a small stack of fire wood in the corner. He totally lost control of his temper and grabbed a log and chased us around the backyard. He was mad as hell; thank God, he didn’t catch us. We were just being kids, doing what kids do. He soon forgave us and thought it was funny. The next time I came back over he said, “You and Marlin try not to set the house on fire.”
Once Lefty invited me to go fishing with his boys and he said, “Steve, there is only one rule I have on the boat: never say anything about the motor because that is always the kiss of death.” Lefty had a house on Old Hickory Lake and he loved to fish. We got out on the lake early that morning, and I felt a vibration on the boat but I said nothing. Then I heard the sound of the motor falling off the back of the boat! Lefty had forgotten to tighten the motor down, and it jumped into the lake. The next day Lefty saw an ad in the paper for a good used boat, and off we went to get it. When Lefty bought the boat the man that sold it to him said, “Lefty, the ball on your Cadillac is too small to pull the boat, but I’m a big fan of yours and I’d be glad to haul it home for you.” Lefty thanked the man and said that he thought everything would be OK: “We’ll drive slow.” Then it started to rain really hard. It was pitch dark and we were on a small winding road. All of a sudden, the car hit a bump in the road, and the boat bounced off of the trailer hitch and went flying down into a deep holler, and I said, “Lefty, the boat is gone!” Lefty never even hit the brakes; he just kept on going. After all, what else could he do? That’s the way Lefty was.
I am so glad to have known Lefty Frizzell. He was so much fun because he was one of those once-in-a-lifetime friends. He was always glad to see you. My father, Merle Kilgore, passed away on Feb. 6, 2005, and I inherited Lefty Frizzell’s Martin guitar. Lefty’s guitar is currently on loan to the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville. Lefty was truly a superstar. Do yourself a favor and look on YouTube for “Lefty Frizzell on the Porter Wagoner Show,” and you will see the Lefty Frizzell that I knew.
Lefty influenced so many of our great singers of today with his style. In 1975, a stroke took Lefty’s life away from us at the young age of 47; however, his memories will be with me forever. Some of the great songs that Lefty wrote and recorded are, “Always Late,” “If You Got the Money Honey I’ve Got the Time,” “I Love A Thousand Ways,” “Saginaw, Michigan,” “Mom and Dad Waltz,” “I Never Go around Mirrors,” just to name a few. I will always remember Lefty’s sense of humor and his infectious laughter. Being friends with Lefty Frizzell was one of the best parts about “Growing Up Kilgore.”
Story By: Stephen Merle Kilgore