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Lee Hazlewood, 78; wrote Nancy Sinatra song ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ’

Times Staff Writer

Lee Hazlewood, a singer, songwriter and producer who crafted one of the iconic records of the 1960s -- Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” -- then abruptly dropped out of sight at the height of his success and became a reclusive cult hero, died Saturday at his home in Henderson, Nev. He was 78.

Hazlewood died of complications of renal cancer, his wife, Jeane Kelley, said. The disease was diagnosed two years ago, and Hazlewood subsequently recorded his final album, titled after a routine by English comedian Eddie Izzard: “Cake or Death.”

The Oklahoma native did notable work early and late in his career, but it was his music with Sinatra in the mid- and late 1960s that secured his legacy. He teamed up with her on nine Top 40 singles, headed by “Boots,” which has assumed a life of its own as a multipurpose anthem of female empowerment and/or kinky domination fantasy.

“He hasn’t gotten the recognition he should,” Sinatra told The Times on Monday. “He’s one of the most influential songwriter-producers ever, and he deserves proper attention from his peers.

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“They dismissed him and they dismissed our records as novelty, but . . . a lot of other songs that were recorded at that time haven’t survived, and Lee’s songs have survived over decades. To me that’s the real test.”

Hazlewood isn’t identified with a signature sound the way such contemporaries as Phil Spector and Brian Wilson were, but his mainstream productions tweaked pop conventions with subtle experimentation, and over the years he moved easily from country-rooted narrative to impressionistic imagery to musical theatricality, always laced with his offbeat personality.

He is widely cited as a primary inspiration for today’s neo-psychedelic and baroque-pop movements. In the late 1990s, he was embraced by such alternative rock figures as Nick Cave and Sonic Youth, whose drummer Steve Shelley reissued some of his albums on CD. A 2002 tribute album, “Total Lee! The Songs of Lee Hazlewood,” features such underground artists as Tindersticks, Lambchop, Calexico, Johnny Dowd and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley.

“All his classics, they kind of go somewhere,” Joey Burns of Tucson-based Calexico said in January in a Times profile of Hazlewood. “There’s some kind of journey happening with the story. It’s a very imaginative place. . . . He’s very abstract and kind of out there at times, and a freak, and that’s what my friends and I all love about them. He’s out there.”

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Barton Lee Hazlewood was born in Mannford, Okla., and grew up mainly in Port Neches, Texas. He was exposed to blues and country music, but he was a demanding listener, responding mainly to a clever lyric. His musical heroes were bandleader Stan Kenton and songwriter Johnny Mercer.

After what he called a “Huck Finn childhood,” he studied medicine at Southern Methodist University before being drafted by the Army and serving in Korea.

After his discharge, he settled in Phoenix and worked as a songwriter and producer, scoring a national chart hit in 1956 with singer Sanford Clark’s recording of his song “The Fool.” He had greater success with local guitarist Duane Eddy’s twangy instrumentals “Rebel Rouser” and “Forty Miles of Bad Road.” He was drawn to Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll, and pictured his Viv label as a western counterpart to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis, Tenn.

He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s and was brought into Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label to produce Dino, Desi & Billy, the rock band that included the sons of Dean Martin and Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

When he started working with Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, her sputtering career quickly took off.

They made the Top 100 with “So Long Babe” in 1965, and hit the top of the charts with “Boots” at the beginning of 1966.

Though the kicker phrase “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” is widely attributed to a line in a western movie, Hazlewood said during a January interview that he got it eavesdropping on a conversation in a bar.

He wrote “Boots” as a bawdy party song, but Sinatra’s Carnaby Street sex-kitten delivery made it one for the ages.

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“We were at my mother’s house because I was living there after my divorce,” the singer said, recalling the first time she heard it. “He played me a bunch of songs . . . then he sort of threw away ‘Boots’ because it wasn’t finished. He says, ‘This is one I do in the bars,’ and he sang two verses of it, and I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, that’s the one.’ . . . I just knew I was right.”

Hazlewood also produced Frank and Nancy’s chart-topping version of C. Carson Parks’ “Somethin’ Stupid,” and was billed with Nancy on the hits “Jackson” (which ranked higher on the charts than Johnny Cash and June Carter’s original), “Lady Bird” and “Some Velvet Morning.” They made three “Nancy and Lee” albums together, the last one in 2003.

“He knew how to reach the core of a person, and he knew how to take that information and create something with it. He really turned my life around in that sense as well,” Sinatra said of his role as her producer. “Finding the truth in the core of me. . . . Not a Svengali kind of thing. Maybe it’s more like a Henry Higgins. But there’s a lot of Freud attached to it. He was brilliant in that.”

But in the early 1970s, he was suddenly gone, first to Sweden and then all over the map, frequently traveling back and forth between Europe and the U.S.

Theories about his departure have proliferated, but Hazlewood said that he simply wanted to spend more time with his circle of friends outside the music business, and he scoffed at his image as a reclusive genius.

“There was a little bit of a thing about ‘old mystery Lee’ and stuff -- ‘He moves around’ and all that garbage. I have a reason for everything I’ve ever done. It’s not just a haphazard sort of life.”

He had made his own albums since 1963, and he continued in Europe, recording what he considered more personal and creative music.

He also did a reunion tour with Sinatra in 1996 and played solo shows in Europe in the first years of this decade, responding to his rediscovery by a younger generation.

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On Monday, Sinatra recalled that the last time she saw him was at his birthday party at his home July 26.

“He was wearing a shirt that said ‘I’m Not Dead Yet,’ and his usual black baseball cap with an insignia on it. . . . We tried to sing ‘Jackson,’ and I managed to get out a verse, but he struggled so we stopped. But he was still smoking, and he had his Chivas in his hand, his beloved scotch. I guess at that point he said what the hell.

“When I hugged him goodbye he was pretty much all bones, and I know then there wasn’t going to be much time left.”

Hazlewood is survived by his wife, three children, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Kelley said that there will be no services.

“He did not want anyone mourning his death, he wanted people to celebrate his life,” she said. “So we are having a huge party next month.”

Richard.Cromelin@latimes.com


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