Before Nancy and Lee, there was Duane and Lee.
When Duane Eddy met Lee Hazelwood in 1954, Lee, then aged 25, was a country and western disc jockey for KCKY-Radio in Coolidge, Arizona and Duane was a sixteen-year-old high school student looking to score discarded records. Together, they would not only launch their own separate careers in the music industry but would launch an entire subgenre of guitar rock which would be revered and remain influential to this day.
After coming home from military service in the Korean War, Lee Hazelwood and his young wife Naomi went to Los Angeles where Lee studied Broadcasting after developing his on-air skills while working as a DJ for the American Forces Network. Having grown up around music his entire life Lee was also an aspiring song writer with a love for country and western music. The first job he landed was a gig in the small farming town of Coolridge for which he was paid $40 a week.
Meanwhile, Duane Eddy and his family had only recently moved to Coolidge from Bath, New York. Playing guitar since the age of five, Duane was quick on the strings and, once settled in the local high school, formed a musical act with pal Jimmy Delbridge. Calling themselves Jimmy and Duane, the duo played honky tonk music with Duane on guitar and Jimmy on piano.
Lee liked Duane, and when he heard him play guitar he was impressed with his talent. Lee would later confess he initially stole records out of the station collection for Duane, but eventually put Duane to work by getting him and Jimmy to perform live on air and paying them in records. This not only gave the duo exposure but started getting them paid gigs and soon Lee often find himself personally driving Duane and Jimmy to out-of-town engagements. Duane and Jimmy eventually formed a full band called The Pinal County Twisters and worked all throughout Arizona with Lee working as a sort of unofficial manager and mentor.
In 1955 Lee relocated to Phoenix to work at the larger KRUX-Radio, but was still involved with Duane and Jimmy, as well as another up-and-coming young rockabilly performer, Al Casey. Having written a number of songs by this point, Lee wanted to try his hands at production, so he rented a studio, brought Duane and Jimmy in and cut his very first disc, “I Want Some Lovin’ Baby” backed with “Soda Fountain Girl.” The single never went out on the mass market and only was sold in and around Phoenix, but it would be the first historical step for both Duane and Lee in their musical journey. Pleased with the result, Lee began his first record label which he called Viv Records. Located out of his home, Lee hired Al Casey and his band The Sunset Riders as a studio group and recruited acts from around Phoenix spots that Jimmy and Duane were playing. Duane, meanwhile, was finishing high school in Coolidge, but came out to play at Lee’s studio as a session guitarist on weekends and eventually joined Al’s band.
Lee started to gain attention as a producer when his song “The Fool,” recorded by Al Casey, got national attention in 1955. But while primarily working with country and rockabilly groups, Lee had an idea for a new type of sound. Lee wanted to do instrumental dance hits where instead of having a singer on the track, the sound of the guitar would act as the vocalist. In many ways it was much like what modern jazz performers were doing with their lead instruments, but Lee wanted to bring this to the budding rock n’ roll market. Initially he wanted to work with Al on this idea but set in his ways and feeling he was on his own career trajectory as the next Chet Aikens, Al was uninterested, but he suggested that Lee bring the idea up with Duane.
Duane had developed a style of guitar where he played the lower strings to create a unique “twangy” sound and Lee recognized that this could work with the records he wanted to create. Duane and Lee got to work writing together and experimenting with recording techniques, including Duane performing in 2000-gallon water storage containers that Lee had rented. But, Al Casey wasn’t the only person who had had doubts about Lee’s idea. When Lee went to sell the collaborations that he and Duane were creating most companies passed on them. The rock n’ roll scene was buzzing by 1957 with acts like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. The labels wanted personalities and singers and voices. Not instrumentals. Finally, Lee found a contact at a small company called Jamie Records out of Philadelphia who took interest and said they’d act as a national distributor for Duane and Lee’s singles.
The first record produced by Lee and featuring Duane doing one of their songs was “Movin’ n’ Groovin;” released in early 1958. With Duane’s twangy guitar combined with a wailing saxophone, “Movin’ n’ Grovin’” left behind the honky tonk vibes back in Arizona and it was pure rock n’ roll, which appealed to the kids at sock hops on the East Coast. As the kids on Bandstand would say, it had a great beat, and you could dance to it. “Movin’ n’ Groovin’” rose to the #78 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Jamie Records was looking for a follow up.
Duane and Lee went back into the studio and recorded their next composition. Based on a folk song called “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet: which Duane had heard on a Tennessee Ernie Ford album, Duane popped out a dynamic little guitar number he and Lee called “Rebel -‘Rouser.” Taking the master tapes for the session, Lee brought them into Los Angeles and hired saxophonist Gil Bernal to add a pulsating accompaniment to the track, and a vocal group called The Sharps to add back up vocals and hand claps, which was overdubbed on the recording. Released in May 1958 “Rebel-‘Rouser” hit its mark with the audience, and quickly rose to the top of the charts going all the way to #6 on the Billboard Hop 100. “Rebel-‘Rouser” would not only be one of the biggest songs of the year but would become a recognizable entry into the late 1950’s collective soundscape.
With the success of “Rebel-‘Rouser,” Jaime green lit a full LP. Lee collected Duane’s previous singles, “Movin’ n’ Groovin’, “Ram Rod,” and “Rebel-‘Rouser” and put together a new backing group, called The Rebels, for Duane. Ironically, most of the Rebels were from Al Casey’s band, including Al on piano! Another nine tracks were recorded, including four additional Eddy/Hazelwood compositions – “Three 30 Blues,” “Cannonball” “The Lonely One” and “Stalkin’.” Titled “Have Twangy Guitar, Will Travel,” the album would be one of Jamie Records biggest sellers ever staying on the sales charts for 82 weeks while “The Lonely One” and “Cannonball” hit the Billboard charts.
But more importantly, the success of “Rebel-‘Rouser” and “Have Twangy Guitar, Will Travel” opened up opportunities for other guitar bands, such as The Shadows and The Ventures, who formed and began recording around the same era, to become major players on the rock n’ roll scene. But even more surprisingly is that the album would create an interesting bridge from country music to the birth of the surf guitar scene. Duane Eddy’s style would also highly influence the California surf guitar sub-genre, where some of his riffs would later be adopted by artists such as Dick Dale, Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys. But Duane’s guitar style was inspiring musicians across the oceans as well, and future guitar greats such as George Harrison, John Entwhistle and Keith Richards would credit him as being an influence on them. With Duane’s twangy guitar and Lee’s foresight, the pair had changed the face of guitar rock.
However, the relationship between Duane and Lee came to a bitter end the following year. In 1960 Lee produced Duane’s next two lps, “Songs of Our Heritage,” and his live album “In Person” and Lee even made his singing debut as the vocalist on “The Girl On Death Row,” which was credited under Duane’s name. But, later that year Duane went over Lee’s head and signed exclusively with Jamie Records directly, cutting Lee out of the decision and Lee and Duane would never work together again.
Despite the end of their partnership, together Duane and Lee helped launch each other’s career and their own unique places in the industry. Lee Hazelwood would continue as a songwriter and producer, creating his most celebrated work at Reprise Records in the 1960’s and having a cult following amongst record collectors and musical hipsters. Duane Eddy would be considered one of the pioneering fathers of guitar rock and was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of fame in 1994. Both men would be responsible for creating some of the most recognizable music of all time which continues to reach new audiences every generation via their inclusion in film and television. Separately they would continue to succeed as legends in their field, but together they made an important mark in the evolution of guitar rock.