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Mr. Record Man: Willie Nelson

In the Houston of 1959 and 1960, Willie Nelson was just another unknown musician. But not for long.

Pappy Daily may have been a music-­industry genius, but he committed a monumental blunder when it came to Willie Nelson. In fact, in the treacherous, fluid, highly competitive music business, this one is positively historic.

To help Nelson out of one of his continual financial binds, his buddy and mentor Buskirk bought "Night Life" for $100 and "Family Bible" for another $50. At the same time, honky-tonk singer Claude Gray, a native of Henderson, Texas, was working in Houston, selling cars at Perkins Auto by day and singing some gigs at night. Gray finally gave up on Houston and took a disc-jockey job in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1959.

But in mid-December of that same year, Gray swung back into town to do a D Records session for Daily at Gold Star Studios, today known as SugarHill. Buskirk put the session band together and convinced Gray to cut four of Nelson's tunes: "The Party's Over," "Family Bible," "Night Life" and "Leave Alone."

...And Then I Wrote  Willie Nelson's first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained "Crazy," "Hello Walls" and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.
...And Then I Wrote Willie Nelson's first album, recorded in Nashville less than two years after he left Houston, contained "Crazy," "Hello Walls" and another handful of his tunes that were monster hits for other artists like Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Ray Price.
He was a long way from the "Wee Willie Nelson" persona he assumed when he was a disc jockey and bandleader in Vancouver, Washington, in 1957.
He was a long way from the "Wee Willie Nelson" persona he assumed when he was a disc jockey and bandleader in Vancouver, Washington, in 1957.

As part of swinging the deal for Gray to cut the songs, the enterprising Buskirk sold Gray a share of "Family Bible" for $100, and for another $100 hired the session musicians and the studio. "I also had a contract with Paul, if you can call us signing a napkin a contract, to buy a piece of 'Night Life,'" says Gray, who eventually had enough chart and touring success to relocate to Nashville. "The catch was that I only got to keep my rights if the song was actually released."

But Daily didn't care for Gray's version of "Night Life." Instead, he released D Records singles for "My Party's Over" (a slight alteration of Nelson's original title) and, subsequently, "Family Bible." "My Party's Over" didn't do much, but "Family Bible" caught on and eventually climbed all the way to No. 7 on the country charts. Poor Willie didn't realize a penny from the success of "Family Bible," and it had to have hurt his self-esteem to have a national hit but be left out of the financial windfall.

Still, the song's success was the first positive proof that he could write a hit. It certainly raised his profile, and would later serve as a good calling card and icebreaker when he moved to Nashville to try to sell songs in the big time.

Like Gray, Nelson also had a recording contract with D Records, and he cut his first single for the label, "A Man with the Blues" backed by "The Storm Has Just Begun," during a 1959 session in Fort Worth. The single was released on both D and Daily's sister label, Betty Records, but went nowhere.

Buskirk then arranged two sessions at Gold Star for Nelson in the spring of 1960. The superior quality of these recordings compared to that of the first tracks cut in Fort Worth is immediately obvious, but these sessions yielded only another mediocre single, "Misery Mansion" backed with "What a Way to Live."

But even before that single had been issued, Buskirk and Nelson returned to Gold Star with a different set of musicians. There Nelson showed off his rapidly developing guitar chops on "Rainy Day Blues," but the recording of "Night Life" makes this one of the most significant sessions in his career — and in Houston music history.

"Something had happened between the two sessions," Patoski writes in An Epic Life. "'Night Life' was from another realm. Mature, deep and thoughtful, the slow, yearning blues had been put together in his head during long drives across Houston. At Gold Star, he was surrounded by musicians who could articulate his musical thoughts. He sang the words with confident phrasing that had never been heard on any previous recording he'd done."

But Daily absolutely hated the track. He went so far as to tell Nelson that if he wanted to write blues, he should go work for Don Robey of Duke-Peacock Records, who had built the Fifth Ward-based company into the most important black record label in the South. Daily refused to release Nelson's version of "Night Life," just as he had Claude Gray's.

Once again, opinions differ about what happened. Daily had made his bones in the murky jukebox business before adding recording, publishing and artist management to the enterprise, and had made George Jones a national smash with tunes recorded at Gold Star. He thought he had the best handle on what people wanted to hear, and was certain a jazzy song like "Night Life" would go nowhere with jukebox users or radio. Also, given the era's racial prejudices, Daily in no way wished to be identified with so-called race records or their audience. His clientele was working-class crackers, plain and simple, and he felt "Night Life" was too fancy for them.

Bob Wills veteran and Western swing pioneer Herb Remington, the steel guitarist on this storied session, recalls Daily as a "smart guy, a good but cautious businessman." Remington, who turns 87 in June, says he has "nothing but respect for Daily."

"Paul Buskirk and I came up with the arrangement on the fly the day we cut the song," recalls Remington. "Obviously it was a sophisticated lyric and meter, and we wanted the arrangement to really fit the subtlety of the song. We didn't realize until much later how almost revolutionary the sound on that cut was. I guess it's no surprise that away from our regular gigs, most of us on that session were into a lot of jazz and other types of music."

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2 comments
gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

What a great read; best article on music in the HP ever bar none.

 
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