WILLIE NELSON was dead broke.
The American music icon, who turns 80 years old on April 30, was once just another starving musician looking for his next gig. In early 1959, he was 26 years old and waiting for Larry Butler, who'd had some records do well on Houston radio and was an established name in Gulf Coast music circles, to finish an afternoon band rehearsal at the popular Esquire Ballroom on Hempstead Highway.
According to Joe Nick Patoski's exhaustive 2008 biography Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Nelson was freshly arrived in Houston, then known as the murder capital of the entire nation, and had decided the bustling port city was the right one to further advance his own career. He had recently left the hard-knuckle honky-tonks of Fort Worth and had already networked enough to catch the attention of D Records, the most important country-music label in Houston, if not the entire region.
Nelson had signed a fresh contract with Houston music mogul George "Pappy" Daily before leaving Fort Worth that identified him as a D Records recording artist and a Glad Music songwriter. Daily had orchestrated East Texas hillbilly George Jones's rocket ride to country-music stardom in 1957 with the release of "Why Baby Why" and, like others, Nelson figured Daily could do the same for him. This was an iffy deal at best, but it was as close to a solid future in the music business as Nelson had ever come.
Nelson's goal from the beginning had been to become a songwriter and performing star, but back at the Esquire Ballroom, he was thirsty. Butler asked him if he wanted anything, and Nelson asked for a Coke and a pack of cigarettes. Butler had the waitress put them on his tab.
Johnny Bush, the author of "Whiskey River," the song Nelson has used to open every show for four decades now, recalls driving from San Antonio to see Nelson at a gig in Waco.
"He told me he was moving to Houston," Bush chuckles. "I was born in Houston and I know Houston. I'd just moved back to San Antonio, and I told Willie there was nothing happening down there. But he went anyway."
Right there on the spot, Nelson set up a small reel-to-reel tape machine and played Butler a few demos, a term for usually rough, raw recordings of songs generally not meant for public consumption. The songs were "Family Bible," "Mr. Record Man," "Crazy" and "Night Life," and Nelson's asking price was $10 per song.
"I told him I wasn't going to buy them; they were too good to just give away like that," says Butler today from his home in Conroe, where he and wife Pat settled after leaving Houston. "And Willie, always the smooth-talking salesman, just smiled and said, 'Well, I need the money right now and I can always write more songs'."
Willie Nelson wasn't always the Red Headed Stranger, king of outlaw country or a multiplatinum-selling national treasure. But his short-lived tenure in Houston in 1959 and into 1960, which lasted maybe 18 months, was one of the most important developmental milestones in what would become an enormous career.
Born near Waco in 1933, Nelson bounced around his early career like a pinball, working gigs as a sideman, radio personality, gas-station attendant, even Bible salesman. Whatever he did, he was always a dollar short, bill collectors on his trail. Not only did the future biodiesel advocate and marijuana-reform icon try Waco (1952), San Antonio and Pleasanton (1954), and Fort Worth (1955; again in 1958) for steady work, he even forayed as far north as Portland, Oregon (1956), and Vancouver, Washington (1957), where he had a DJ gig as "Wee Willie Nelson."
But when Nelson got to Houston, Butler says, he instantly recognized the slightly younger man was a gifted songwriter. Of the songs Nelson offered him at the Esquire Ballroom, he says, "I didn't have any reason to take advantage of him just because he was having a tough time."
These weren't just any old run-of-the-mill two-steppers Butler was letting slip by, either. "Crazy" would go on to be the top-selling jukebox song of all time, and "Night Life" would be recorded by countless artists in several genres, particularly blues. "Family Bible" and "Mr. Record Man" would also figure large in Nelson's catalog as time progressed.
So instead of grabbing his songs for a pittance, Butler loaned Nelson $50 and gave him a job in his band, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship. When club owner Raymond Proske balked at paying another musician — union scale in those days was $15 a night for band members, $25 for the leader — Butler offered to split his pay with Nelson, who started that very night.
Shortly after joining Butler's Sunset Playboys, in which the charismatic young hustler was given the chance to perform a few of his own songs in the set and close the show with "The Party's Over," Nelson also landed a radio gig at Pasadena country station KRCT (650 AM). The pay was terrible, but he could use the air time to promote shows for Butler and other friends. With his radio job in hand, relates Patoski, popular local acts like Smilin' Jerry Jericho would use Nelson as lead guitarist and pay him $25 per night in exchange for some radio push. Before long, he was on his feet enough to bring wife Martha and three children down from Waco to a tiny apartment in Pasadena.
Sleepy LaBeef, another musical transplant who was part of Pappy Daily's talent roster and would eventually be inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, once lived in the same Pasadena neighborhood as Nelson, just blocks from the intersection of Southmore and Richey Road. He recalls falling in with Nelson and cutting several demos of Nelson's compositions at his home.
"Willie'd come over with that little recorder of his — he took that thing everywhere — and we'd get set up in my living room," LaBeef recalls from his home in Springdale, Arkansas. "I'd play upright bass and Willie would play acoustic guitar. I've got an old tape he left here somewhere of four brand-new tunes we laid down one night, and none of them have ever been recorded as far as I know."
Frequently asked why he hasn't cut one of the songs, the 77-year old LaBeef explains, "Willie was a good friend and I don't want to be one of those people trying to make money off his back. If I ever locate those tapes again, I think I'll just give 'em to Willie."
"The one I really liked that's stuck with me all these years was called 'The Eleven-Oh-Three,' he continues. "It went, 'I'm catching the train at 11:03, that's the last you'll ever see of me.' I always wondered why Willie never recorded it.
"Heck, I still might," adds LaBeef. "But I'd call Willie first and make sure it's okay with him."
Nelson and virtuoso instrumentalist Paul Buskirk had become close friends when both lived in Fort Worth. A lightning-fast picker, Buskirk had spent time on the Grand Ole Opry and earned his bones playing with outfits like the Louvin Brothers. Prior to Nelson's arrival, Buskirk had established himself in Houston; once Nelson got settled here, Buskirk hired his friend as an instructor at Buskirk Music Studios in Pasadena.
There are two versions of the Willie-as-guitar-instructor story. Patoski's book says Buskirk told Nelson to buy the Mel Bay book for guitar beginners and just teach that. Another version floating around the Internet says Buskirk would teach Nelson a lesson one day and Nelson would then teach the same lesson to his students the next day. Either way, the lessons were another small Band-Aid on his unstoppable financial hemorrhaging.
Whichever it was, everyone noted that Nelson's guitar playing, which was already good enough to get him lead-guitar gigs in solid bands like Jericho's, here took a quantum leap forward. Certainly part of that can be attributed to the training and discipline that went with teaching. But a larger impetus probably came from Buskirk's working with Nelson on his technique, as well as introducing him to the music of European jazz master Django Reinhardt, who remains one of Nelson's favorite guitarists to this day. In her book They Came to Nashville, songwriter and performer Marshall Chapman observes that Nelson and sister Bobbie make a habit of playing Reinhardt's classic "Nuages" as a pastime on the tour bus. ("Nuages" also appears on Nelson's brand-new album, Let's Face the Music and Dance.)
LaBeef, singer Claude Gray and Butler all tend to tell one part of the Willie story a little differently from Patoski's biography. Seconding Rich Kienzle, who wrote the extensive liner notes for the meticulous box sets of Nelson's earliest works on the Bear Family label, Patoski speculates that the long drives across town from Nelson's nightclub gig in far west Houston to his home and day jobs in the metro area's easternmost reaches left Nelson time to "turn private thoughts into poetry."
Patoski also writes that "Houston was an inspirational setting for some of his best songs," and surmises that both Nelson's personal-life turmoil as well as the chaotic Houston beer joint/dance hall scene became fuel for some of his finest lyrics. But there seems to be a slight contradiction between Nelson's attempting to sell "Family Bible, "Night Life," "Crazy" and "Mr. Record Man" to Butler when he first arrived in town and Patoski's observation that during Nelson's time in Houston, "songs flowed like never before," among them "Night Life," "Crazy," "Mr. Record Man" and "I Gotta Get Drunk."
"I'm pretty certain Willie came to town with all those except 'I Gotta Get Drunk,'" asserts LaBeef. "And of course Willie was very musical, so he could have been tinkering with those songs, changing the way he played them or sang them. But he came to town with some good 'uns."
"As far as Houston having a big effect on Willie's writing, I don't think there's any doubt," LaBeef reasons. "I can't recall what other songs he wrote there, but Willie just wrote all the time back then. He had so many ideas. And he didn't just suddenly get talented because he moved to Nashville. He went there with a lot of skill and experience, most of it earned the hard way."
Patoski makes a rational explanation of the seeming contradictions.
"Willie had been writing prolifically in Fort Worth, Vancouver, Portland, even in San Antonio," the biographer says. "But none of the songs that mattered had come together in the form of a recording until Willie arrived in Houston. Really, that's where all these disparate pieces came together."
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."
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."
As for how such an astute song-picker as Daily could miss so badly on "Night Life" and Willie Nelson, the guitarist laughs.
"Pappy had a good ear but he just wanted hits, and to him most hits sounded pretty much the same," he says. "He hated 'Night Life' partly because he despised what he called 'musician's music.' Nothing drove Pappy crazier than a bunch of us jamming. He didn't like it or get it. And he sure didn't want to pay for it."
"I also think Pappy just didn't get Willie's singing," he adds. "The way he phrases wasn't like most other singers who were popular at that time. Willie heard a whole lot of people tell him he couldn't sing."
Whatever the reason, between selling away a hit song for peanuts while he was desperately broke and relinquishing most of his rights for the soon-to-be classic "Night Life" and Daily's flat-out rejection of "Night Life" — which Nelson felt was his best musical accomplishment yet — Nelson soured on Houston. He made plans to head east.
Could Willie Nelson have also picked up his well-known taste for marijuana in Houston? Since achieving worldwide fame and recognition, he has become one of the sweet leaf's highest-profile advocates. Nelson has supposedly smoked a joint on the White House roof, filmed a smoke-out video with Snoop Dogg in Amsterdam and been arrested several times for possession, most recently at a West Texas U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in 2010.
He once admitted to former CNN talk-show maven Larry King on national television that he smoked just before he came on King's show. With 110,000 Facebook followers on his Tea Pot Party page, Nelson has thrown considerable weight behind the nationwide movement to legalize pot.
According to Patoski, Chapman and others who have traveled on Nelson's bus, he's a quiet guy who likes scrambled eggs after a gig, a glass or two of white wine, a lungful of killer reefer and picking some Django Reinhardt with sister Bobbie. This is the Zen Willie of today, the one who wrote the koans collected in his 2012 book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.
But back in his Houston days, Nelson was a hard-partying little dude. Larry Butler recalls many nights when Nelson was too drunk to drive home, "so he'd just spend the night with us."
"Willie loved a good party, and he'd drink right along with everybody else," adds Butler. "Of course, that wasn't helping his marriage any, but Willie's always been Willie."
The various biographies of Nelson have been quite frank about his hard drinking back in the day, and there are casual mentions of pills, which have always been around wherever musicians are working late hours. Butler was probably around Nelson more than anyone else, even Buskirk, during the Houston phase. Confronted with the question of whether Nelson was already smoking pot when he lived in Houston, Butler just giggles.
"Listen, fella, I think Willie was born with one of those things in his hand."
Houston wasn't all that kind to Willie Nelson. According to Pasadena Police Department records, he was arrested for speeding and driving without a license — going 85 miles an hour in a 40-mph zone at 3:52 a.m. — on Red Bluff Road in July 1960. Bond was set at $80, and his wife at the time, Martha, appears to have co-signed the property receipt for $9 in cash and a set of car keys.
By all accounts, at this time Nelson was accumulating debts much faster than he could pay them, and Patoski notes that when Nelson left town hoping to land a radio job in Mississippi at the same station where Claude Gray was working, he was four payments behind on his "ugly green '46 Buick."
Once again, Nelson had to park his family with Martha's parents in Waco while he went off to chase the next rainbow. That turned out to be Nashville, after six seeks of hanging around Meridian didn't turn up a radio job or anything else that would pay a decent wage.
Nelson certainly left Houston with more songs in his notebook, some decent demo tapes of his songs and considerably improved skills as a guitarist. He got his feet wet in the studio and, although it was shunned and overlooked at the time, he recorded one of the true classics of country music.
He also released two singles on D Records and Betty Records, and had a hit song he'd written that would open some industry doors. He gained even more experience in the rough-and-tumble honky-tonk world, and Houston's joints had a reputation as being some of the toughest in the nation.
He even kept a few copies of his amazing take on "Night Life." Following Daily's rejection, he and Buskirk surreptitiously paid to have the song mastered, pressed and released as "Nite Life" on tiny Rx Records under the moniker "Paul Buskirk and His Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson." While it managed to get some airplay by Uncle Hank Craig on across-the-border superstation XEG, other interest in the recording was sparse.
That was perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Nelson's Houston stay. He began to feel that the situation here was both spiraling out of control and becoming increasingly untenable.
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"I was into a lot of negative thinking back then," Nelson tells Patoski in An Epic Life. "I did a lot of bad things, got into fights with people. My head was just pointed in the wrong way."
It was time to go. Herb Remington, who composed the famous Bob Wills instrumental "Remington's Ride," recalls meeting up with a handful of other local players to wish Nelson well the night before he left town.
"Hank Thompson was playing Cook's Hoedown, and a bunch of us went down to see Willie off," says Remington. "Everybody liked him and we really did hate to see him go. My main memory is that Willie was dressed real nice and we had a fine send-off."
Most likely with a strong sense of failure, Willie Nelson kissed Houston goodbye the next day.