The Many Moods of Willie Nelson's "Night Life"

Willie Nelson at Stfford Center
Willie Nelson at Stfford Center
photo by Jason Wolter

Down at the waterhole recently, a killer cover of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” came up in the random mix. This one was by X front man John Doe backed by Canadian twangers the Sadies, and it turns out Doe’s dusky baritone is a perfect vehicle for Nelson’s tune about the realities of the night life.

Willie wrote — or at least finished — the tune when he was living in Pasadena in 1959. According to Joe Nick Patoski’s biography of the Red Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, Nelson offered a version of the song to bandleader Larry Butler the day he got to town, but Butler was a fair and decent man who declined to buy what would become one of Willie’s masterpieces for the princely sum of $10. Willie had moved to town because he had a recording contract with Pappy Daily and D Records, and he cut the first recorded version of the song in April 1960, at Gold Star Studios in southeast Houston. The session included Paul Buskirk (who had, along with partners Walt Breeland and M. Matthews, purchased the song from Willie for $150); legendary Houston steel guitarist and veteran of Bob Wills's band Herb Remington, who worked out the jazzy arrangement with Buskirk; drummer Al Hagy; bassist Dean Reynolds; pianist Bob Whitford; and Dick Shannon on saxophone and vibraphone (yes, you read that correctly, vibraphone). According to Remington, Daily hated the song and refused to release it because he didn’t consider it country, and indeed his cracker jukebox audience might have felt the same way at the time. It was one of the few huge misjudgments of Daily's storied career.

The 1963 local release of Willie Nelson's classic "Night Life." Willie had relocated to Nashville from Houston when this was released.
The 1963 local release of Willie Nelson's classic "Night Life." Willie had relocated to Nashville from Houston when this was released.

The always destitute Nelson and former Grand Ole Opry picker Buskirk were so disappointed at Daily’s decision that they hatched a convoluted scheme to go behind Daily’s back to Bill Halford at rival ACA Studios, where a single was mixed with another downtrodden Willie tune on the flip side, “Rainy Day Blues.” The record, of which few were ever printed and even fewer are known to exist today, was released on the Rx label under the moniker Paul Buskirk and the Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson. Daily threatened to sue and the whole episode quietly died, although pirate DJ Uncle Hank Craig from border station XEG gave it some spins. The Rx version also added to the confusion over the actual title of the song as Nelson and Buskirk titled the Rx version “Nite Life.” Willie’s original recording was styled as “Night Life,” while some artists have recorded it under the title “Nightlife.”

Willie would eventually get his chance to cut the song again in 1965 on the album Country Willie — His Own Songs, when he was living in Nashville writing for Ray Price’s Pamper Music. But it was Price who made “Night Life” a hit and first put it in the national spotlight. He purchased the song from Buskirk in 1960 and eventually recorded it in 1963 as the title track to one of his most important albums. It included a spoken-word introduction in which Price announces — and stretches the truth a bit — “this song was especially written for me by a boy down Texas way.” Price’s version was the perfect slow drag for dance halls and clubs, and his version made it to No. 28 on Billboard's Hot Country chart. Price’s labelmate at Columbia, pop crooner Patti Page, also recorded the tune in 1963. Taking a chance on cashing in on the popularity of Price's nationally recognized version, Nelson released the tune locally again in 1963 on tiny Bellaire Records, again backed with "Rainy Day Blues." (Note in the photo of the record that Price's Pamper Music is now listed as the publishing entity.)

Once Price’s album hit big, myriad and sundry artists began to cover the tune; even Frank Sinatra took a turn. But the next important recording of “Night Life” was by recently deceased blues master B.B. King. King proved to be a great picker of songs over his long career, and he reworked "Night Life" to make it entirely his own with an over-the-top, highly personal reading of Nelson’s lyric. King’s fuller, saxed-up version during his tenure at ABC-Paramount, where King was signed after the crossover success of the label’s recent addition Ray Charles, presented Nelson and his wonderful tune to an entirely new audience. King recorded the tune on a live album, and he and Nelson performed the song together live with King’s band backing numerous times.

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Long before she was Kenny Rogers’s duet partner, Dottie West was a sultry honky-tonk singer in the Patsy Cline vein, and she recorded a stellar version of "Night Life" on her 1965 album Here Comes My Baby. The track is recorded in a fashion similar to Cline’s famous cover of another Nelson classic, “Crazy,” although West’s version was never released as a single.

Not long after B.B. King cut the song, smooth soul crooner Marvin Gaye also found Nelson’s lyric to be something he could interpret in a different genre. Gaye’s Motown version seems a bit overproduced when compared to Nelson’s earliest recorded versions and sounds somewhat dated today with its bongos and flashy horn fills, but Gaye's stunning vocal makes it a keeper.

While the tune was covered by dozens of artists and became standard issue for many honky-tonk cover bands throughout the ’70s, it wasn’t until 1979 that it popped back into the country charts, this time with the unlikely pairing of Nelson and Danny Davis’s Nashville Brass. By this time, Nelson had moved camp to Austin and assumed his place as a leader of the Outlaw Movement; he considered Nashville essentially passé. But as he has done time and again in his career, Nelson gave this odd collaboration his best go and the song succeeds in spite of Davis’s cheesy brass backing. The arrangement is something like New Orleans lite, but it also stands as an interesting take on or tributary of the countrypolitan sound that turned Nashville to saccharine. Either in spite of the cheese or because of it, the tune reached No. 20 on the Billboard country chart and earned Willie another nice chunk of change.

"Night Life" hit the charts one more time in 1986 with a cover by former Houstonian B.J. Thomas. The arrangement and steel licks are so close to Nelson’s 1965 RCA version, the tune would almost be glorified karaoke were it not for Thomas’s sultry-smooth vocal treatment. Remove the steel-guitar solos and this is a quiet pop track suitable for elevator music, yet it managed to reach No. 59 on the Billboard chart.

While not every attempt has reached the charts, there have been several other memorable covers. Most notably, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin recorded "Night Life" for her seminal 1967 album Aretha Arrives; she also gave it a stunning, understated, after-midnight treatment in a live recording included in the 1992 box set Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Years. Backed by the Kingpins, this version is a sure-handed gospel-tinged triumph so typical of Franklin’s best work.

According to an interview Nelson did with David Letterman, the tune has been covered by more than 100 artists, but certainly one of the oddest is the version by rocker David Lee Roth. His cover illustrates the broad and virtually genre-less appeal of Nelson’s haunting classic.

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