Working With Willie Nelson: Houston's Joe Sample Takes Us In the Studio

Willie Nelson in the early 1960s
Willie Nelson in the early 1960s
Photo courtesy of Columbia Records

Working on this week's cover story on Willie Nelson was a blast -- and a blast from the past. One minute I'd be typing and the next the phone would ring.

"Hey, this is Johnny Bush, I hear you're doing a story on Willie. Why didn't you call me?" Stuff like that just kept happening. Willie's worldwide.

Cover Story:

Mr. Record Man: Willie Nelson, Houstonian

And this week's cover was not the only Willie work in the past couple of months. I also had a long feature in "Willie's birthday" issue of Texas Music magazine that hit the usual outlets April 1.

One part of all this Willie-ing that got left on the cutting-room floor was a highly interesting email from none other than Joe Sample, the extraordinary keyboardist and composer of the Crusaders who himself recently appeared on a Houston Press cover.

A consummate musician, Sample has been called on by a who's who of rock, pop, and R&B artists over the course of his career. But, as he relates in his email, in spite of all the famous artists he rubbed up against over the course of his 50-plus-year career, one of his biggest highlights was getting an invitation to work with the Red Headed Stranger himself.


The New Crusaders: TSU Restarts Its Jazz Program

Sample was pleased to learn that he would also be working with one of the top producers in the world, Tommy LiPuma, the producer of no fewer than 35 platinum-certified albums and famous for his work with Barbra Streisand, Anita Baker, Paul McCartney, George Benson, Michael Franks and dozens of others, including Sample's own Crusaders.

What came out of this historic collaboration was Nelson's 2009 release, American Classic.

The story, in Mr. Sample's own words:

The call came asking if it were possible to travel to Willie Nelson's home and participate in a recording that Tommy LiPuma was producing. I admit I was very excited and honored to make music with Willie Nelson.

I flew to Austin and spent the first night at a local wonderful hotel. Tommy LiPuma and I were driven out of Austin to Mr. Nelson's home and surrounding property. I could see the hilltop and the unusual house sitting on top of the property.

As we pulled up, Willie and his beautiful wife greeted us as they stepped out of the front door. Right away, you could sense that Willie and wife were very excited that this meeting was going to be something special. I remember asking Willie if thought heaven would be better than this. I think he said, 'I'm living in my heaven right now.'

Immediately after Tommy and I entered the home, I became aware that a mystery that had remained a mystery until that moment was suddenly resolved. Sitting on a coffee table was the complete collection of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli recordings. Suddenly, it all made sense. We were going to make a swing record.


Making American Classic (L-R): Producer Tommy LiPuna, unknown, Joe Sample
Making American Classic (L-R): Producer Tommy LiPuna, unknown, Joe Sample
Photo courtesy of Joe Sample

"I had always wondered how and where did the white musicians of Texas develop their music called country [Western] swing," Sample continues. "As a youngster, I listened daily to the country swing bands and during the early days of television, I watched and listened to programs featuring Texas swing."

I felt that it was going to be a wonderful experience working with Willie. We had a wonderful lunch and beer.

Eventually, we began to work. Willie had a concept of recording the songs that he played during his formative days when he worked numerous bars and clubs around Houston. My early days were very similar to Willie's. I had played the same songs in local downtown clubs.

During that time, there were white clubs that featured black swing and R&B bands. I remembered almost all of the songs Willie wanted to record. It was as if I was re-living the '50s again. I knew that I would have to come up with arrangements for all of them.

While touring in Europe with Randy Crawford, I began doing my late nights on a keyboard.

When I returned to Houston, I sat and wrote the arrangements on manuscript. I traveled to New York and met Tommy and Willie. Willie was having a great time, everything was going very well. LiPuma and Willie were happy. I was just thrilled to work with a Texas legend.

Willie has a unique voice with dynamic character. It is the kind of voice that captivates and relaxes you. I was also thrilled to record with Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and Anthony Wilson.

Each song was recorded at least two times. Listening to the playbacks was fun. Willie was like a kid in a candy store. His beautiful wife, who helped him organize the event, was there blessing the music and recording.

Eventually, I knew that it was going to end. My work would be done and the rest would be up to Tommy and Willie.

Later I received a few copies of the recording and played it forever while driving around Houston. I was very proud of the project.

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