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.