What does it say about the Beatles’ seemingly bottomless well of inspiration that their most creative and cohesive album, full of dash, daring, musical innovation and a brilliant explosion of unexpected colors, came packaged in an austere, black and white jacket with a simple line drawing of their four famous faces and a single word – Revolver, the title of the album?
What does it say about Revolver that many consider it the Beatles’ greatest achievement, stronger even than the vaunted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which followed it less than a year later inside a multicolor, summer-of-love, look-at-me cover?
And what does it say about Revolver that more than five decades after it arrived in 1966, and nearly as long since the band split up, that people are still talking about it as if nobody has yet to make a better pop record?
That last, of course, is arguable, but one thing is without question: Revolver was a watershed in rock ‘n’ roll, and a supernova in pop culture.
Rattle off a few of the song titles: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here There and Everywhere,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and the groundbreaking – more like ground-shattering – “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was famously used in an episode of Mad Men to point an otherwise clueless Don Draper, 1960s advertising shill, towards the future of popular music.
These songs are still very much with us today.
Revolver was re-issued this week in what’s known as an SDE (Super Deluxe Edition), over five CDs in one boxed iteration, and four vinyl LPs in another. Each comes with an oversized history-of-the-album book.
Giles Martin, son of the late Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, has re-mixed the album (it’s his fifth such project with the group’s archives). This means he returned to the original 1966 session tapes, separated out each instrument, voices and other effects, and re-assembled them using his father’s much-loved original as a blueprint.
Happily, this doesn’t result in a “re-imagining” of Revolver – it hasn’t been turned into a hip hop record, for example, with suddenly thumping bass-and-drums – but a sort of clean-and-scrub job. The sonic palette in 2022 is infinitely broader than it was back in the day, and Martin the Younger has made use of better studio reproduction equipment (and a new “separation” technology developed by Peter Jackson and his team while tweaking the audio for last year’s Get Back documentary) to make the space between the instruments broader and brighter.
It’s still Revolver. And, somehow, it’s bigger than ever.
As with Martin’s SDEs for Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, AbbeyRoad and Let it Be, the big draw for Beatles fanatics (and completists) is the inclusion of session outtakes, peeks behind the creative curtain as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – in their mid 20s at this stage – work (alongside the irreplaceable Sir George) through various arrangements of the songs that would become Revolver.
Such was the Beatles’ level of success that the company bosses at EMI Records granted them unlimited studio time, which they were only too happy to use. This was the album where experimentation became the motus operandi: Guitars recorded and then played backwards, Indian drones, tapes sped up or slowed down, strings, horns, tape loops and eerie sound effects.
On paper, that all sounds terribly pretentious. Without songs this good, maybe it might have been.
What does it say about Revolver that it’s as fresh and inviting as it was in 1966?
Ten top takeaways from Revolver Sessions, included in the Super Deluxe Edition:
Got To Get You Into My Life (Second version) – Unnumbered mix. Before somebody got the idea to add a fiery Motown brass section, this propulsive McCartney number was thick with guitars. Here is an astonishing glimpse into the group’s creative process: It’s already a great recording, but – perhaps because it almost sounds like an outtake from Rubber Soul, their previous album – they decided to take it several steps further.
Yellow Submarine (Songwriting work tape – Part 1). A short demo, discovered among Lennon’s home recordings, in which he mournfully sings the lines “In the place where I was born, no one cared, no one cared …” That, of course, morphed into the opening to the Beatles’ iconic kiddie singalong.
Yellow Submarine (Songwriting work tape – Part 2). Lennon and McCartney, on acoustic guitars, work out the chords and the lyrics, joined at the musical hip. Since “Yellow Submarine” was always thought to be a mostly-McCartney composition – happy and go-lucky – this and the previous track are revelations.
Yellow Submarine (Highlighted sound effects). A remix of the finished, familiar track with the homemade underwater and shipboard sound effects brought to the fore. There are many, and this version sounds oddly like a scene from the 1968 Yellow Submarine cartoon film, with which the Beatles were barely involved. Maybe it gave the filmmakers an idea.
Here, There And Everywhere (Take 6). To this day, McCartney believes this is the best song he ever came up with (Lennon, incidentally, loved it too). Here he’s singing a lovely guide vocal, almost in falsetto, making the song even more delicate. This was released in 1995, as a bonus track on a CD single from the BeatlesAnthology project, along with the “sound effects” version of “Yellow Submarine.”
Love You To (Take 1). Harrison’s droning Indian song is a highlight of Revolver, because it works beautifully set against McCartney’s melodicism and Lennon’s glibness. Without its sitar, tabla, tamboura and buzzing electric guitar, this draft is utterly different – it’s just George, playing two chords on an acoustic guitar and singing. (A later take includes a dissonant harmony from McCartney that was ultimately rejected.)
Rain (Take 5 – Actual speed). One of Lennon’s dreamiest, druggiest psychedelic pop numbers came about because the instrumental backing track, packed with jangling folk-rock guitars, loopy bass and Starr’s best falling-down-the-stairs drumming, was recorded at breakneck speed and then slowed down before the lead vocals and harmonies were added. This is the backing as it was performed. (“Rain” and “Paperback Writer,” while recorded during the album sessions, were released as a single and were not part of Revolver.)
And Your Bird Can Sing (Second version) – Take 5.Revolver was created through trial and error. If something didn’t work, they simply changed the approach. The first and quite different arrangement of this punchy Lennon number was released on Anthology 2 all those years ago (it’s included here, too) but the real gem is this early run-through of the second arrangement – the one we know and love. Lennon’s single-tracked vocal is front and center, the bass and drums pulse underneath, and the famous twin lead guitars are still being worked out. And there’s an “ahhhhh” section over the instrumental break, later eliminated, that brings to mind the breathtaking “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul.
Eleanor Rigby (Speech before Take 2). Here, George Martin talks with his hired string octet, asking if they prefer playing with vibrato, or without? They try it both ways, and decide it’s better without. McCartney, from the upstairs control room, tells them he can’t hear the difference. But Sir George can, and moments later he and the players cut one of the most enduring strident string arrangements in pop music history.
She Said She Said (Take 15) – Backing track rehearsal. On the last day of the Revolver sessions – they were about to leave for their final European tour – the Beatles cut, in a single session, Lennon’s searing, guitar-drenched psychedelic childhood dream song. There are no vocals on this take, just a cocksure rock ‘n’ roll band making a joyful noise and sending it across the universe.
Bo lived in the country, not far from the Gainesville city limits. I first met him in the early ‘80s, and over the years, I’d check in with him to write this or that story for the newspaper. He was always surrounded by family, but I always had the feeling that he was lonely, like the neighbor kid who’d beg you to stay and play just a little bit longer. He loved to show off his electronic equipment out in the barn – he was usually hot-wiring some amplifier, soldering a guitar body or overdubbing a rhythm track with an old tape machine. He’d say “Check this out,” and grab a handy microphone, hit the playback button and rap over the track. Live. Smiling the whole time. He was always demonstrating something new.
I did this career-spanning story for Goldmine in 2003. I wanted to cover it all, for posterity, and as it turned out, this was the last time I ever spoke with him.
Photo by John Moran.
At age 74, Bo Diddley may not be a spring chicken, exactly, but he’s hardly courting the rocking chair. Although Bo and his wife Sylvia live a relatively quiet life on 80 acres in Central Florida, six nights a month you’ll find the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer on a stage somewhere in America, wailing on his rectangular guitar, pounding out the most intoxicating of primitive rhythms, and singing with all the energy and fervor of a man half his age.
Bo Diddley, he’s a man. Spelled M-A-N.
He’d rather be retired, casting for bass or tinkering with an old car engine, but this is how he makes his living. He receives no publishing royalties, having sold his great songs many years ago to clear up some debts. The terms of the record contracts he signed in the 1950s afford him very little money – if he didn’t perform today, he says, he wouldn’t have any steady income.
He’s been an entertainer all his life, though, and nothing gives him more pleasure than making an audience happy.
And those audiences, they know who he is. He likes that.
“I was first, man,” Diddley said. “Wasn’t nobody doing nothin’ until I thought of it. I was about a year and a half before Elvis Presley. And I don’t like it when they jump up and say Elvis started rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a lie. He didn’t do it. He was really good, a fantastic entertainer, but he didn’t do it.”
Bo Diddley’s great contribution to rock ‘n’ roll was as an innovator. He did things with rhythms that nobody in blues or country & western music had thought of. He figured out how to snake in and out of the breathy rhythm of a tremelo guitar. He introduced a toughness, a pride, into rock ‘n’ roll during its infancy, stitching in the naked, howling urgency of urban blues. Songs spoke volumes with just one chord. The rest – swagger, humor, lust and cool – was all Bo Diddley.
He likes to refer to himself as The Originator. “I think all the time,” Diddley explained. “I’m always sitting somewhere trying to put something together that somebody else ain’t did.”
In his 70s, he’s still as sharp and straightforward as that skinny, nearsighted cat in the checkered jacket and bow tie, crowing about a stripper named Mona, trading musical jibes with a rubber-faced dude named Jerome, or asking a woman named Arline, flat out, who do you love? “I’m just 23 and I don’t mind dyin’,” he boasted.
He still writes music, although he doesn’t realistically expect Snoop Dogg or Eminem to call him for advice. “They’re not breaking down any doors to get cats my age,” Diddley said. “They think that I’m finished. And I’m a tricky son of a bitch. I’m not finished, I just learned what to do.”
He was born Ellas Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, a black Creole, in the southern Mississippi delta land between McComb and Magnolia. Just about everyone in the extended family picked cotton for a living. His teenaged mother wasn’t able to raise a child in that impoverished climate, so at age eight months Ellas went to live with his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, and her husband, Robert.
“That’s the way things was in those days,” Diddley recalled. “Everybody raised everybody else’s kids. I knew it as uncles and cousins and all that kind of stuff. There was quite a few of us. We shared everything.
“It ain’t like it is today. If your parents were next door and you didn’t happen to be a relative, if your parents had run out of some cornmeal or flour or bacon or whatever, if your mother was trying to cook, all she had to do was go across the field and ask Miss So-and-So could she borrow something? No problem.”
Robert McDaniel’s death in 1934 meant Gussie had to look for better work; she decided to join the flood of emigrants heading north.
So at age 7, Ellas relocated, with Gussie and her own kids, to the South Side of Chicago. His name became, legally, Ellas Bates McDaniel. They rented a house at 4746 Langley Avenue and joined the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
He loved the urbanity of his new digs and he fit right in. In Chicago, “treatment of black people was better. In the South, things were really screwed up. It didn’t have to be that way, but I guess that’s the way it was.”
It was here, in grammar school, he got his lifelong nickname. “The kids there started calling me Bo Diddley,” he said. “I still don’t know what the hell it means … but I know what it means in German!” (It’s a vulgarity.)
Initially, the kids had called him “Mac,” because of his surname.
Young Ellas announced he wanted to learn to play violin with the Ebenezer Sunday School Band. “I wanted to do what I’d seen some dudes doing, with a stick draggin’ across some strings and makin’ music,” Diddley said. “The church took up a collection, and the violin cost $29 at that time. And they bought me one. The lessons was like 50 cents a lesson. Are you ready for that? You can’t even talk to nobody on the phone for that today.”
He took lessons from Rev. O.W. Frederick – squinting at the dots on the page through his Coke-bottle glasses – and was soon proficient enough to play his instrument in church. He also sang in the choir.
One December five years later, Ellas was out shopping with his sister (technically, his first cousin) Lucille. “We went to this music store to buy some candy,” he recalled. “And they had the ol’ raggedy guitar hangin’ up in there. And I looked at it, and I told my sister ‘I want one of them.’
“I remember her saying ‘You want everything you see.’ I’m the same way today, man, if I see something that looks weird, I want to try that dude out.
“She bought it for me. It cost $29 or $30, almost the same thing with the violin. It was a old Kay guitar with two strings on it.”
Frustrated at trying to play blues and jive music on his violin – he never got it to sound quite right – Ellas was immediately comfortable around the guitar. “When I liked what I heard John Lee Hooker doing, I said if this cat can play guitar, I know I can learn,” he said.
“I tried to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ running up and down them two strings. And I finally got enough pop bottle money. Strings were like 12 cents apiece. You’d buy one string at a time, until you got all of ’em.”
Bo Diddley never learned how to properly tune the guitar; to this day, he still doesn’t know the names of the strings or their proper pitch.
“I tuned it by accident,” he said. “I liked what I heard. I tuned the thing, didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was said that Lonnie Johnson used to tune his guitar that way. I said ‘Who in the heck is Lonnie Johnson?’
“This was before my time. I was a kid, a youngster, dealing with the same things that kids are dealing with today.”
In 1940s Chicago, you had to learn how to fight. “We had a little neighborhood thing; we called ourselves the Golden Gloves,” Diddley recalled. “We beat up on each other, you know? But I wasn’t really what you’d call a boxer. I was what I would call a slugger, something like Mike Tyson.
“Mike’ll hurt you, if he ever gets ahold of you. So the smart thing is to stay away from him. Because the cat is so powerful, he could break something on you real easy. And that’s the way I was. As long as I kept you away from my head, I had it made.”
Briefly, he considered training to become a professional boxer. “I didn’t want to get into it,” he said. “That was just to protect myself from gangs and all the stuff I grew up with. I never ran with a gang. I think a gang of boys jumpin’ on one person is a very cowardly action.”
Around the neighborhood, Ellas was known as the Fix-It Kid, because he could take virtually anything apart and put it back together again, good as new. He attended a vocational school and briefly thought about a career as an auto mechanic.
Music, however, was in his blood. “I started doing this and everybody thought I was the misfit in the family,” he said. “There isn’t anybody else doing it. I’m the only one that’s got any musical background.
“My brother started in the ministry, but he could have played in some big-name baseball teams. They were after him. And he also has a talent for spreading the gospel.” (Bo’s half-brother is Reverend Kenneth Haynes of Biloxi, Miss.)
Ellas was constantly told that music – especially the “Devil’s music” that he so enjoyed – would lead him down a path of destruction.
“I had to find out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had no idea I was gonna end up Bo Diddley.”
Along with guitarist Jody Wilson, harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and school chum Roosevelt Jackson – playing a washboard bass that Ellas himself constructed – he started playing the three or four songs he knew on street corners, the way blues musicians did, to get coins out of passers-by. They played them over and over again, and made new songs out of schoolyard rhymes.
At first they were called the Hipsters, then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. “We did that and passed the hat,” Diddley said. “I was too chickenshit to steal.
“I did it because my mother didn’t have nothing. And everything that I wanted as I was growing up … it meant ‘let me work so I can earn some money, so I can buy a pair of shoes, buy a pair of socks. A handkerchief to go in my shirt.'”
The origin of the famous Bo Diddley beat has been in contention for years; it incorporates elements of the old “shave and a haircut” rhythm, the early ’50s shuck-and-jive hit “Hambone,” Chicago blues and the open-tuning, hard-hitting guitar chords of Bo himself – heavy on the tremelo, once Bo got off streetcorners and went electric. “They didn’t have no electric guitars down there,” Diddley said. “I made my first electric guitar. I built the first tremelo – I actually did it. I built it with some points out of an old Plymouth distributor, and a big wind–up clock. I sat down and I put it all together to make the music go whop/whop/whop/whop/whop. Because every time they made contact, you’d get a sound.
“I figured out how to do this, and a company was building one at the same time. I never went to Toledo, Ohio in my life, but somebody there was doin’ one.”
Then, as now, he was always tinkering. “I used to play by tapping into the audio tube in the back of a big radio. Got shocked a few times before I figured out which of the plugs on the back was the one.”
By the time Ellas was 15, he and the guys were playing 20 street corners every Friday night, after school let out. “People would say ‘There’s them three dudes again,'” he recalled.
“We did something worthwhile, man; we didn’t go out robbing people and all that. The police would sometimes take our little tip money, because they said it was illegal for us to try and make a living to buy bread.”
Ellas left home, and school, at 16 and briefly went to vocational college. He married and divorced a young girl named Louise inside of a year. “She wanted to juke me around,” he recalled. “All she wanted to do was get away from home.”
Eventually the group came to include Jerome Green on maracas and vocals. Jerome would become Bo’s onstage foil during the hit years, and an important part of the sound.
“I met Jerome when I was with my second wife, Ethel Smith,” Diddley said. “I met Jerome when I used to go over to her house to see her. He came up the back stairs with a tuba wrapped around his head, from school. They let him bring it home.
“I talked him into going with us on the street corners. He said ‘Man, I ain’t goin’ out there,’ and I said, ‘Come on man, we’re gonna pay you the same. We’re gonna split up the money.’
“I stole my mother’s cake bowl, and went out there and filled it up (with money). We came back with $15 apiece, for three of us. And the next weekend, Jerome was looking for me: ‘Hey man, are we goin’ back on the corner again?'”
Once the boys had turned 18, they left the street and getting booked into clubs. The next step was to get on record.
“I had an old Webco recorder,” Diddley recalled. “And we made a dub, and I took it to Vee-Jay Records first. They looked at me and said ‘What kind of crap is that?’ I said I don’t know, I just play it.
“They said ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with it,’ because they was strictly into blues. John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and all that kind of stuff.
“Nobody inspired me. I just wanted to be me. That’s what I wanted to do, me.”
“I figured I had something good enough to make a record. ‘Cause the people on the streetcorner, they was jumpin’ and clappin’ their hands. I said ‘Hey …. I’m making ’em jump.’ So I figured this must be it.”
In early 1955, Bo Diddley was signed by Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chicago’s Chess Records (Bo was to record for the subsidiary label, Checker).
The idea of being on the same label as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and the rest of his heroes from the Chicago club scene “didn’t excite me. It’s just that I knew I was different from the rest of ’em. I was different from the other bands that I heard.
“I played a different type of music, and people were trying to figure out what the hell was I doing? Because I sounded like 10 people, rather than just three.”
Momma Gussie and the others did not approve. “They said that I was playing for the Devil,” Diddley remembered. “My aunts and uncles, everybody said ‘Why don’t you put that talent of yours to good use and play in the church? I said well, why do you all tell me to do that, and then you tell me I’m God-gifted?
“I said, you all can’t pay me the money that I make in clubs, for playing in the church, no. I’m not gonna do it. I’m just doing it to try and make a living. I’m not hanging in clubs, getting drunk and fighting and cutting up people and cussing. I don’t do no drugs, never have, never will. I’m scared of what the doctor gives me. I have no idea what the hell it is. I’m just what you call chickenshit.”
“Bo Diddley/I’m a Man” was released in the spring and reached the top spot on the national R&B charts. The A side introduced the Bo Diddley beat to the world, syncopated in a blustery onslaught with Jerome’s maracas and tribal tom-toms from drummer Clifton James.
Diddley’s original version of the song went “Uncle John’s got corn ain’t never been shucked/Uncle John’s got daughters ain’t never been … to school.”
At Leonard Chess’ suggestion, he re-wrote the lyrics as a song about himself … about this character he’d created. Bo Diddley. Bo’s legend would become a recurring theme.
“I’m a Man” was another ballgame altogether. Here, Diddley dealt a straight hand of Chicago blues, punctuated by Billy Boy’s wailing harmonica.
“Muddy Waters came up with ‘I’m a Rolling Stone,’ or ‘I’m a King Bee,’ one of those songs, saying ‘when I was 26 years old,'” Diddley recalls. “And I said well, if you’re a rolling stone, I’m a man. You understand? Willie Dixon wrote those – and I thought if he’s that bad, I’m a man.”
Not long after, “Muddy copied it and wrote ‘Mannish Boy.’ There’s only one word in ‘Mannish Boy’ that I never understood. He uses the line ‘woe be.’ I ain’t never figured out what ‘woe be’ means.”
The record was like nothing heard before. There were no complex changes, just gut-busting emotion on “I’m a Man” and shuffling energy on “Bo Diddley.”
The success of the single meant live appearances, and Diddley’s group hit the road, getting farther from Chicago with every performance. On Aug. 20, he played the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York City. “And destroyed it,” he recalled. “People was trying to figure out, how is three dudes makin’ all that noise?”
In those days, Diddley said, the national speed limit was 45 MPH. “I mostly drove with my band. I had a 1941 DeSoto station wagon; they called it a Stagecoach. It had a rack on the top, and we used to tie all our stuff up on top of it. And away we went.”
In November, the band returned to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. This story has become an integral part of the Bo Diddley legend; this is the artist’s own version:
“Ed Sullivan heard us in the dressing room practicing ‘Sixteen Tons,’ Tennessee Ernie’s song. He said ‘Can you guys play that on the show?’ and I said ‘Yeah, we can play it our way.’ But I was there to do ‘Bo Diddley’ by Bo Diddley. So I did two songs, and he got pissed.
“But it was their mistake, the way that they had the program written up. I did it the way that the program said: Bo Diddley and ‘Sixteen Tons.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s the name of the song – and, ‘Sixteen Tons.’
“Ed Sullivan said I was the first colored boy that ever double-crossed him on a song, or something. And I started to get on him, just to tell this old man the truth, right in his fuckin’ face. Because I hadn’t ever been said nothin’ to like that, and I didn’t double cross him. They made the mistake, and I lived with it for a lot of years.
“He said I would never work again. And I got 48 years of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not happy that he’s dead, you know, but I had something that I perfected. And I did my best. And I think that’s the reason why I’m still here.”
History always seems to contrast Diddley with his Chess labelmate Chuck Berry – the two even issued a patched-together duet album in the early ’60s – but Bo Diddley sees this as an apples-and-oranges thing. “We were writing different,” he said. “He was writing about school days and stuff like that, which was very interesting. And I wrote comical-type tunes. He couldn’t be funny; I could. I could make you laugh.”
Berry also crossed over to a white audience in those heavily segregated days, something Diddley never really managed. Although he made a respectable showing on the R&B charts, only one of his singles, 1959’s “Say Man,” made a dent on the pop side.
“Say Man” was a series of good-natured back and forth insults between Bo and Jerome, what they used to call “signifying” back on the streets in Chicago.
He considers “Who Do You Love,” first released in the summer of 1956, a “funny” song. “Well, it was serious and funny at the same time,” he said. For the record, there never was a woman named Arlene in his life. He just made it up.
As his fortunes faded in the United States, as Presley, Berry, Holly and so many others brought rock ‘n’ roll to an insatiable audience, Bo Diddley struggled. “Say Man,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Road Runner” were major hits, but by the early ’60s, it just wasn’t happening.
The live show continued to generate excitement. Guitarist Norma Jean Wofford joined his band in 1961 (following a short stint by another woman stringbender, Peggy Jones). Wofford became known as The Duchess; it was whispered that she was Bo Diddley’s sister.
“We told that lie so much that it started sticking,” Diddley said. “But we’re actually no kin. I had started adding different people to the group. It was just guys at first, and I said ‘I need some glamor on the stage,’ so I started putting the girls in the group.”
Novelty had always been important for Diddley – his classic 1960 album, Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger was inspired by the movie The Magnificent Seven and had a Western theme – and his act had always included a little comedy, a little dancing. “Didn’t none of us stand still,” he recalled.
Diddley was surprised to learn, during a 1963 trip to Great Britain, that he was held in high regard by the young, rhythm ‘n’ blues worshiping musician crowd. The Rolling Stones, one of the tour’s opening acts, dropped all Diddley covers from their set as an act of respect.
The young Stones viewed Bo Diddley with awe; Brian Jones, Diddley remembered, had an insatiable curiosity about the rhythm and the blues. And “Mick (Jagger) is like a loner; he stays by himself all the time. And you don’t impose on a person like that – if that’s his way, that’s his way. I don’t fault him for it.”
Diddley’s relationship with the Stones continued over time – in the ’80s, Diddley and guitarist Ron Wood toured Japan together, and Bo joined the band onstage in Miami on the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour.
In 1965, he appeared in the legendary TAMI Show, and four years later played the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival, on a bill with the Plastic Ono Band. Diddley can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Sweet Toronto.
Overall, though, the ’60s were rough. Diddley continued to record and perform, but his records had little impact. The British Invasion, followed by the psychedelic and hippie movements, left little room for the pioneering rock ‘n’ rollers.
Diddley watched attitudes and fashions change all around him. “My generation wasn’t into that shit,” he laughed. “So I’m sitting outside going what the hell’s going on? I’m starving in my own world, my music world. But I found out something: If you can’t beat ’em, you gotta join ’em” (see the Chess albums The Black Gladiator; Another Dimension).
Strapped for cash because of an investment scheme gone wrong, Diddley sold his publishing in this period.
And like many artists who rode in on the first wave in the ’50s, he got paid a ridiculous royalty rate. He was never a math whiz, so he signed whatever contract had been put in front of him. “The Chess Brothers were very secluded about telling an artist,” he said. “It looked like to me that they were afraid somebody would step out of place and start asking for more money. I was just interested in playin’ for the people. I had no idea about the business, how it worked and all this.
“They were beginning to set up little things here and there that would elude you from the right things – in other words, while you sleep, we’ll figure out how we can not pay you something.”
The winter of Diddley’s discontent began in the glory days and has yet to blow over. He remembers precisely when he first realized he’d been short-changed:
“When I started to asking about royalty checks and all this kind of stuff, my stuff started getting played less and less,” he said. “And I didn’t understand. And after a while it looked like it was set before me so that I could plainly see it, that I was becoming a troublemaker because I started asking about royalty checks. This meant that I was going to cause problems. And the easiest way to shut you up was to pull your records off the airwaves. It’s called blackball.
“When the people buy your stuff and make you earn the name ‘So-and-so is really great.’ But when your record company don’t acknowledge that you got a contract with ’em, and so much revenue come in that they’re supposed to give you this and that … this didn’t happen with me. Instead, they put the money in their pocket. I guess because I was a little country black boy in Chicago, I got ripped off. Because they figured I didn’t know what time it was.”
Then, as now, the only real money that came Bo Diddley’s way was from live shows. And if somebody’s making money off those classic records, it’s not him. “I ain’t seen shit,” he said.
And so he works, flying hundreds, thousands of miles, equipped with only a guitar and a suitcase. Although he has a semi-regular group for big shows, he does most gigs with a pickup band, hired by the local promoter in each town he plays.
After Chicago, he lived in Washington, D.C. (the Gunslinger album was recorded on a two-track Presto machine in his basement), then Los Angeles and, ultimately, Florida (he spent a year or two in Las Lunas, N.M., too, where he was deputized and walked a sheriff’s beat). He was married to Georgia native Kay Reynolds for 20 years, and bought his first Florida property from her dentist.
Every few years, some music business sharpie with a few bucks in his wallet signs him up for an album; without fail, they make little or no commercial impact.
Diddley cares very little for the 1973 The London Bo Diddley Sessions, which paired him with a contingent of hip young English rock players. “When you turn your back, they do whatever they feel like doing,” he said. Since the end of Chess in the mid ’70s, he’s drifted from label to label.
In 1996, producer Mike Vernon put out the Bo Diddley album A Man Amongst Men, which featured “collaborations” from the likes of Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Richie Sambora.
Trouble was, Vernon assembled the tracks from pieces; Bo was rarely in the same room with his guest stars. “It just never occurred to them that maybe Bo doesn’t want it that way, you know?” Diddley said. “So it would be my mistake if I fucked up. But they fucked up, and I still bear the cross of them messing up. And the public don’t know that I had nothing to do with it.”
He has a handful of bedrock songs that continue to reverberate today (“Who Do You Love,” “I’m a Man,” “Before You Accuse Me,” “Mona”), and the “Bo Diddley Beat” is a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll (see “Not Fade Away,” “I Want Candy,” “She’s the One”).
His 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll of Fame was logical – and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bo Diddley took it with a grain of salt.
“The way I look at it, the attention is really great,” he said. “But the reward in what I have done is not a plaque sitting on my wall, because I can’t do anything with it. They’re worth a lot of money to a collector, but to me they’re not worth anything.
“It doesn’t really mean anything to me. It don’t pay none of my bills. Take the actors who got the Oscars and the Emmys, they don’t mean nothin.’ It’s just that people can come to your house and see ’em and go ‘Wow, you got an Oscar.’ What does it mean? Is it worth a thousand dollars? $400? $200? Or worth a million dollars?
“What is it worth in dollar bills, because this is what you need to survive. Not a medal with your name on it.”
Back surgery slowed him down in the ’90s – he had to sit in a chair onstage for a while – and a recurring bout with high blood pressure caused him to cancel a few dates in 2002.
Otherwise, hell, he ain’t slowing down.
“I figure I got 15 or 20 years, maybe longer than that,” he said. “If I take care of myself. But it’s winding down. I might as well face it. I don’t look to kick off, but when you get to my age you start getting’ scared and you start realizing that the day is coming, and that’s a guarantee. We’re all gonna leave out of here.
“As you get older, things become more clear to you about everyday existence. Am I going to be able to wake up in the morning? Am I going to sleep and … you don’t know that you’re gone? That’s the way I feel.
“That is the most scary thing in the world. You take me, traveling on the road by myself, and getting a hotel room. Go to bed, go to sleep, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get up and go catch the plane in the morning. I used to not worry about that.”
For more than 30 years, Willie Nelson has performed onstage with the same ragtag gang of bearded, road–hardened musicians.
Look closely, however, at that petite piano player, with long, auburn hair usually topped with a wide–brimmed hat. That’ll be Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s older sister. She is not only his blood kin, she’s his oldest friend and the one musician who’s played alongside him since virtually the beginning. Her piano is the backbone of the band, which is officially called Willie Nelson and Family.
Bobbie and Willie were raised together in tiny Abbott, Texas, midway between Waco and Dallas. Raised by their grandparents, the siblings picked cotton, milked cows and faithfully attended the local Methodist Church, where Bobbie played the organ and they both sang in the choir.
At 76, Bobbie has just made her very first solo record. Audiobiography includes two guitar–and–piano duets with her brother, and a number of instrumental piano pieces ranging from church music to boogie woogie to Willie’s lounge classic “Crazy.”
“Whenever our band plays,” Willie Nelson said, “Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”
Q. Why did it take you so long to make your own album?
A. Before I went out on the road with Willie, I used to play in hotels, supper clubs, churches and all of those things. I had thought a long time ago that maybe I would have a record for sale, but I never did do that.
Then I was on the road with him all those years, and I was happy recording with him, and I guess I just didn’t feel the need to make an album on my own then.
When I was asked why I never wrote my autobiography, I said I thought I could do it best with music, because my whole life has just been music. I don’t separate myself from that piano.
Q. You and Willie started playing and singing together when you were very young in Texas. His career in Nashville started in the early ’60s; what were you doing then?
A. Well, I had never dated anyone in my life, because my grandmother was very strict. I married Bud Fletcher at 16; he was 22. Willie was 14. I was playing revival meetings with a minister; Bud organized our first band, with me and Willie and our father on rhythm guitar. Then Bud was killed in a car accident, and I had three young sons to take care of. So I moved to Fort Worth and taught music for Hammond Organ, and played in the church. I spent 10 years there.
In Houston, Willie was selling encyclopedias, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners, and playing some music at night. I moved to Austin in 1965 to play piano at the El Chico Restaurant. I opened a lot of hotels and taught music, and took a job playing piano at Lakeway Resort. Then he came to Austin and started playing at the Armadillo Word Headquarters, where he joined all the forces of the cowboys and the hippies … (laughing).
Q. Willie had already been in Nashville, making records, for years before you started working together professionally in the early ’70s. How did that come about?
A. Willie said “Sister Bobbie, would you like to record a gospel record with me in New York City?” I was tickled to death. I’d never been on an airplane before. I’d never been anywhere except my trips to Nashville to visit him.
I farmed out my little job playing piano at Lakeway and flew to New York City and did the Troublemaker album, the gospel album. Willie’s wife took me up to the Empire State Building — it scared me to death going up there — and then they asked me to help on the Shotgun Willie album. And that went very well.
Then Willie said “I sure have missed playing with you.” I said, I missed playing with you, too. He said “What in the world are we waiting for? Let’s just don’t stop.”
Q. And you’ve been on the road pretty much without a break since the 1970s. Was that lifestyle tough to get used to?
A. Our first band, we played about the same stuff we’re playing right now on the road. Some of the very same songs — “Down Yonder” and “Under the Double Eagle” and a lot of the country music we play.
But it was a new experience, because I didn’t drink, I didn’t do any of the habits of all of the musicians on the road, and I certainly didn’t dress the way they wanted me to dress, either. I’m use to getting dressed a little bit when I go to these cocktail lounges and perform. Or church.
Willie said “Just get you a pair of jeans, Sister Bobbie.”
I really did want to be a part of these guys. I didn’t want them to feel weird. Girls on the road, it’s another story. That used to be the rule — no girls on the road. Somebody asked Willie, what about your sister? And he said “Sister Bobbie’s not a girl, she’s a piano player.”
Q. What’s it like playing in that band?
A. You know, we are so bonded. Those guys have been so wonderful to me. In February, after we got back from Europe, I had a couple of strokes — I played three nights without anyone knowing — and when I got back to Austin, I went to my doctor and I ended up with a pacemaker.
By April I was back on the road with everybody.
Q. You’re very protective of your brother, aren’t you? Is that part of your job?
A. It’s not part of my job. It’s that I’m older than Willie, and I took care of him from the time he was born. And later, he took care of me. We took care of each other. And we still do. That bond will always be with us.
In the 45 years he operated the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Ralph Heath had been nipped by thousands of birds. Any traumatized wild animal will lash out, of course, and since Heath had performed emergency surgery on broken wings, legs and beaks, from tiny songbirds to gangly herons and pelicans, his hands and arms were tattooed with scars from decades of defensive, and often painful, beak bites. He paid them no mind.
He also ignored the toxic bite of a brown recluse spider, which led to his death Oct. 2.
It’s likely Heath was bitten at the Starkey Road warehouse where he’d lived in virtual exile since 2016, when he was forcibly removed from the world-famous Indian Shores avian hospital and park he’d founded, after a litany of accusations – and worse – about misappropriated funds, inadequate bookkeeping and shoddy animal husbandry. The attendant bad press led to a treacherous decline in donations, the nonprofit sanctuary’s lone source of income.
It was an ignominious end to a soaring success story.
“Ralph’s only weakness was that he was too trusting of people, and solely focused on the birds,” said his son Alex von Gontard, a member of the board of directors that forced him out. “He admitted that he wasn’t a strong businessman. He would always say, ‘The birds will always provide.’”
Ralph had grown up privileged in Tampa, the only child of surgeon Ralph T. Heath and his wife Helen. As befitting a doctor’s son, he never had to want for anything. “When he was ten, he got his captain’s license – so his father bought him a boat,” wrote Sarah Gerard in her book of essays Sunshine State. “When he was 14, he owned 18 cars. When Ralph entered high school, his father bought him a ’61 Corvette. When he graduated, his father offered to buy him a new one.” Which he promptly did.
Ralph Jr. was obsessed with animals, and collected turtles, which he kept in filtered pools in the family’s back yard. If he and his friends happened upon an injured squirrel, rabbit or bird, they’d bring it to Dr. Heath and watch him stitch it up. Then they’d nurse the animal back to health.
He studied pre-med zoology, taking seven years to finish his undergraduate degree at the University of South Florida. He married Linda, his high school sweetheart, and wondered lazily how he should occupy his future. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted the responsibility of a veterinary practice.
The Heath family had a weekend getaway in Indian Shores, an acre and a half on the beach side of Gulf Boulevard. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Ralph loved to tell people, you could walk on the sand for miles without encountering another human being.
In December, 1971, he was driving and spotted a cormorant – a sleek, black bird known for its underwater fishing prowess – limping along the side of the road with a shattered wing. He captured it and brought it to the beach house.
Since his father was unavailable, Heath called Pasadena veterinarian Richard Shinn, a family friend. Shinn set the wing, cleaned the wound and told the 25-year-old Heath the cormorant needed rest and rehabilitation before it could be safely released back into the wild.
“I’ve done my job,” he told Ralph Heath. “Now it’s up to you.”
Heath, who could spin a yarn, repeated that one – the lightbulb moment the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was conceived – many times over the decades. Charismatic and confident, he was no stranger to the art of self-promotion.
The cormorant – Ralph named him Maynard – was followed by a busted-up seagull from the Redington Long Pier. Next, someone called about a pelican ensnared in fishing line and hooks.
He took them all in.
“He was full of piss and vinegar, whatever you want to call it,” said Shinn, now 93, retired and living in North Carolina. “He was really wrapped up into it – and, of course, the average person wouldn’t do that. But he was just a big pushover for injured birds.”
Word spread about Ralph Heath, the patron saint of birds in trouble, and within two years of establishing the sanctuary on his parents’ property, he was famous. Profiled regularly in the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent, he was also featured in Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Times. Charles Kuralt interviewed Ralph for On the Road. Even Captain Kangaroo sent a film crew.
The narrative was always pretty much the same: Between 15 and 50 birds came to the sanctuary every day, thousands per year. They arrived from backyards in boxes and bags. When calls came in about large seabirds like pelicans or egrets, wrapped up in mangroves or dragging a wing on some dock or seawall, someone – usually Ralph – would go and fetch it.
Those that could not be released into the wild, following treatment by Heath or the vets he regularly consulted, lived out their natural lives in roomy pens built next to the house. He employed a small hospital staff, and local teenagers lined up for the honor of volunteering for him.
He was featured in a full-page ad that ran in Playboy magazine in 1975:
PROFILE: Tireless. Extremely dedicated, working eighteen hours a day without pay to repair the damage suffered by birds and their environment.
SCOTCH: Dewar’s “White Label.”
This was approximately the same time that Ralph, newly divorced, began dating actress Dawn (Gilligan’s Island) Wells, who lived in one of the giant condos up the beach.
Permanent-resident brown pelicans began breeding in their sanctuary pens, which had never before happened in captivity. When the chicks left their nests, the staff would “teach” them to catch fish in their plastic wading pools. Once the birds were fledged, the protective overhead netting was rolled back, and they were allowed to leave their pens. They always returned at sunset.
Eventually, the netting was made permanent, and the young pelicans were on their own. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary released 200 “new” brown pelicans into the wild this way, which might have contributed to the species’ removal from the Endangered Species List in 1985 (captive breeding was eventually made illegal by federal legislation).
At the height of its popularity, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary boasted 100,000 human visitors annually.
Until his death in 1986, Ralph’s father – dressed in khakis, a safari shirt and a pith helmet – roamed the sanctuary grounds, greeting visitors and leading tours. Back in the home/office, Helen Heath was her son’s bookkeeper.
“Ralph,” said Kevin Doty, Heath’s friend and attorney for the last 15 years of his life, “always deferred to his mother the business end of the sanctuary. Because Ralph’s attention was not paperwork. Ralph’s attention was birds.”
In 1982, Ralph married wildlife photojournalist Beatrice Busch, heiress to the Anheuser-Busch fortune, whose Missouri-based family wintered on Pass-a-Grille. In short order, the newly-minted Mr. and Mrs. Heath had three sons – Andrew, and twins Alex and Peter – and when the couple divorced in 1988, the boys went with their mother.
In time, they took the surname of their new stepfather, Adalbert von Gontard III.
Ralph continued to devote himself to his feathered friends. As Indian Shores became more developed, his 1.5 acre attraction – for a tourist attraction it had become – raised the ire of neighboring hotel and condominium owners, who saw it as an eyesore and a “waste” of valuable beachfront property. They complained about the smell, too.
“Ralph always believed, and I tended to believe, that the sanctuary was becoming a sore spot for elected officials,” said attorney Doty. “He believed there really was a vendetta against him.”
He was also beginning to make questionable choices. He purchased a waterfront home for himself, and allegedly spent more than $300,000 on a party yacht (he claimed it was being used as a research vessel). He was accused of letting a photographer take photos of scantily-clad young women, for a calendar, after hours on sanctuary property.
It was after the turn of the century that the squall of controversy became a hurricane. “When other businesses were laying off employees in the 2008 financial crisis and donations ground to a standstill, Ralph attempted to retain his full-time staff of over 25 employees,” related Alex von Gontard. “He even leveraged the sanctuary property to simply cover payroll; however, when that dried up too, he was levied with significant payroll tax fines and criticized in the media.”
Facing mounting debts and an IRS lien, Heath sold the deed to the property to Seaside Land Investments, the Dallas-based LLC owned by his estranged sons and their stepfather.
In 2013, three-quarters of the staff resigned on the same day, after one too many missed payrolls, and growing ever-weary of Heath’s increasingly eccentric behavior.
He often told the story about his friend Jim Billie, the Seminole chief, and how he was certain Ralph had an “aura,” or a sort of radar, that birds “picked up on.”
In Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State, Heath says:
“You get a wild heron or egret just to walk up to you, stand there without moving, and let you pick it up and operate on it without any anesthesia. I’m talking about setting wings, setting legs, sewing them up. Now, because it’s just me and it’s usually late at night, so nobody else is around. The bird will lie absolutely still, just like that dish there. And looking at me.”
Helen Heath, who had handled her son’s books since day one, died in 2014 at the age of 104.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission inspected the sanctuary and Heath’s house. He was charged with 59 misdemeanors over the way Suncoast was caring for its non-releasable residents, and his permit to treat migratory birds was rescinded.
At a subsequent raid at the windowless, sanctuary-owned Starkey Road warehouse, investigators discovered dozens of sick and injured birds wandering unattended, the floors thick with feathers, rotting fruit and feces. Eight birds had to be euthanized. Dozens of turtles were discovered swimming in a filthy pool that smelled of chemicals. Heath was charged with possessing migratory birds with an expired license, trying to rehabilitate injured wildlife in an unapproved location and other violations.
He was also captured, on a clandestine phone video, taking coins from sanctuary donation boxes and stuffing them into his pockets.
Enough, the von Gontards said, was enough. According to Alex, “as the media frenzy continued and donations continued to wane, we decided that it was in the best interest of the sanctuary to continue the mission without Ralph.”
He was allowed to reside at the warehouse, provided he stayed away from the beach property, which was immediately re-branded the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary. Rehabbing the rehab center and its tattered reputation had commenced.
Although they don’t reside in Florida, the brothers remain on the board of directors today, and say they are actively involved in Seaside’s operation.
Ralph’s buddy Zach Platt used to drop by the warehouse on the way to visit his girlfriend in Dunedin. They’d stand outside the front door and shoot the breeze. “I was in there one time,” Platt said, “and the stench was so bad I couldn’t stand it.”
How did Ralph stand it? “He just acted as though it didn’t exist.”
According to Platt, Kevin Doty and a second lawyer Ralph hired “were just floored about how naive Ralph was about a lot of things. They couldn’t figure out how Ralph got so far being the way he was. But he did.”
His friends have pieced together Heath’s final days: He ignored the spider bite until it became infected and he began feeling poorly. After a stay in the hospital, he checked in, on doctor’s orders, to Tierra Pines Rehab Center.
During his exercise regiment on the afternoon of Oct. 2, he complained of feeling dizzy, and collapsed, likely from a cardiac event. He subsequently died at Largo Medical Center. He was 76.
A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22 at Anderson-McQueen Tyrone Chapel, 7820 38th Avenue N.
The von Gontard brothers intend to install a plaque at Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, to honor their estranged father’s legacy.
“Although sometimes misunderstood, we would like Ralph to please be remembered as a champion for nature and the environment and for his life of service to the birds,” said Alex. “He had a love for all creatures great and small, and a commitment to a cause that present and future generations can be proud of as we continue on a path to a more environmentally friendly and sustainable world.
“As Ralph said, ‘Everyone always gravitates to the cute and cuddly mammals; but, if you can take the time to win over the heart of a bird – well then, you really have something special.’”
The landscape of contemporary pop music would be far less interesting were it not for the semi-regular appearances on record of the Finn brothers, Tim and Neil. Tim started Split Enz in his native New Zealand, in the early ’70s, and a few years into it allowed little brother to join. By the time the band ended in 1984, more than a few truly great songs had been written and recorded.
It was in ’86 that Neil assembled Crowded House, tapping into a muse that no one, not even the arty-farty, formerly parrot-haired players in Split Enz, suspected he possessed. The band had just one American hit (“Don’t Dream It’s Over” in 1986), spending the rest of its 10-year existence keeping a large cult following extremely happy.
Crowded House’s highwater mark, arguably, was the third album, Woodface, released in 1991. The ever-restless Neil had broken up the group, determined to start anew, and found himself in Melbourne, Australia writing a batch of wonderful songs with brother Tim. One of these was called “It’s Only Natural,” and in a wink it became a prophetic title: Tim was made the fourth member of a revived Crowded House, and Woodface was born. He left the band rather suddenly during a British tour and resumed his on-again, off-again solo career with a delightful album called Before and After. Afterwards, Split Enz (with both Finns in tow) reunited for a triumphant tour of their homeland.
Inside Crowded House, Neil and his mates issued their fourth collection, Together Alone, in’93. Although it was well received in Australia and the United Kingdom, the record was stillborn in the States. Midway through the Together Alone tour, on April 13, 1994, drummer Paul Hester quit the band.
From then on, it was only a question of how long till Neil gave up the ghost for good.
Neil, Paul, Nick Seymour (bass) and sometime member Mark Hart (keys and guitar) reunited and recorded three new songs for Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House, which ends the band’s increasingly strained relationship with Capitol Records. In June, after a handful of (reportedly dispirited) promotional shows in London without Paul, Neil made the official announcement: Crowded House was no more.
For him, the next move, perhaps unsurprisingly, was toward Tim. The brothers had spent a month in mid ’94 cutting an album they called Finn, with Tim on drums and piano, Neil on guitar and piano, and everything else split between them. It was eerie like Split Enz and ethereal like Crowded House, yet it sounded like neither of those formidable entities. Bubbles were burst and expectations dashed. They had a blast doing it.
American release took nearly a year, owing to some protracted legal stuff with Capitol (and, as you’ll see, other reasons), and in the interim Tim joined forces with Irishmen Andy White and Liam O’Maonlai (the latter from Hothouse Flowers) as ALT, to make the quirky little collection Altitude. (“If you think the Finn album is non-commercial,” Tim says….)
When the dust cleared this spring and the brothers found themselves with a nice contract from the Stateside label Discovery Records, they were threatened with a lawsuit by a British band called Fin. “We could have fought it, and probably would have won the day,” Neil says (after all, Finn is the brothers’ legal surname), “but in the end we just couldn’t be bothered.” And so Finn became, in the United States and other key markets, The Finn Brothers.
The brothers were interviewed separately, just days apart; Tim was in Sydney, Neil in London. They agree on (almost) everything.
Do you think it was inevitable that you two would make a record together?
Tim Finn: It was complicated by the fact that we were both completely committed to Split Enz, and then Neil became part of Crowded House. Even then, there was sort of an unspoken desire, I think, all the time.
Neil Finn: It was something we’d talked about for a good 36 years, and in a way, it was surprising that it’s taken this long. The songs that we wrote for Woodface were intended to be for a Finn Brothers record way back then. It’s been ticking away, and the time presented itself; and we jumped in.
Do you remember when you got serious about music?
TF: I had an epiphany when I was quite young. I was standing in somebody’s kitchen and I heard Eddie Hodges sing ‘I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door.’ It’s a very corny old pop song, pre-Beatles. But he had an adenoidal quality to his voice, and I guess I could relate to it. He sounded like a little boy singing, and I remember just stopping and being rooted to the spot.
NF: I guess the spur into action for me was when he started to learn piano. I remember he learned “Laura’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago when he was about 13, and I was about 7, and I felt compelled to do it myself. So I sort of learned it, and realized I could do it, and kept par with him, in a way. Or tried to. I watched from afar as he got a band together, and was very envious.
Was there a healthy sort of brotherly competition going on?
TF: I don’t think I was aware of that. It just seemed natural that he would follow my path to some extent. I guess I was entirely comfortable with the relationship and didn’t really question it. I guess he watched what I was doing and he wanted to do it too. But it didn’t annoy me or anything.
NF: I wasn’t too aware of it being overly competitive, especially in the early days because there was enough of an age gap between us to where I wasn’t really a threat to Tim. I was the little brother. I guess there was an element of competition once I joined Split Enz, in a sense that when he would write a song, I’d want to do one better or something, so it would spur me into action. I wouldn’t say at any point that there was an overt competitiveness. And even now. There is to a degree – on the tennis court, more than anything else. We kind of save it for appropriate venues.
After you left Te Awamutu, Tim, you fell in with an art school crowd in Auckland, and that’s where Split Enz began, right?
TF: We grew up in a very small town, in a very small country. I think I’d always had an artistic feeling, but I didn’t know any artists. It would’ve been a ludicrous thought. It was a huge leap for me, really. It took me until I was 19 before I actually though that I could drop everything else. I gravitated toward them, hung out with them, took drugs with them, started playing music with them. And my whole life changed.
Neil was the little brother back at home. Do you think he was jealous of the early Split Enz?
TF: He might have been envious. He would’ve wanted to have done everything the same way, because what he saw from a distance of a hundred miles and six years was basically five or six young men develop an obsession, and a tremendous amount of self-belief out of nowhere.
There were no role models, we didn’t know anybody in groups and stuff, but we certainly felt that we were the best band in the world, that we were the logical inheritors of music’s next step. It was an absurd thought, but we were completely compelled to follow that destiny.
And he saw all that, and he would’ve hungered for it. And it also became like a talisman for him, or an icon if you like.
Even to this day, I think that Neil will never be able to escape that feeling that Split Enz were the ultimate group. Even though he was in a group that became more successful. I left in the end due to two things: One, I’d fallen in love and wanted to drop everything and be with this person who didn’t live in my part of the world, and B, I’d done a solo record which was surprisingly successful.
Did it ever become a question of “too many cooks” with Neil writing and singing away in the band?
TF: No, there was never any question. It was a great luxury to have his songs, and it was all about the group. It was a complete group ethic.
Neil, when you had the initial success with Crowded House, was Tim happy or envious?
NF: A little bit of both, I think. And I was a little bit pleased for myself, and a little guilty that it wasn’t Split Enz happening for me. Having spent a lot of time in that band.
He’d worked for 12 years with Split Enz, and although we’d had a degree of success in various places, nothing as sort of conclusive as what happened to Crowded House’s first album. So I think it was a little hard for him. At the same time, he was in London, kind of twiddling his thumbs a little bit.
I remember at the point we went Top Ten, rang him up – he was feeling a little distant from it all – so I suggested he come over for a few days and join the tour. He came into New Orleans, and we had a couple of really good gigs where he got up with us. And I think it sort of helped him a little bit to feel like he was part of it to some degree.
Tim, how would you describe your initial reaction to Crowded House?
TF: I was pretty in awe of Neil’s songs. That first record, I can remember listening to it for the first time and thinking ‘This is an amazing record.’ To see it go all the way like that, I guess I would’ve wished that for Split Enz, but at the same time I couldn’t deny it for Neil. It was like, he earned it, you know?
Tim joined Crowded House, then left midway through the Woodface tour. Did it get ugly?
NF: I wish I could tell you that it got ugly. There was a couple of tense moments on the tour, one particularly in the hippie love capital of Australia where we got really nasty. Those sorts of places want to drag out the dark side of your nature.
Tim was being asked to play a role which he was very unfamiliar with, a musician playing a bit of keyboards and sort of hanging around a bit until there was a song he was involved in. And similarly for us, we weren’t use to having another strong personality onstage, and it upset the rhythm of the band a bit.
OK, what’s the hippie love capital of Australia?
NF: Byron Bay – it’s in Northern New South Wales. I remember it because we’d had a huge to-do, and I was out in the car park streaming in the car. I’d gone out to get away from it all. I was sitting in the car stewing in my own juices, and this hippie woman came up to the window and said ‘Neil, I can help you. You’ve got to let your chakra go.’ And I wasn’t in the mood.
You both participated in a Split Enz reunion tour of New Zealand and Australia in 1992. What was that like?
TF: It was fantastic. We played to bigger crowds than we’d ever played to when we existed. A lot of younger people coming along that had never seen the band, and they’d heard about this legendary New Zealand band! They were from 10 or 12 years old through like 40, 50. And they went completely berserk – it was a celebration for New Zealand. I think. It felt like it.
Everybody got on really well, made lots of money, and it was an entirely positive experience. There was a live album, called Anniversary, I think, because it was 20 years from our inception.
The Finn Brothers has a lot of rough textures on it; it doesn’t sound very much like Woodface or Together Alone.
NF: It was a different time, a different place and a different state of mind. So to some extent, you surf that and you go with it. It was less sophisticated than either of those records, deliberately. Partly because we only took a month to do it. And we were playing everything ourselves.
And we were interested, with (co-producer) Tchad Blake, in making it kind of chunky and homemade-sounding. We didn’t really make it with anybody else other than ourselves in mind; we certainly didn’t want to re-create what happened with Woodface. It’s less two-part harmony oriented, partly because of the way we were writing the songs – Tim on the drums, and I was on guitar, or bass and piano. . we weren’t working with the two acoustics. It is what it is, and I’m glad of it. I think we weren’t concerned by its commerciality, and for that reason possibility it’s not a particularly commercial record.
TF: There’s certain naivete in the drumming – it hangs in there, but it doesn’t sound like anybody flash playing the drums. I don’t have too much technique but I can hold down a beat.
The way we felt was very joyous, even though it’s paradoxically quite a moody record, there was a lot of joy and pleasure in the making of it. We would start a song and work it till it was done, rather than doing a whole lot of rhythm tracks and then over-dubbing. So every song had a day and a half, or a two-day atmosphere built around it.
We went up to the Cook Islands after writing the songs, to soak up a bit of the atmosphere of the Pacific Music Festival. We particularly fell in love with the tea-chest bass, which we’ve used on five tracks. It’s a very forgiving instrument.
Well, I have no idea what any of the songs are about.
NF: We don’t make them deliberately obscure, but we’re quite happy to leave them open-ended. For me, lyrics were the things in songs that grew on me least. I was always taken by a couple of lines first in songs, and in a way I didn’t really care what the rest of it was about. There was always a couple of lines that just hooked straight in there and set me thinking. That’s the main thing, that there’s a few images that stick out. I think some of the songs are fairly clear.
Did you feel a commercial pressure in making this record, pressure to make it sound a certain way?
TF: We didn’t think about it much, apart from just wanting to make a record. Nobody even knew we were making it. I think it’s a special record, and people who like it really seem to like it enormously, and it’ll never cross over to a mainstream audience, but that wasn’t our intention. We had very modest expectations for it.
NF: Tchad Blake is really into leaving things pretty bare, and it was partly his influence that prevented us from doing what we would often do, to double-guess ourselves and go ‘Well look, we’d better smooth this thing out a bit.’ Or ‘This is a bit lumpy-sounding, we’d better do something about it.’ He encouraged us to do a lot of one-take performances.
The first single in England was ‘Suffer Never,’ which doesn’t seem to have any hooks in it at all.
NF: The guitar’s the hook, in a way. There was just an attitude about it that we really liked, and a slightly psychedelic quality. I have often in the past been persuaded to put out the least offensive song as a single first. Which is what the record company always go for. With this record, we thought well, what’s the most deeply atmospheric thing? And I felt really attached to ‘Suffer Never’ at the time, so we pushed that out. It may have not been a commercial choice, but to me it defined the record a little better than, say. . .well, I’m more pleased with what’s going on in America, because ‘Only Talking Sense’ is probably my favorite song on the record.
Crowded House was breaking up as the album was taking shape. Did you talk about the band’s problems?
TF: Not so much during this recording period, no. It was very pure. We didn’t really talk about much else except what we were doing. But, yeah, there has been talk over the years. Neil’s wrestled with it a lot.
Neil was very loyal to the idea of the combo, you know, the humble combo. The four-piece band, the three-piece band. He’s very attached to that notion and it’s served him extremely well.
But juggling personalities and egos and shit like that, after you get to your mid-30s. . . you’re a bit over that sort of thing.
Why did Paul drop out of Crowded House?
NF: A combination of tour fatigue, a low tolerance for the shenanigans of being in the band, promotion, photos … I think he was a little sick of himself as a jester figure. He lost his sense of humor about it a little. And I would say a degree of laziness, in that he’s a man who loves to be in front of the television with a joint in his hand and a cup of tea. And have a nap in the afternoon. And it became quite harrowing, the touring.
He was having a baby at the time, too, and I think he was feeling a conflict within himself. It wasn’t unexpected for us because he had been getting progressively less enthused about being onstage. And the shows were suffering a little. Sot to some extent when he left were kind of relieved, because at least it was a way forward. Whereas we’d been struggling with this kind of weird darkness.
Tim quit midway through a tour. Paul quit midway through a tour.
NF: It happens a lot! When Tim left it was very much a mutual thing. Paul definitely sprung it on us. Prior to that tour he had said, ‘Listen, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get beyond this tour. I think I’m really going to have to call it quits, but I’ll do the tour.’ So at the point he left, we felt a bit let down, and it made life quite difficult for a few weeks, obviously. But we did soldier on. But his timing was shocking.
Do you think the band’s lack of commercial success was a reason for his departure?
NF: It had provided a pressure for the band and Paul too. I think Paul to some extent thought ‘Well, maybe this is never gonna happen.’ I would say that contributed to his state of mind. And at the time, we weren’t feeling that there was a lot of support from Capitol. We were touring the Midwest and we had Sheryl Crow with us, who was just at the beginning of her meteoric ascent. We had noticed the difference between what her record company was doing in every city, and what ours was. We’d arrive in towns and there’d be big window displays of Sheryl’s record and we would struggle to find ours in the shops at all.
That was discouraging, to say the least. I wouldn’t overstate it and say that was the reason the band broke up, because although we’re ambitious for our music – I love tapping into the ol’ mass psyche – it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for the existence of the band. We also had other places, like England was very successful for us, Australia and New Zealand were still good, and Canada to some extent.
That must be frustrating, when everyone wants to hear ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over,’ and all the time you’d been writing progressively better songs.
NF: I believe so, yeah. On the other hand, the people we were meeting in every city were people who knew those records. We were doing shows where we didn’t do ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ Copping a bit of flack for it, I might add.
I still feel the records didn’t get the shot they deserved in America. I think Together Alone was dismissed to some extent by a lot of people in America. Partly, I think, because they didn’t listen to it enough. And it wasn’t put in their faces enough. The biggest handicap to get over with anybody, and particularly with us I think, is trying to get people to listen to something more than once. That requires keeping on it and working it until people take notice.
Were you frustrated by the albums’ lack of success?
NF: I don’t feel that they were failures in any form because of lack of commercial success. It’s easy to say that, but there’s a few people around the world whose opinions mattered more to me than the mass. And I’ve had their support in the main. So it doesn’t discourage me to the point where I feel like giving up or anything. Not even close.
But critics don’t sell records. In the end, over a period of time, you build up a certain respect level which does man something. It opens doors for you and gets you into good places with good people. So there’s part of me that’s not altogether unhappy with our career path, in the sense that we’ve never got to the point where superstardom has dictated terms to us. We’ve been successful enough to make a good living, and to tour the world, and I can continue to make records as long as I will, I think.
Why did Together Alone appear in the U.S.A. six months after everyone else got it?
NF: I can’t even remember. I think because we’d established ourselves with Woodface very strongly in England, that was fine to put it out before Christmas. But Capitol felt it would just get lost before Christmas. And what happened was, it got lost after Christmas.
Will you miss the camaraderie of the band after 10 years together?
NF: I will to some extent, but I’ve been through enough in my life now to know that you can’t just expect things like that to continue forever, that kind of chemistry. And you should be willing to let them go, rather than hang on out of some kind of nostalgia or loyalty to it. I’m proudest, really, of the fact that as a live band we were willing to go out on a limb. Every night was different. We jammed, and we involved the audience. That much I think is a rare thing and I’ll always be quite proud of that.
But in the end, it wasn’t difficult for me to let go of. Maybe it was partly because Paul wasn’t there and the chemistry wasn’t the same, but we could’ve continued and made good records. I really got to a point where I craved a new context and felt restricted by the band instead of it being an open thing. It felt like a restricting thing.
How did you decide on the tracks for Recurring Dream?
NF: We threw around a whole lot of different possibilities. And the record company in England actually researched the fan base quite heavily about what songs they really wanted on the record. And we left a couple of things here and there off that have not worn very well for us. It has to be a compromise, in a way, because there were certain songs would’ve liked to put on that we couldn’t.
So what did you leave off?
NF: ‘Chocolate Cake.’ For a variety of reasons, just as a piece of music it didn’t wear very well for me.
The Finn Brothers did a short summer tour of America. What happens next for you?
TF: I’m just going to come back to Sydney and learn how to cook. Neil wants to do another record, in some shape or form, I want to do another Alt record, and I’ve got a solo record I’ve just finished, which should be coming out early in the next year.
I think in about a year or so, Neil and I will definitely do another one.
NF: I’m going home, and I’m going to make another record, that much I know. I’m sort of enjoying the delicious feeling of freedom that having made this decision has brought. I’ve got quite a lot of ideas brewing in my head which I want to explore. I suppose technically speaking I’ll be making a solo record, but there’s gonna be a collaborative nature to it. The idea of a solo record is less appealing than getting the chance to play with a few different people and creating different sounds.
(A whole lot of water under the bridge since 1996 – and if you’ve read this far, you know. RIP Paul Hester.)
– The Soothsayer, ‘The Tragedy of Julius Caesar’ (Shakespeare)
We’re too loud and we’re too soft, and we’re too in between.
Say, aren’t you the fella that used to sing with B, S and T?
– The Idea of March, ‘Friends of Feeling’ (Peterik)
Chroniclers of popular music history can be forgiven for confusing “Vehicle,” the one and only national hit by the hard–driving and horn–driven Ides of March, with any number of vehicles by the hard–driving, horn–driven Blood, Sweat & Tears. The Ides’ song just missed the top of the charts in April, 1970, when B, S & T was in the middle of its Top 40 hot streak.
Jim Peterik, the Ides of March’s songwriter, singer, lead guitarist and frontman, was only 19 years old when he sang the hell out of “Vehicle,” an ambitious but know–nothing kid from a blue–collar Midwestern town, and imitation – at that time, anyway – was the sincerest form of flattery.
“We got religion when we went down to the Kinetic Playground in Chicago and saw Blood, Sweat & Tears,” Peterik says. “Got real hip to their first album, with Al Kooper, and by the time we saw ’em they had David Clayton–Thomas. And they blew our shit away. I wasn’t trying to sing like him on ‘Vehicle,’ but I guess I did. He wanted to sing like Ray Charles, and I wanted to sing like him. On down the food chain.”
In many ways, the Ides of March transcended that one song. The two albums the band made for Warner Brothers in the early ’70s are like Whitman’s Samplers of musical styles from that innocently adventurous age: Ballsy rock ‘n’ roll, punchy rhythm ‘n’ blues, electric jazz, folk balladry and hippie weirdness, all laid out next to one another in an inviting and consumer–friendly package. They are, to the number, exquisitely arranged and performed.
Jim Peterik went on to a long and distinguished career in music, but the Ides of March was his first and truest love. Today, the original band is still together and making music with the same passion and poise as in their 1970–71 heyday.
“I draw so much energy from this period,” Peterik says. “When we go onstage, that’s the person I am, from that era. We were in our prime. And when people come to see us now, they take home that feeling. I’m not being mushy, but we project that because that’s the way we feel. We may look like 52, but we feel like 19.”
The Ides began in Berwyn, Illinois, with Cub Scout packmates Peterik (lead vocals and lead guitar), Larry Millas (keyboards), Mike Borch (drums), Ray Herr (guitar) and Bob Bergland (bass). In 1965 they were a British Invasion cover band called the Shondels, heavy on Hollies–like harmonies and tentative, very white R&B.
They also wrote a lot of their own material, and cut a single, “Like it or Lump It,” issued in the Chicago area on their own label, Epitome Records.
In ’66 the Shondels were “discovered” by Parrot Records, which only had one rock act anybody could think of (the Zombies). The band’s debut was “You Wouldn’t Listen,” written during an all–night sleepover on Peterik’s 15th birthday.
Tommy James &the Shondells were starting to turn up on the charts, leaving Parrot’s newly–minted teen act in a quandary. “Our record was just ready to come out, and we had to scramble for a name,” Peterik recalls. “We were all reading Julius Caesar in high school. Bob Bergland came across ‘Beware the Ides of March.’ It sounded like a name to me.”
“You Wouldn’t Listen” was a hit in Chicago, but Parrot never turned a profit on the Ides of March, and after six singles the band was dropped.
By 1968 the Ides were regularly playing James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Arthur Conley covers in their sock–hop shows, so the decision was made to add horns: Enter more school chums, Chuck Soumar (trumpet) and John Larson (trumpet and flugelhorn). Bergland began to play saxophone onstage.
Local promoters Bob Destocki and Frank Rand caught the Ides’ act when they were opening a show for Neil Diamond, and after a little negotiation took over management and started promising big things. Destocki was also a regional promotion man for Warner Brothers Records, and through his contacts he got the Ides a four–song demo deal with the label.
“We put ‘Vehicle’ last on the demo,” Peterik says. “We didn’t really value that song. The first three songs, we thought were the ones. We sent them to the label, and they went, ‘Are you kidding me? The fourth song is a smash.'”
(For the record, the other three were ‘Lead Me Home Gently,’ ‘Something Comin’ On’ and ‘The Sky is Falling.’)
Peterik had written the sexually–charged ‘Vehicle’ as a joke. “I got the idea from one of these anti–drug pamphlets they distributed in school,” he explains. “It had this picture of the sinister guy, and it said ‘The Friendly Stranger.’ It was very tongue–in–cheek.”
Produced by Destocki and Rand, the Vehicle album was recorded at CBS Studios in Chicago, which, according to Peterik, had only been used for radio and TV voiceover work. “They didn’t know rock ‘n’ roll from a hole in the wall,” he says. “They did a good job, but it was a learning curve. We were all learning together.
“I remember that kind of feeling of experimentation. I also remember 14 seconds of the master of ‘Vehicle’ being erased! We were doing background vocals, and suddenly 14 seconds were gone from the master. No way to retrieve it. The second engineer had hit the wrong button. We spent two hours thinking ‘our career is over,’ because at this time we knew we had something.
“Luckily, there was a Take One. They inserted 14 seconds of Take One, I re–did the vocals. And now I hear it every time: From the second ‘Great God in heaven’ all the way up to the guitar solo – when you hear how abrupt that first note of the solo sounds, that’s an edit. Actually, it sounds real cool.”
Cool enough to drive the song to No. 2 on the Billboard chart, in line behind the Jackson Five’s “ABC.” ( “Vehicle” hit the top in the somewhat less prestigious Cash Box ). The album never got higher than No. 55.
“One Woman Man” was actually released as a single before “Vehicle.” The two songs don’t sound anything alike. “That was more like the Association, or the New Colony Six with brass. We were a harmony band with horns at that point.”
Influence–spotters had a field day with Vehicle. “You gotta realize, we were all 18, 19 years old at the time,” Peterik says. “We were still looking for a sound. Most people have their formative years in private, because they’re under the radar. Here we are, on the radar screen, still looking for who we are.
“So yeah, there’s a real potpourri there, everything from B, S &T to a little Creedence – ‘Factory Band,’ that’s Creedence, I mean, come on – we were fans of all those bands.
“And yet we do have a sound. It’s the way our voices sound together, the way we play together, it’s still the Ides of March but obviously there’s a real palette of influences represented on the record.”
One of Peterik’s most accomplished ballads, “Home,” has a familiarly unchained melody but makes its point in a sweetly sentimental way. The band’s affection for the first Crosby, Stills &Nash album was laid bare with their jazzy, extended take on “Wooden Ships” – linked, for reasons Peterik doesn’t remember, with the Jethro Tull instrumental “Dharma For One.” And they bit off a big one with a jazzy 9–minute arrangement of “Eleanor Rigby.”
“It was hard to translate the grandeur of that in the studio,” Peterik remembers. “It was very au courant at the time. I think Vanilla Fudge had their ‘Eleanor Rigby’ at the time, I think every band had their ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ It was kind of like required.
“It has its moments. But boy, if you could’ve been there in ’70 and heard it live …”
Then there was “Bald Medusa.” “It was just a phase that Mike Borch came up with,” Peterik explains. “He said ‘Bald Medusa’ and I said ‘Cool.’ Wrote a song that made about as much sense as that title.
“It’s a dirty, very hormonal song about getting’ it on. Of course, you have the double entendre. ‘I’m Bald Medusa’ became ‘I balled Medusa,’ and that’s the way we did it live. We had a lot of fun with that. It was 19–year–old hormones talking.”
The Ides of March spent most of 1970 on the road, opening for the likes of Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. “We were the kind of band that lived very economically on the road,” Peterik recalls. “And we made money. We didn’t make money on the records, because we were always working off the record company debt. But it was a very viable business.”
Peterik has been telling this story for years: “We were on a bill, Iron Butterfly, the Youngbloods, the Ides of March and then Led Zeppelin. In Winnipeg. And it was our night, that’s all I can tell you. Zeppelin had an off night, we had an on night, and the next day’s entertainment headlines said, basically, ‘Ides of March Steal the Show.’ We did our 20–minute version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and just brought down the house.”
Years later, the Guess Who’s Randy Bachman ran into Peterik at a Nashville trade show and said, among other things, that he had been in that audience in Winnipeg. And the Ides of March really had smoked Zeppelin. “I said ‘Then it was real! I didn’t dream it!'”
Understandably, the label desired a followup single. “We wanted to release ‘Aire of Good Feeling,'” recalls Peterik. “Killer song. Warner Brothers says ‘We want something more like Vehicle. ‘ Didn’t matter that it wasn’t on the album. They wanted the same song basically re–written, so dutifully I wrote ‘Superman.'”
The second and final Warner Brothers album, Common Bond, was more cohesive – and more ambitious – than its predecessor . The Ides of March were growing up (without Ray Herr, who left before recording began). “L.A. Goodbye? is the hit that never was; along with “We Are Pillows,” Peterik was doing Crosby, Stills & Nash almost as well as Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“Mrs. Grayson’s Farm” was inspired by a tour stop to a midwestern farm, an innocent experience – they ate hamburgers and looked at the chickens – that ultimately lent nothing to the multi–layered psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll song. “Man, is that hippie, ” Peterik laughs. “I don’t know what that is.”
The album’s tour de force, “Tie–Dye Princess,” at 11:31, blended elements of jazz, folk and progressive rock (something relatively new at the time) and still managed to avoid sounding too pretentious. “Fortunately or unfortunately, we never had that kind of inflated sense of self,” Peterik explains. “We were always the kids from Berwyn going ‘Gee, are we lucky to be here.'” The song was completely re–recorded at 3:15 for a single, which Peterik is not crazy about.
Common Bond wasn’t successful, and after a couple of half–hearted albums for RCA, the Ides of March packed it in, playing their last gig at a Berwyn high school in November, 1973.
Peterik went on to write or co–write many of .38 Special’s late ’70s hits, including “Rockin’ Into the Night” and “Caught Up in You.” He formed the band Survivor and co–wrote “Eye of the Tiger,” which made him more money than he’d ever seen in his life. He’s still counting it.
When the Ides re–formed in 1990, Bergland was in property management, Borch was installing car alarms, and Soumar and Larson were in sales. Millas had been making a good living as a producer/engineer in Chicago, and Peterik was Peterik.
“Berwyn offered us a lot of money to get back together for one show,” Peterik says. “That’s all it was gonna be. And we were having so much fun, we said ‘Hey, we rehearsed three months for this one show. Let’s not waste all this rehearsal.’ And we never looked back.”
Definitive Collection/England Dan and John Ford Coley (Rhino Records)
All through their hit-making years at Big Tree Records, England Dan and John Ford Coley fought to have their own compositions released as singles. They were almost always outvoted, and their biggest hits – from “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” to “Nights Are Forever” and “It’s Sad To Belong” – were written by others.
How ironic then, that the one song that encapsulated all the personal things that this predominantly acoustic duo wanted to get across in their music – interracial and societal love and harmony, acceptance and a plea for a unified planet – was not only penned by an outside songwriter, but became their last and most enduring hit.
Todd Rundgren’s gospel-tinged “Love is the Answer” was like a crib sheet for the Baha’i faith, to which England Dan and John Ford Coley belonged:
And when you feel afraid, love one another.
When you’ve lost your way, love one another.
And when you’re all alone, love one another.
And when you’re far from home, love one another.
And when you’re down and out, love one another.
And when your hopes run out, love one another.
Between 1976 and ’79, the pair placed six songs in the Billboard Top 40. They were viewed by many as a sort of “sweeter” version of Seals & Crofts, who certainly made their share of melodic and radio-friendly soft rock, but were apt to veer into controversial subject matter (“Unborn Child”) and lace their albums with overtly religious references to the Baha’i and its tenets.
Dan Seals, of course, was (and is) the younger brother of Jim Seals, who wrote (and sang) most of Seals & Crofts’ material.
But England Dan and John Ford Coley steered clear of controversy and sang, almost exclusively, about love lost and won, about loneliness, joy, elation and all the other landscapes of the human condition.
They met in high school in Dallas in the early ‘60s. Seals played saxophone and guitar, much like his brother, who was at that time touring the country as a member of the Champs (in their post-“Tequila” period). John Colley was a classically trained pianist; the duo hit it off and began to sing and play together in a series of suburban Texas cover bands.
(In 1964, Seals, like so many other budding young musicians, became obsessed with the Beatles and, much to the annoyance of his friends and family, briefly affected a nasal Liverpool accent. He thus earned the nickname England Dan.)
They hit the Big Time, or so they thought, as part of a country/rock band called Southwest F.O.B. (“Freight On Board”). After the group scored a pair of (very minor) hits, Seals and Colley splintered off into a part-time acoustic duo, opening Southwest F.O.B. shows around Dallas.
(This is exactly what had happened with Seals and Crofts, in California as part of a lounge act called the Dawnbreakers. As a twosome, they’d open for their own band, and soon realized they liked it a whole lot better. So did the audience.)
By 1970, Dawnbreakers guitarist Louie Shelton was producing Seals & Crofts for Warner Bros., and he brought Dan and John’s demos to Herb Alpert of A&M, who snapped them up.
It was at this point that the pair were persuaded to adopt a hip-sounding moniker; according to legend, it was Jim Seals who resurrected the name England Dan, added Ford to Colley’s name (probably because it sounded more English) and suggested they change Colley to Coley, which was how it was pronounced, anyway.
England Dan and John Ford Coley. It had a nice ring to it.
Their Shelton-produced sides at A&M did pretty much nothing, although “Simone” (included here) reached the top of the Japanese pop charts. After two albums, they were dropped from the label.
In 1976, a young songwriter (and a devout Baha’i) named Parker McGee sent a batch of demos to Seals & Crofts. Shelton cut McGee’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” with England Dan and John Ford Coley, and it was this version – re-recorded in Nashville with producer Kyle Lehning, a friend of McGee’s – that caught the ear of Big Tree president Doug Morris.
“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” reached No. 2 in the summer of ’76 and went gold, making a Bicentennial splash alongside Peter Frampton, “Afternoon Delight” and the soon-to-be unstoppable stampede of disco.
Their first album, Nights Are Forever, was released as the single was climbing the charts. The anthemic “Nights Are Forever Without You” (another one from McGee’s treasure chest) reached No. 10 in October.
Although Seals and Coley compositions weren’t released as singles, they formed the backbone of what remains, arguably, the duo’s strongest album. Coley contributed the bouncy “Westward Wind,” about a blissful Hawaiian Islands vacation (the publishing was credited to both composers), while Seals’ country-hued “Showboat Gambler” was a flight of fancy inspired by his grandfather’s tall tales about well-dressed gambling men sailing Tennessee’s Cumberland River.
The spiritual “The Prisoner” would not have sounded out of place on a Seals & Crofts album; it’s a (very thinly) veiled parable about the prophet Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith.
Nights Are Forever climbed to No. 17 and earned a gold record award.
The Dowdy Ferry Road album appeared in March of 1977, sending the England Dan and John Ford Coley version of Randy Goodrum’s uptempo weeper “It’s Sad to Belong” to No. 21 on the Billboard chart.
Both Seals and Coley later expressed dissatisfaction with the song and its theme of mixed fidelity.
Dowdy Ferry Road also included hints that the pair were more than capable of writing gems: Coley’s bittersweet Vietnam opus “Soldier in the Rain” and Seals’ plaintive ballad “Love is the One Thing We Hide.” Coley’s snappy “Gone Too Far” was, in fact, released as a single, but just missed the Top 20.
Jeffrey Commanor contributed “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again,” which became England Dan and John Ford Coley’s second-highest charting single in March of ’78 (No. 9 on the pop charts, it was an Adult Contemporary No. 1 for an astonishing six weeks). It had been previously recorded by a duo called Deardorff & Joseph.
“We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again” was the leadoff single from the Some Things Don’t ComeEasy album, which also included several wonderful self-penned tunes (“Who’s Lonely Now.” “Hold Me,” “Wanting You Desperately” and the title track).
As disco did it best to make veteran hit parade artists look and sound behind the times, Seals and Coley released the dance track “You Can’t Dance,” which charted miserably. These guys – despite their propensity for leisure suits – were not the dance-floor type.
This was particularly evident on Coley’s “What Can I Do With This Broken Heart,” another single misfire, from the 1979 album Dr. Heckle & Mr. Jive. Here, England Dan and John Ford Coley do the hustle, complete with stabbing strings, pulsating bass (courtesy of jazz great Wilton Felder), funky guitars by Lee Ritenour and Steve Lukather, and deft keyboard work from studio pro Greg Phillinganes.
Dr. Heckle, which would be the duo’s last album, was problematic from the start. Pressured by record execs to “update” their sound, Seals, Coley and Lehning had left their familiar Nashville studio for Los Angeles, to work with an entirely new set of musicians and arrangers.
“Love is the Answer” – the only song any of them were happy with from the arduous first week of sessions – rose to No. 10 on Billboard’s pop singles chart, and spent two weeks atop the AC chart.
The duo’s final recordings, “In it For Love” and “Why Is it Me,” were released on Big Tree’s Best Of collection in ’79, with “Part of Me Part of You” and “Just Tell me You Love Me” appearing on a 1980 film soundtrack.
By then, England Dan and John Ford Coley were no more. Seals and Lehning began a lucrative second chapter in 1980 with the Stones album, which many critics suggested could – or should – have been a duo recording (“Late At Night” from that album is included here).
With Lehning at the board, Seals – the “England” long left behind – embarked on a hugely successful solo career as a country artist, notching nine consecutive chart-toppers in the 1980s.
In 2007, he and brother Jim began touring together as Seals & Seals. Both brothers are still active in Baha’i activities and fundraisers.
Coley, however, renounced the faith in 1999 and reverted to the Christianity of his boyhood (he has written a book about his experiences). He performs infrequently in the Nashville area.
As with all artists whose time has come and gone, England Dan and John Ford Coley’s enormously affecting music remains. And it remains a gift.
With his beatific smile and twinkling bright eyes, Willie Nelson looks like the most serene and centered man on the planet. When he’s wearing a Stetson hat or a wide red bandanna, he brings to mind a sort of Western Santa Claus, someone you’d trust to slide down your chimney and come into your house with a sackful of cap guns, singing a cowboy tune.
There has never been a singer like Willie Nelson. He’s a genre-jumper. The rich, mellow timbre of his voice, going tiptoe over the kind of casual jazz phrasing Frank Sinatra used to be able to do in his sleep, gives Nelson the option of singing virtually any style of music and giving it his distinctive stamp. He transcends country music; he transcends music, period.
It’s no wonder Willie Nelson is considered an American Folk Hero. In the best American tradition, he is tireless and his talent is timeless.
For 30 years, Willie Nelson has flown in the face of convention. He’s taken the notion of what a country singer should be and smashed it, time and again, against the sometimes brutal rocks of contemporary show business.
And even though he often found himself between those rocks and a veritable hard place, Willie never wavered in his belief that the individual should be allowed to express himself, whatever the arena, using the gifts he’s been given. It took him a long time to hit because Nashville – and the world – was suspicious of him. He didn’t look or sound like he came out of any mold.
When he and success found themselves at last running neck and neck on the same horse track, Willie made up for lost time. To date, he has recorded country, swing jazz, Western swing and straight-ahead jazz; he’s made albums of pop standards and albums of gospel standards. He’s sung duets with the biggest stars in the world, not just country vocalists, but pop, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm ‘n’ blues singers. He’s made movies, he’s made TV shows, he’s made news, he’s made history. He made a lot of money. And he lost a lot of money.
Nelson himself chuckles at a suggestion that he’s fearless. “If I am, I’m probably stupid,” he said with a grin. “I think fearlessness and stupidity go together. It’s real corny, but the fist line that comes to my mind are words that I’ve followed all my life. There was a movie with Fess Parker playing Davy Crockett: ‘Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead,’ that was his motto. It’s corny, but goddamn it makes sense.”
Through four marriages, somewhere around 200 albums and a career with higher highs and lower lows than any stretch of Appalachian mountains, Willie Nelson, 61, retains a zest for life and a passionately optimistic outlook that bespeaks a man who knows inner peace. He’s a survivor.
Nelson is the original Zen cowboy – and his religious beliefs, while rooted in the Christian church, lean toward Buddhist principles. “I think people like Willie are forever, you know,” observed Waylon Jennings, one of Nelson’s oldest friends and a partner in success. “He crossed all the boundaries in music. He’s bigger than music, that’s what the whole thing is.”
Said Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, another of Nelson’s buddies: “Waylon at one time said to me, ‘Willie was laid back before people knew what laid back was.’ I think Willie has always been that way.”
The trick, Nelson says, is to be ready for anything and learn to land on your feet. “I think everything happens when it’s supposed to,” he said. “And fortunately, we’re not in control.”
Patience, as a virtue, was not something he was not born with. It was a lesson he was forced to learn.
Willie Hugh Nelson first gazed upon the world on April 30, 1933 in Abbott, one of dozens of identical farming communities in the cotton ‘n’ cattle belt of East Central Texas (Waco, just a few miles to the south on Highway 35, is the “big town” where Abbott kids would go to the movies and kick back at hayrides and jubilees). He was the second of two children born to transplanted Arkansans Ira and Myrle Nelson. Sister Bobbie Lee, who has been playing piano in Willie’s band for more than two decades, arrived two years before him.
Ira, who spent many years as chief mechanic at a Ford dealership in Fort Worth (about 40 miles north of Abbott), was an itinerant guitar player who loved to play and sing. He encouraged the same in his children: Willie received his first toy mandolin at the age of two. Bobbie was a toddler when she first tinkled the ivories of a cardboard-box piano.
Mother Myrle, 20 years old at the time, was a scrapper, a free spirit and a fun lover; she and Ira fought frequently, and when Bobbie was three and Willie just a baby, she left.
Not long after the divorce, Ira hit the road, too, taking what work he could get in those Depression days (although he wouldn’t go very far, and would remain active in his children’s lives as they got older). Bobbie and Willie were sent to live with Ira’s parents, William and Nancy, known to the family as Mama and Daddy Nelson. Daddy Nelson was by trade a blacksmith and by practice, a Methodist.
But he and Mama were also musicians, with mail-order degrees, and they filled their two-story house in Abbott with song: Willie remembers Daddy Nelson teaching him to sing “Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day” while he was still in diapers.
Bobbie learned to read music as a small child; she practiced her piano (when she got a real one) night and day. The house was packed with sheet music and songbooks, Bobbie recalled, as Mama and Daddy indulged their grandchildren nearly every way possible. Daddy Nelson bought Willie his first Stella guitar at the age of six. He gave the boy a chord book, which he studied diligently, and soon “the Nelson Kids” would play a tune together for anyone who asked.
Willie had made his first public performance at the age of four, reciting a poem at a gospel sing-along and picnic. He was so nervous, he stuck his finger up his nose and a stream of blood ran out, ruining his cute little white-and-red sailor suit. Little Willie hadn’t written the poem (“What Are You Looking At Me For?”), but it wouldn’t be long before he would start putting words together, and then combining them with his own melodies.
Pneumonia took Daddy Nelson in 1939, and Willie, then age seven, began writing songs about loss and heartbreak on his little Stella guitar. In those days, because of his flame-red hair, his nickname was Booger Red.
Several significant events in Willie Nelson’s life occurred in the year following the death of his beloved grandfather: The family got its first radio, a big wooden Philco, and so the outside world came a little closer (he thinks maybe Daddy Nelson hadn’t wanted one in the house). His earliest memories are of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Kay Kyser and the Little Orphan Annie show on KVOO, Tulsa; another favorite was the Light Crust Doughboys, out of Forth Worth.
“I remember when we used to sit around and watch the radio,” Nelson recalled. “Because it was new in the house. There was somethin’ there that had some entertainment comin’ out of it. The first thing that we tuned in was WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry. That was a regular. And everything else. I turned the dial.
“I was up late at night a lot, and I’d turn the dial and listen to anything I could, really. A lot of boogie and blues, back in the days of Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse, and Ray McKinley. And Glenn Miller and those guys.”
Financially strapped, Mama Nelson had to move the kids out of the only home they’d known and into what Nelson would later describe as a “shack” in the poorer section of Abbott. Mama took a serving job in the school cafeteria, and supplemented the family’s income by picking cotton in the nearby fields. Willie’s memories of this period are not entirely pleasant, as he and Bobbie often were expected to come along and fill their burlap sacks with cotton, too, to help out.
Cotton picking is backbreaking, hand-shredding work, and even as a small child Nelson knew it wasn’t for him. Sometimes he’d pick just enough to make a pillow out of his sack, and curl up and fall asleep somewhere out of the brutal Texas sun.
He listened, though, to the Mexicans, the blacks and the Texans all singing in the cotton fields, and that’s where Willie Nelson learned the blues. Their regular Methodist Church visits filled the siblings with gospel music and Christian hymns.
The radio was Booger Red’s lifeline, and he dial-shopped ceaselessly, soaking up big band music from the Aragon Hotel in Chicago, jazz from New Orleans, and vocalists such as Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. He learned to love lyrics and melody.
Nelson was most impressed, however, with country music. Under its showbiz fabric beat a rural heart. Although Bob Wills and Texas swing were omnipresent on the Texas airwaves, young Willie took to listening to WACO in Waco, for Hank Thompson’s hillbilly show. He loved Lefty Frizzell, Bill Boyd and Hank Williams too. Floyd Tillman was a big favorite.
Nelson was 10 in 1943 when Frank Sinatra made his debut on Your Hit Parade, and the young Texan was spellbound by the kid from Hoboken’s off-meter phrasing, seemingly effortless, jazzy melodizing and remarkable breath control. It was something he would not forget.
“My grandmother gave me voice lessons,” he said, “and that was what she always taught me: Voice control was deep breathing, breathing from way down deep, and how that would strengthen your lungs and your vocal cords. So I started out doing that real early.
“And I’d heard Frank Sinatra sing, so I knew he had strong lungs. I really don’t know if he practiced voice control as I did, but he must have had that sort of instruction somewhere along the way.”
Willie’s first true idol was Ernest Tubb, who’d showed up on the Opry in 1943. “Walkin’ The Floor Over You” was one of the first songs Booger Red learned off the radio. He took to heart Tubb’s advice, given much later, of course, that the two most important things for a singer are clarity of thought and individual style.
“Ernest Tubb was the Texas country music hero, and Frank Sinatra was the bobbysoxer hero back in those days,” Nelson said. “But I could see similarities. I think it (my singing style) is probably a combination of Frank Sinatra, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman and Bob Wills, and probably other people that I don’t even know.”
Elements of all can be heard in Nelson’s distinctive style, squeezing words together and racing ahead of the beat, regardless of the type of song he’s singing. “I think early on I did do a lot of phrasing. Of course, a lot of it was ‘If you can’t do it this way, do it another.’ Maybe I couldn’t do it exactly the way Ernest Tubb or Frank Sinatra did it, so I would do it the way that made it easy for me.
“It may sound strange or even more far off than they think I should be, but as long as I get back in time and the beat is there … I’ve run a lot of drummers crazy trying to follow me, because I do lay behind or jump ahead a lot.”
While in the sixth grade, he landed his first professional gig, strumming acoustic guitar with the 15-member John Raycjeck Bohemian Polka Band. The ensemble played polka, waltzes and shoddishes for the large German and Polish settlements around Abbott, West and Waco, and Nelson was paid the princely sum of $8 per night (more than he could bring home after a week in the cotton fields). Still, his guitar playing was rarely audible above the drums and the horn section.
He was already a prolific songwriter at 11, and he hand-printed a Songs By Willie Nelson music book to prove it. He drew a lariat on the cover, and the greeting, “Howdy Pard,” and put it on the coffee table next to the Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers folios, where he could gaze at it and dream.
Sister Bobbie, age 16 in 1946, married Texas fiddler Bud Fletcher, and together they put together a Western dance band, with 13-year old Willie on guitar. Bud Fletcher and the Texans played the beer joints and dance halls, like dozens of other bands in the area. They even had their own radio series on KHBR out of nearby Hillsboro, and Willie thought they’d reached the very pinnacle. Ira Nelson played with them for a period too.
That first year, the entrepreneurial Fletcher booked Texas’ number one king of swing, Bob Wills himself, into the Oak Lodge dance hall in nearby Whitney, Texas. Young Willie was a partner in the deal.
Nelson remembered that Wills, who looked like wax but was still larger than life, always had a crowd around him. In his 1988 autobiography Willie, he wrote: “Bob Wills taught me how to be a bandleader and how to be a star. He would hit the bandstand at 8 p.m. and stay for four hours without a break. One song would end; he’d count four and hit another one. There was not time wasted between songs.
“I learned from him to keep the people moving and dancing. That way, you don’t lose their attention, plus your amplifiers drown out whatever the drunks might yell. The more you keep the music going, the smoother the evening will be.”
Wills, already a hero, became a friend: the great man would pen the liner notes to Nelson’s second album, Here’s Willie Nelson, in 1963. Nelson, meanwhile, had taken a fancy to Django Reinhardt, the Belgian Gypsy guitarist who played much the same way Sinatra sang: with strange textures, phrasing and shifts in meter. Jazz was an important element in Willie’s musical education.
“My dad played fiddle, and he played rhythm guitar,” said Nelson. “The style that he played, he learned mainly from Western Swing, Bob Wills and those guys. Now, the fiddle players in there, guys like Johnny Gimble and Cecil Briar, were great students of Stephane Grappelli, who was with Django’s Hot Band of France back in the ’30s and ’20s. Django himself was a hero to all these western swing guitar players, who were nothing more than jazz players themselves. Bob’s arrangements were jazz. So I had Django influences before I had the real thing.”
It was Johnnie Gimble, in fact, who gave him his first Reinhardt album: Nelson claims to have every record the guitarist made. “I loved his tone, and naturally I can’t do what he did, but I do admire it enough to where it’s obvious that I try to do what he does,” Nelson said, acknowledging the Reinhardt influence on his own wild guitar style. “I reach for something, and I don’t hit what he hit, but I’ll hit something else accidentally. That’s where most hot licks come from, I think.”
After graduating from Abbott High School in 1951, Nelson signed up for the Air Force, determined to become a jet pilot and serve his country gloriously in the Korean conflict. But he couldn’t even get past the preliminary tests, and after trying a couple of different start-up positions (in radar school and the medical corps), he was released on a medical discharge (he’d hurt his back lifting some heavy boxes).
Upon returning to Abbott, Nelson fell head over heels in love with a 16-year old carhop, Martha Jewel Matthews, a feisty gal with a Cherokee bloodline. On their first date, he drove Bud Fletcher’s car. Martha was still 16 when they married, and the newlyweds moved in with Mama Nelson.
Nelson played guitar for a spell with the Mission City Playboys (whose drummer, Johnny Bush, would remain a lifelong friend) and, after Martha became pregnant with their first child, Nelson took a job as a disc jockey in Pleasanton, 30 miles south of San Antonio. To get the job, he lied about his experience (he didn’t have any).
In 1954, shortly after daughter Lana was born, the new family relocated to Fort Worth (Ira and his new wife lived there, as did sister Bobbie, widowed by Bud Fletcher and remarried). Nelson was a popular air personality on KCNC in Fort Worth. His sign-on: “This is your ol’ cotton pickin’, snuff dippin’, tobacco chewin’, stump jumpin’, coffee pot dodgin’, dumplin’eatin, frog giggin’ hillbilly from Hill County.” He played and sang live on the radio each day, and it was during this tenure that he first met drummer Paul English, who would join his band fulltime 10 years later and remains to this day.
“He was a Fort Worth pimp and part-time musician,” Nelson recalled, laughing. “Paul’s brother, Oliver English, was also a fine musician there in Fort Worth. Each day I’d do a live show, 30 minutes with just me and the guitar, and Oliver English. One day Paul came down, and the drummer that we had there didn’t show up.
“So we had Paul sit over there and we put a pair of brushes in his hand. That was the first time he ever played drums – he played trombone, or sax or something in the Salvation Army. But the first time he played drums was on the radio with me and Oliver.”
Willie played songs for children at one o’clock in the afternoon, sort of a “naptime show”; one of his favorite records was “The Red Headed Stranger” by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. He was also writing feverishly.
It was in Fort Worth in 1954, too, that Willie Nelson was first introduced to marijuana, a substance he has rarely been without in the intervening years. It has been sanding off his rough edges for four decades now.
In 1956, after relocating briefly to San Diego, the Nelson family moved in with Mother Myrle, who’d remarried (twice) and had settled in Vancouver, Washington. Old radio hand Willie talked himself into a jock job on KVAN, and within a month his 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily program was the second most popular show in town (Arthur Godfrey was first). His air name was Wee Willie Nelson.
Mae Boren Axton, who’d co-written “Heartbreak Hotel” for Elvis Presley, visited Vancouver while working as advance publicity flak for singer Hank Snow (managed by Axton’s boss, Colonel Tom Parker, who was by then getting busy with Elvis Presley). Willie, never one to miss an opportunity, corralled her into the production room and played her a tape of some songs he’d written. Axton’s advice: If you got something to sell, go where the store is. Get the hell out of the Pacific Northwest and move to Nashville.
Instead, Nelson dragged his electric guitar and amplifier into a converted garage in nearby Portland, Oregon, and crudely recorded two songs: his own “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack,” a tune written by his pal Leon Payne. The echo–laden tapes were sent off to Starday Records in Nashville, where 500 singles were pressed (on “Willie Nelson Records”); Starday’s Pappy Dailey declined to pick up the artist’s publishing, which was his company’s option in the contract.
Wee Willie sold the singles on his radio show; for $1 you received the record and an autographed photo of W. Nelson, writer, producer and record tycoon. He sold out of the first pressing, and eventually his fans bought 3,000 records.
Willie wasn’t ready to try Nashville yet, but the bug had bitten him. Making enough money to support his family was his top priority, and when his program out-performed Arthur Godfrey in the local ratings, he demanded a raise and was promptly dismissed.
So after two years in Vancouver he packed up Martha and the kids (daughter Susie was born in Washington in January 1957) and went back to Texas. For a while, he was determined to quit the music business and be a serious and hard–workin’ daddy, but his restlessness and drive wore him down.
In Fort Worth, living with Ira and his new family again, the Nelsons tried to be a normal family, living normal hours. Nelson sold vacuum cleaners, Bibles and encyclopedias door to door, and even taught Sunday school for a while, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church. When the pastor learned that Mr. Nelson, respectable bible–thumper and tutor to the local children in the ways of the Lord, was often coming in on Sunday after a night singing and picking in honky–tonks and “buckets of blood,” Nelson was dismissed from Sunday school.
Disgusted by the hypocrisy of it all (“I ran into a lot of the same faces Saturday and Sunday,” he’d later write), Nelson left the Christian church for good. It was at this time, he wrote, that he started reading about other religious beliefs and eventually came face to face with what, for him, would read like God’s own truth: the laws of Karma and reincarnation. These beliefs helped him through some mighty rough times.
Looking for more honky tonks to conquer, Nelson brought his brood south to Houston, a rough–and–tumble town in 1958 (son Billy came in May). Perpetually broke, he held down three jobs: He played six nights a week with Larry Butler’s band at Houston’s roomy Esquire Ballroom, spun records Sunday mornings on KCRT, and taught guitar at mandolinist Paul Buskirk’s School of Music (although, he says, most of his students seemed to know he was faking it). Buskirk remains a friend and ally; his presence is felt throughout 1993′s Moonlight Becomes You.
Nelson settled his family in an apartment in Pasadena, Texas, a Houston suburb. It was during the 30–minute drive from Pasadena to the Esquire Club one night that he plucked the opening lines to “Night Life” out of the air: “When the evening sun goes down, you will find me hangin’ round…” He rarely wrote anything down, figuring that if it wasn’t good enough to remember, it wasn’t good.
Meanwhile, Starday Records owner Pappy Dailey signed Nelson to his fledgling D Records, and cut his first “official” single on Nelson, “What A Way To Live.” But Dailey and the label man had a falling out over “Night Life,” Nelson knew it was a hit in waiting, but Dailey thought it was a blues song, not a country song, and wouldn’t let him cut it.
So Nelson recorded “Night Life” on a small Houston label, Rx Records, and to avoid a legal hassle with Dailey, he had the artist listed as “Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, Featuring Hugh Nelson.”
“The musicians on there were jazz and blues musicians,” Nelson said. “Herbie Remington, the steel guitar player, was a fantastic musician who could play anything. He was one of the original steel guitar players with Bob Wills.”
To finance the session, Nelson had sold “Night Life” to Buskirk for $150; earlier, Buskirk had purchased Nelson’s song “Family Bible” for $50. He said that in those days, he figured songs were like paintings; you finished one, sold it and painted another one. He has never earned a cent from “Family Bible,” which was a Top 10 hit for Buskirk’s partner Claude Gray in 1960 (on D Records, of course), or from “Night Life,” which became Ray Price’s signature tune in 1963 and has been recorded by more than 70 artists, including Willie himself.
In 1960, encouraged by his meager songwriting success, he finally took Mae Axton’s advice and pointed himself toward Nashville in his beat–to–hell 1950 Buick; after dropping Martha and the kids at her folks’ place in Waco, he hit the highway to Music City.
The car collapsed and died like a tired horse the moment he arrived in downtown Nashville.
Willie made fast friends at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the watering hole just across the alley from the Opry, where the songwriters hung out and drank and bragged and schmoozed. Nelson fell in with Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Mel Tillis and, fortuitously, Hank Cochran. The composer (with Howard) of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” Cochran had connections; when his new friend Nelson began to turn up at “guitar pullings” (late night boozing parties where writers tried out their new stuff) the tide started to turn for Nelson.
He moved Martha and the children up from Waco, and the family took a cheap trailer at Dunn’s Trailer Court, coincidentally, the very mobile home that both Cochran and Miller had inhabited when they had first arrived. Miller, in fact, used the entrance sign at Dunn’s — “Trailers for Sale or Rent” — as the opening image for his 1965 classic “King Of The Road.”
In 1960, though, Cochran was the only one of the bunch to have achieved any success. So impressed was he by Nelson’s songwriting that he waved off a $50 per week raise from his publisher, Pamper Music, and suggested they use it instead to hire Willie Nelson.
When Willie learned about this good fortune, he cried. Martha cried. The kids cried. Cochran cried. At last, Nelson was a songwriter, making a living — well, making something — with his relentless creative drive. Martha went to work as a waitress and barmaid, paying the bills, while Nelson pursued his dream. The marriage was, however, unraveling, as Nelson was pulled, and eventually pulled himself, farther away from family duties. He and his wife were both hotheads, he recalled later.
He recorded dozens of songs as demos, the same way its done in Nashville today, and shopped them to country artists (most of the so–called “Pamper demos” were issued amid lots of compilations in the 1970s).
Things began to turn around in 1961. First Faron Young, one of the Tootsie’s crowd and a consistent hitmaker since the 1950′s, cut Nelson’s “Hello Walls.” Backed by another Nelson number, “Congratulations,” the single stayed at number one for nine weeks. Nelson received his first big royalty check for $20,000, and French–kissed Faron in front of all their cronies at the bar at Tootsie’s.
Two more smashes followed, in October and November, respectively. “Funny How Time Slips Away” was a smash by Texan Billy Walker (an old friend who’d also cut Nelson’s “Mr. Record Man” to considerably less success), and “Crazy” became a big hit for Patsy Cline. He wrote them in the same week.
He never seemed to be out of songs. “I just think if you’re a songwriter, if that’s what you do, it’s just kind of like if you’re a farmer,” Nelson said. “You have a natural talent for plowing a field. I’m a songwriter. It’s supposed to be easy for me, and it is.
“I can write a song about anything, at any time. Now, whether it’s worth a damn or not is debatable. But to any professional songwriter, you should be able to say, “All right, write me a song about running around naked,” and he should be able to do it.”
The songwriting royalties were startin’ to look fine, but Willie still desperately wanted to be a performer. Around this time, he took a job, playing bass in Ray Price’s road band, the Cherokee Cowboys (replacing Donnie Young, who would soon change his name to Johnny Paycheck). He so enjoyed life on the road that he spent more and more time away from home, even when he wasn’t working. With his big royalty checks, he’d often spring for a suite at whatever Holiday Inn they were staying in, so the band could party.
In the fall of 1961, Hank Cochran unwittingly got Nelson his first record deal. While on a song–selling mission to Liberty Records head Joe Allison, Cochran played a few of the demos Nelson had recorded for Pamper.
Allison fell for Willie Nelson’s songs, and for his unusually expressive voice. “For years, nobody would record him because they thought he sung funny,” Allison would later recall. “We finally decided that the best approach would just be to play rhythm behind him and stay the hell out of the way.”
That was pretty much the blueprint for …And Then I Wrote, the first Willie Nelson album, issued on Liberty Records in September 1962. Performed with a small, bass–piano–drums–guitar combo and little else to fog Nelson’s Texas baritone, the album is a classic honky tonk weeper.
Here are the earliest versions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Hello Walls,” plus textbook barroom bawlers like “Undo The Right” (co–written by Cochran), “The Part Where I Cry” and “Three Days.”
There’s also the utterly strange “Where My House Lives” and the darkly beautiful “Darkness on the Face Of The Earth.” All in all, depressing songs about unhappy relationships.
“Most of the songs that I write pretty much reflect where I’m at, at the time,” he reflected. “And those were some pretty sad and hectic times in my life. I guess that’s why I was born a songwriter, so I could write about ‘em.”
Of course, the album wasn’t a hit. It’s likely that the world wasn’t ready for Willie Nelson yet. Today, Nelson wonders what his life would be like if his early records had made him a star. “I’d be burned out by now,” he believed. “I’d be dead somewhere. It’s occurred to me several times. I think everything happens when it’s supposed to. I don’t think I would’ve known what to do with success — I still don’t know what to do with it! I might be one of those guys that’s settled down in Branson and decided that’s where they want to spend the rest of their life. If I’d had some hits early, when I was 25 years old, I might’ve been tired of the whole damn thing.”
The best thing to come out of …And Then I Wrote, to Nelson’s mind, was his relationship with the great country guitar player Grady Martin. Martin was the session leader for the Nashville part of …And Then I Wrote (several of the tracks were cut in Los Angeles, with Leon Russell supervising) and the two developed an easy rapport that would last. Martin played guitar in Nelson’s band for nearly 20 years and finally retired, over Nelson’s protests, in 1993.
…And Then I Wrote was the most satisfying album Willie Nelson would release until Yesterday’s Wine nine years later; with each subsequent set, with each new producer, his vocals would become a little less essential to the mix. Starting with 1963′s Here’s Willie Nelson, his producers would try to fit him into the mold of a Nashville record–maker.
But he didn’t fit; he never would. And try as they might, nobody could make a star out of Willie Nelson until they changed the mold to fit him.
His first chart single, a duet with singer Shirley Collie, Hank Cochran’s “Willingly,” was released in December 1961. Collie, a world–class yodeler and harmony singer, was a member of Red Foley’s Phillip Morris road show. By the time “Willingly” had made it to #10 in March, Nelson was romantically involved with Collie, married to a California disc jockey who’d helped Nelson’s career.
His solo single “Touch Me” went to #7 in May, but Willie Nelson wouldn’t crack the Top 10 again until he returned with long hair, a beard and a cowboy hat 13 years later.
Here’s Willie Nelson appeared in 1963, and sank without a trace, and a third album though recorded, was never released (all of Nelson’s Liberty tracks were later collected on The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings). He left the label for what he hoped would be greener pastures.
By the time Ray Price had cut “Night Life” in 1963, Nelson was deeply in love with Shirley Colley; he once described her as the best harmony singer he’d ever worked with (listen to the duo’s snazzy, jazzy versions of “Columbus Stockade Blues” — three of them — on the Early Years). Martha divorced him in 1963 and took the kids out west; after Shirley’s divorce from Biff Colley, she and Nelson were married. They bought a 200–acre hog farm in Ridgetop, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville (while they were signing the papers, they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas).
Nelson wrote the Christmas song “Pretty Paper,” which became a Top 20 it for Roy Orbison, and briefly recorded for Orbison’s label, Monument (one single was released, and the other tracks originally consigned to the Monument shelves were issued during the Williefest that was the ’70s; the most complete collection being the Singer/Songwriter album.
Suffering from the serious bouts of depression and self–doubt that would plague him for many years, Nelson quit the performing business for a few months in 1964 to write songs and raise hogs at Ridgetop. The British Invasion was making short work of most other styles of music at the time, anyway, and country music was adding strings and big arrangement to compensate (this was the beginning of ‘countrypolitan’ music, the so–called “Nashville Sound”).
Bored with the hog farmer bit, Nelson “came back” with a vengeance in November, ironically signing with RCA Victor, where the Nashville Sound blueprints were being drawn. But vocal arranger Anita Kerr was a fan, as was A&R head Chet Atkins, and they believed Nelson’s stellar songwriting talent would override his unorthodox singling style. With some strings here and chorus there, he could be a huge country star yet. Nelson joined the Grand Ole Opry the same month.
In Nashville, he joined the cast of Ernest Tubb’s syndicated TV show as co–host. “It was a lot of fun,” Nelson recalled. “That was back when Jack Greene was playing drums in the Ernest Tubb show. Cal Smith was playing guitar, and Wade Ray was playing fiddle with me. That was the good ol’ days.”
Nelson was thrilled to be singing and playing alongside his boyhood hero. “I helped him host a little bit along, but he was the master of ceremonies,” he remembered. “He let me be the co–host because he wanted to help boost my career, I guess.”
But the powers that were at RCA were wrong; in six years and 18 albums, Nelson had never had even a minor hit with the label. Producers Atkins and Felton Jarvis tried every trick in the book — they laid on the strings, they laid off the strings, they put on steel guitars and fiddles, they put on horns, they let Nelson just play his acoustic guitar. But he resented, like so many others, having to use the antiseptic RCA studios and the dispassionate RCA session musicians.
There were some good songs—he was really cranking ‘em out by now—but the recordings were…well, they were kind of boring. “I really did get frustrated in those years,” he said, “because I was writing what I felt were good songs. Each time you put out an album that you didn’t feel had a chance, there’s 10 of your children that you feel like didn’t get a fair shot. On the other hand, I also knew that if these songs were as good as I thought they were, they’d always be good and eventually I’d be able to do them again, some way.
“When I first went to Nashville, I wanted to go in with me and my guitar and do some things. Chet Atkins, Grady Martin and I, just the three of us, we did some a few years later. I was so intimidated being in the studio with those two guys that I couldn’t find my ass with a search warrant.”
To be honest, many of Nelson’s RCA records were doomed by his performance style, too, which had become a kind of bleating monotone. He hadn’t yet found the intimate and even tender singing voice he would use on Red Headed Stranger and everything that followed.
Although there were many, many good songs, and they weren’t all overproduced (check out Nelson’s hipster takes on “Fire And Rain” and “Both Sides Now” on the 1970 Both Sides Now LP) they were nearly all overpowering, without any subtlety at all. As if he were trying too hard. (Compare Nelson’s honking 1970 version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” with the calm, measured reading on 1979′s Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson).
“I knew they didn’t sound like I wanted them to sound,” Nelson said. “There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have the authority to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I don’t want to do it this way.’ I decided maybe I’m makin’ demos, but if I am, they’re pretty expensive and I’m not paying for ‘em.”
In 1965, Willie and his band were performing at the Riverside Ballroom in Phoenix; Waylon Jennings was a regular performer at JD’s Lounge down the street. Jennings went over to check out the traveling Texan, and a lifelong friendship was born.
“I love his writing,” Jennings said. “I’m a firm believer that between him and Roger Miller, it would be a toss–up. Willie has written more of a wider range of country songs. But Willie is basically the greatest country songwriter that’s ever been, I think.”
He was selling records in Texas and surrounding areas, where his live act was drawing crowds, but everywhere else Willie Nelson was a washout. Nashville just didn’t know what to do with him. He didn’t feel right with Nashville, either. “Just because he had on a suit and tie, or a turtleneck, didn’t mean that’s what was going on inside his head,” offered Ray Benson. “He could have been a beatnik. You have to get into the nuance of the time. If you really look close at it, you’ll see that he was really different. And he always knew that.
“He was trying to fit in, but only superficially. Because the music was so different, really — his version of ‘San Antonio Rose,’ for example, that’s almost jazz music. That’s also in the great tradition of Ernest Tubb, though. His band did stuff like that all the time.
“Willie’s musicality was probably what set him apart. The facts are, when you hit Nashville back in them days, there were two kinds of players; the people who played hot, and the people who played commercial. And that was the word they used, ‘commercial.’ Hank Garland, one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time, also played on all of the Top 40 country western records of the time. And played commercial.”
At Ridgetop, Lana, Susie and Billy came to live with Willie and Shirley. Martha never did give her ex–husband legal custody, but she was getting re–married, again, and had better things to do. Eventually, she and her third spouse, Mickey Scott (an old flame from Waco) moved in just down the road from Willie, Shirley and the kids.
Ira, Willie’s dad, and his new wife Lorraine moved onto Nelson’s farm, as did sister Bobbie, her third husband and her three kids. When Lana married, she and her husband stayed in the area. Mother Myrle and her husband relocated from the Pacific Northwest to a house five miles away. Musicians Wade Ray and Paul English — they played fiddle and drums with Willie — moved onto the farm with their wives too.
Even though he wasn’t selling records, Nelson was bringing in close to $100,000 a year in songwriting royalties. He still wanted desperately to be a star, and in the mid–’60s bought his first bus. He and the band began to hit the road nationally, for a month at a stretch.
Things at Ridgetop were strained, with Willie on the road all the time, and Shirley increasingly resentful, holding the reins on the kids, the hogs and a whole brood of transplanted Texans practically by herself. Daughter Susie began to rebel, staying out all night and abusing drugs; Billy apparently never got over his parents’ divorce and resented Shirley for years.
One afternoon in November 1969, Shirley opened up a piece of mail with a Houston postmark, and proceeded to read a hospital paternity bill. Willie and Connie Nelson, “Mr. and Mrs.,” had become the parents of a baby girl, Paula Carlene on Oct. 27. Mr. Nelson had put the Ridgetop address on the registration forms.
Willie had been introduced to Connie Koepke at a club in a Texas town called Cut ‘n Shoot, just outside of Houston. She was more than just another conquest of the road, of which there were many by this time. Nelson’s marriage to Shirley was coming apart; he was hard–drinking and unhappy again.
Shirley moved out shortly after the arrival of the errant hospital bill; by Christmas, Connie was living at the house with the baby Paula Carlene, Susie and Billie. Susie thought Connie, 27 was all right, but Billy never spoke to her. Willie and Shirley wouldn’t speak to one another for 10 years.
In the basement at Ridgetop, Nelson had rigged a crude recording studio where he, Cochran and the rest of the songwriting gang would play cards, get drunk and lay down new tunes. A week before Christmas, Nelson and Cochran wrote a song called “What Can You Do To Me Now?”
Willie was at a party in Nashville on Dec. 23 when someone called to say his house was on fire; Connie and the baby were home, but had escaped unharmed. He hurried home and dashed through the smoldering ruin, kicking through the ashes until he found what he was looking for: an old guitar case stuffed with two pounds of top–notch Columbian marijuana.
A friend helped the Nelsons find suitable quarters while they started looking for a place to live while their home was being rebuilt. Since most of Nelson’s performance dates were in Texas, and Texans loved him, they started looking down there. Eventually they settled on a place called the Happy Valley Dude Ranch in Bandera, 50 miles west of San Antonio on the eastern edge of Texas Hill Country.
Happy Valley was closed for the winter, and so they had the place all to themselves. Nelson’s “family” was expanding even further, and several of his band members and their immediates made the move with him. Thus, the Bandera property became something like a commune, with each family encamped in a different clapboard guesthouse. Willie and Connie took the ranch foreman’s quarters.
It was here at Happy Valley, among the hills, cedar trees and verdant fields of wildflowers, that Nelson began to wonder whether he really wanted to live in Nashville after all. His lifestyle was loose, organic, so unlike the way country music performers were supposed to behave.
He hated the studio system, hated his record company, hated the fact that after 10 years of hitting the road hard, the only place he could draw any sort of a crowd was around Texas.
“I was ready to move somewhere anyway,” he said, “and it just seemed like when the house burned I didn’t have any excuses anymore. If I’m gonna look for a new house, I might as well look for one back in Texas, because that’s really where I felt I ought to go.
“First of all, I needed to go somewhere I could take my band and play, and I knew I could do it in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana. I didn’t have to travel very far that way, and I figured, ‘If this is my retirement, I’m gonna enjoy it and be somewhere I want to be.’
“I think I reached a point where I just said, ‘Wait a minute. This is not working. I’m ruining my health, running around all over the world trying to do something that just ain’t working.’ I was still getting songs cut, so I was making an income that way, so I said, ‘I’m going home.’ And when the house burned I just said, ‘Let’s go.’”
In Bandera, Willie began to meditate. He read Kahlil Gibran, the poet, and the philosophical works of Edgar Cayce, the prophet of reincarnation. He also began playing golf religiously (Happy Valley had its own nine–hole golf course).
In 1971, he released Yesterday’s Wine, a brilliant country music album, brimming with the mortal court and mystical spark that would ignite Red Headed Stranger (still four years away), but just as gut–wrenching and emotional as his early songs for Liberty.
It’s a concept album, telling the story of a man watching his own funeral and reviewing his life. The new songs on Yesterday’s Wine were written in Bandera, where he and his cohorts had settled into a hippie–esque, hedonistic way of life. There were drugs, and drink, and many days spent navel–gazing and nature–communing under the influence of some chemical or other.
These are the spoken opening lines of Yesterday’s Wine:
Voice 1 (Paul English): You do know why you’re here?
Voice 2 (Willie): Yes. There is great confusion on earth, and the power that is has concluded the following: Perfect man has visited earth already, and his voice was heard; the voice of imperfect man must now be manifest. And I have been selected as the most likely candidate.
Voice 1: Yes, the time is April, and therefore you, a Taurus, must go. To be born under the same sign twice adds strength, and this strength, combined with wisdom and love, is the key.
With an intro like that, how could Nashville like this album?
“It was just one of those ideas,” Nelson said recently. “I’d heard of concept albums before, and I just thought, ‘Well, I can do that.”
Along with the title song and good old “Family Bible,” Yesterday’s Wine includes “Let Me Be A Man,” “It’s Not For Me To Understand,” and “Me and Paul,” Nelson’s humorous song about the trials and tribulations of life on the road with drummer and closest pal Paul English (really close, because he lived at Happy Valley too).
Most importantly, the album introduced a “new” Willie Nelson and Band sound: stripped down, spartan instrumentation and quiet vocals, like a gang of spiritual cowboys around a campfire.
Except Cowboy Willie seemed to be trying to sing with the stilted phrasing of every other erstwhile Nashville star. The combination was lethal; Yesterday’s Wine was too weird, and predictably, it stiffed. He wasn’t ready yet.
The Ridgetop house was rebuilt in 1971, and everyone shlepped back to Tennessee. Willie and RCA reached an impasse over Yesterday’s Wine (he thought they didn’t promote it, which they didn’t, and they accused him of being counter–commercial, which he was). After a few contractual obligations were worked out, Willie Nelson was a free agent.
He met Atlantic Records head Jerry Wexler at a guitar–pulling. Sitting on a stool in the wee hours, his old Martin N–20 gut–string guitar in hand, Nelson sang an entirely new concept album he planned to call Phases And Stages. The story of a painful divorce was told from both sides. Phases And Stages introduced a couple of songs that would become classics: “Bloody Mary Morning,” “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” and “Sister’s Coming Home.” It was to be a bold stroke.
Wexler told the singer he was starting an Atlantic country division, and since his deal with RCA was just about up, would he like to be the flagship artist? Nelson said yes, if he was given artistic control of the project. He was making just enough money to be cocky about it. Wexler agreed.
The first thing Atlantic did was fly Willie and his band to New York, to record there (for their very first time) with Arif Mardin. The Shotgun Willie album sessions, featuring a crack horn section and guest pickers Leon Russell, Doug Sahm and David Bromberg, were attended and written about by Rolling Stone magazine.
Phases And Stages finally arrived a year later, as quiet and reflective as Shotgun Willie had been drunk and electric. “Bloody Mary Morning” was a Top 20 hit, and Phases And Stages became Nelson’s best–selling album to date (numerous rave reviews certainly didn’t hurt). The “alternative” press was calling him cool, and it looked like he was on his way.
But the sales figures still weren’t all that great, and when Atlantic decided to shut down its Nashville operation, Phases And Stages died a quick (and painful) commercial death.
Part II: Don’t cross him, don’t boss him
By that time Nelson had already retreated back to Texas and its comfortable beer joint stages, where he was a familiar and welcome figure.
“I could be happy doing that, because I had worked clubs down in Texas all my life, and I knew all the club owners around there,” he explains. “There was a pretty good circuit of clubs in Texas, and you could work every day and not work the same one.”
Since almost all the gigs were in Texas, why not just move there permanently? Nashville just flat wasn’t happening. With the Atlantic debacle ringing in his ears, and with Happy Valley memories still strong, Nelson shifted his entire organization to Austin.
“I had come back to Texas to retire, and to play what I wanted to play when I wanted to play,” Nelson said.
“I’d been lucky enough to write some songs and have an income, so if I lived within the means I wouldn’t have to do any more touring. I was 40 years old, and it was time to slow down a little bit, I thought.
“So I came back to Texas, and I started just working around places that I wanted to work.”
Rock ‘n’ roll and country were drawing closer together, despite themselves, and in the spring of 1972, some quick–thinking promotion guys in Dallas had decided that Texas, where the burner under this melting pot seemed to be, needed its own Woodstock.
And so it came: the First Annual Dripping Springs Reunion, held in a dusty cow pasture a half–hour’s drive west of Austin. Tex Ritter and Loretta Lynn were on the bill, but so were Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. “The old meet the new” was the idea. Or something like that.
The country Woodstock was pretty much a disaster; the 60,000 fans got wet, muddy and stoned, in that order, and the promotion men took a bath. But Willie Nelson, keen observer of people and the things that drove them, was taking notes. He used the unfortunate Dripping Springs concert as the jumping–off point for the annual Willie Nelson Fourth of July picnics, which he would begin in 1974.
“The Dripping Springs Reunion had been a financial disaster, but it was still a good idea,” Nelson said. “And I was on that show. And I saw the possibilities.
“The reason I wanted to do it in July was because it was hot, and I figured that any kind of violence that might break out would be lessened by the heat.
“I figured if people smoked enough dope and drank enough beer, then they wouldn’t want to fight. Especially if it was hot.”
And he put his own name prominently “above the title,” helping to set himself up as the patriarch of the south’s new counter–counter–culture.
“Some of them were big, some of them were just bombs,” Ray Benson recalled. “He really wasn’t making any money at all. He’d take his publishing checks and subsidize the whole thing.”
The bill at the 1974 picnic included Kris Kristofferson, his wife Rita Coolidge (then enjoying success as a pop solo act and as a duo with her husband) and Nelson’s old bud Waylon Jennings, who was coming into his own, like Nelson, as a “progressive country” artist.
(By the fourth go–round in 1976, a three–day affair held in Gonzales, Texas, the picnics had become the largest annual musical event in the nation, and were routinely condemned by the local politicos. Which of course, made them all the more fun.)
“I don’t know how many Fourth of July picnics we’ve done, 10 or 12 or 15 or something,” he said. “They started blending into Farm Aid. We quit doing Picnics and started doing Farm Aids.”
In 1972 and ’73, Willie Nelson had found more than what he expected in Austin. He found a lifestyle, a manifesto, and an attitude. And he, a 40–year old country singer, ostensibly an “establishment figure” could relate to it.
“I found a lot of people who thought the same way I did about a lot of things, a lot of them from Texas,” he said. “And so I realized there was a lot of folks over there who would like to hear some country music, but they really didn’t have a place to hear it.
“Guys like Commander Cody were playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters, so I thought this would be a good spot to break country music in to those people.”
The Armadillo World Headquarters, a converted National Guard Armory, became the center for Austin’s fledgling subculture of hippies, rednecks, country and folk fans and all the strange hybrid bloodlines that were forming. It was a lot like San Francisco in its hipster heyday, Nelson said. Except much further south.
The music was changing fast too. Rock ‘n’ roll and country had been brought together in exciting new ways courtesy of Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Eagles. Troubadours such as Jerry Jeff Walker were sort of like Hank Williams, the prevailing logic went, if he’d been alive in the present age.
“I saw something that a lot of people didn’t see,” Nelson said. “I saw a whole new audience out there. And the only difference between these guys and these guys is one of them has long hair and might smoke a little dope every now and then, and the other guy over here’s got short hair and drinks rotgut whiskey.
“It was gonna be difficult for them guys to ever get together unless they had some common ground. And I knew what the common ground was. I knew that these same guys, who had their hair down to their ass, loved Hank Williams. And I knew that this guy over here, who had just got through kickin’ the shit out of some hippie, he loved Hank Williams. So there was something wrong with this.”
Austin in 1972 was like nothing else history had seen, recalled Asleep At The Wheel’s Ray Benson. “It was wonderful. We were always broke, and everybody just wanted to get high and play music. There were many, many like–minded people. People used to say, ‘What’s the Austin sound?’ I’d say, ‘There ain’t no Austin sound, there’s an Austin scene.’ We were all as different musically as you could be: Doug Sahm had his thing, Greezy Wheels, Marcia Ball, Willie Nelson, a hundred other groups. And they all sounded different. There wasn’t anybody sounded the same.”
So what was it? “It was all lifestyle,” Benson said. “Everybody liked to get high, liked to have a beer, liked elements of country music for sure, absolutely, but we were also counter–culture, whatever that was. We were takin’ the hippie thing and giving it this real Texas, country music slant.”
And above the title, smiling that million–dollar paternal smile, was Willie Nelson. “He was the father of the whole thing, no doubt,” Benson said. “He was the most successful, he was the oldest, and he was pure Texas. He knew Darrel Royall, the football coach, he knew the state representatives, these kind of guys. I couldn’t get a check cashed in Austin.
“Willie was very much in touch with the establishment from his previous days, and yet he was also very much part of the counter–culture. So he had his feet in both camps, and was accepted by both. He was our link. He was the guy who, when he said we were all right to a bunch of these straight establishment kind of people, we were all right, which opened up many, many doors which would’ve otherwise been closed.”
Willie began to grow his hair and beard, and to wear old jeans and T–shirts onstage. “I did it to piss a lot of people off, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t pissin’ nobody off any more,” he recalled with a deep laugh. The he told a story that, for him, explained everything: “We used to sit around at parties back in the drinkin’ days, sit around in hotel rooms, and crowds would come in, and there’d be more people there than you wanted.
“So we’d start sayin’ ‘fuck’ around, and the first thing you know, the guys that had their little girlfriends would leave. And then I started noticin’ that the more you said ‘fuck’ the more people’d come in.” He laughed another good Texas laugh. “Times are changing.”
The common denominator, Benson said, was, “Drugs. Frankly, all I can say is he turned on with the rest of us. He got psychedelicized, as they used to say. I think he always was a ‘seeker’ as Dolly Parton used to call him. He was always looking for more than perhaps the obvious spiritual answer.”
Nelson’s first show at the Armadillo was Aug. 12, 1972. It wasn’t long before he called Waylon, who too was getting sick of the stranglehold up in Nashville, and persuaded him to come down to play a gig in Austin. Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were booked as the opening act.
“He called me and said, ‘I think I found something down here,” remembered Jennings. “So I went down there, and I looked out of the curtain, and there was all these long–haired kids. And I said, ‘Go get that little red–headed son–of–a–bitch! Get him in here!” And they went out front and got Willie, and I said, ‘What the hell have you got me into? Those are a bunch of kids!’
“And he said, ‘Just trust me.’ I said, ‘Now I know what that means in California, but I ain’t sure about Austin.’ Well, that was one of the first times that I saw this happening, and it spread from right there at that little Armadillo Club, all across the country.”
In 1975, the country music establishment was doing its best to ignore the mixed marriage between country and rock ‘n’ roll; the switch to the “countrypolitan” sound was complete, away from the hillbillies and honky–tonk tunes of the old days to a streamlined, string–laded, cloned–from–the–pop–charts sound. There was very little in the middle. Still, things were better in 1975 than they had been at the turn of the decade — both Freddy Fender and Merle Haggard had sizable hits that year with different–sounding records. But Nashville, slow to change, was still pretty much a bastion for the old guard.
Willie Nelson, meanwhile was having a great time being the King of Austin. He’d like to keep recording, he told anyone who asked, but he wasn’t gonna go back to Nashville and have to put up with all that dictatorial crap. But since he’d never had a real hit, no producer was going to let him call the shots.
Phases And Stages, although a critical success, was a commercial dud, and you couldn’t exchange a flop for clout in the studio. But the big noise from down Austin way had attracted CBS Records’ A&R guys in Dallas; over the objections of producer Billy Sherrill, the hottest hit maker in Nashville (and head man at the label’s Music City headquarters), CBS president Bruce Lundvall offered Willie Nelson a contract.
The key clause: Total artistic control — the music, the players, everything down to jacket art — was Willie’s.
Why would giant CBS give a relative nobody like Willie Nelson such freedom?
“I found out later that they didn’t,” Nelson said with a chuckle. “They just told me they did. It just so happens, on that very first album, they knew if they ‘no’ then, then I was gone. So they let me have it for a time or two, but then whenever they decided I’d had enough, they started rejecting my albums.
“And I said, ‘But wait a minute, you can’t do that. I got artistic control! But they continued to do it.”
Willie and Connie were making the log drive back to Texas from a skiing trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, when he asked her to help him think of songs to record for his first album for CBS. As she was jotting down titles, Connie reminded her husband how much he loved that old song by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, the cowboy ballad called “Red Headed Stranger.” This was his favorite song to play on his children’s show back on Fort Worth radio. He’d crooned “Red Headed Stranger” as a bedtime ballad to his three kids during the early years; he still sang it to lull Paula Carlene and her sister Amy to sleep.
“All of a sudden it was like a light came on in Willie, and we started talking right away about it being a concept album,” Connie told an interviewer later. “Willie started mentioning other old songs he knew like ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,’ and he started outlining an album, noting where he could write a song to fill in the story.”
“Red Headed Stranger,” written by Carl Stutz and Edith Lindeman, told the tale of a brooding rider who held a dark secret, riding from town to Western town, silently leading his dead lover’s horse behind his own “raging black stallion” and staring straight through anyone who approached him.
Nelson bracketed the song with an Old West parable: In his version, the stranger was an idealistic young preacher who’d murdered his cheating spouse in a jealous rage and then went riding in search of redemption, haunted by the memories and deadened by the sin he’s perpetrated.
He added thematic links; he added Fred Rose’s old “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” as the rider thinks back on his deepest love. Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” went into the narrative, and the old gospel standard “Just As I Am.”
Then Hank Cochran’s bittersweet “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” came into the story, as the lost preacher finds comfort in the company of a simple farm woman who understands his sorrow and accepts his fall from grace. He finds peace at last in “Hands On The Wheel,” written by Bill Collery, a lovely piece of imagery that brings the stranger full circle in a kind of blissful cowboy catharsis.
Red Headed Stranger was stitched together from disparate sources and incredibly, it all sounded wonderfully cohesive. “It didn’t take any time at all, really,” Nelson recalled. “It sort of fell together as they do, in a scary way; when you got somethin’ really going for you at all, you just start writing it. To put in ‘Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain’ in that point, I didn’t think about it in a month. It had to go there.”
Released on Columbia, the Red Headed Stranger album went on to break Willie Nelson out of Texas and way, way out of Nashville; its spare arrangements (performed, as per his demands, by Nelson’s own touring band) left the focus on his warm and newly–relaxed voice.
It was as if Willie was telling the Red Headed Stranger story, with his guitar and sister Bobbie’s piano, right there in your living room (by now the band included drummer English, bassist Dan “Bee” Spears, guitarist Jody Payne, harmonicat Mickey Raphael and Bobbie.).
The album was recorded, Nelson recalled, over two days in a tiny Garland, Texas studio usually used to cut advertising jingles. The total cost was around $12,000. “It was a timing thing,” he said. “I had to wait until Red Headed Stranger came out to get another shot. CBS let me go in and do it, and accepted it the way I handed it to ‘em, reluctantly. They said, ‘When are you gonna finish it? It’s a pretty good demo, but…’
It was Bruce Lundvall, up in New York, who asked Nelson, ‘Wouldn’t it sound better with a couple of strings or background singers?’” When the album hit, Lundvall never questioned Nelson’s judgment again.
To mix a metaphor, Red Headed Stranger proved to be the straw that broke the power block in Nashville. “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” spent two weeks at #1 (it went to #21 on the pop charts) and the album was a smash success.
Suddenly, Willie Nelson, who’d had so many doors shut on him in Nashville (he could show you the bruises on his feet) was the hottest thing going. His unorthodox performance style — those simple arrangements, that cozy deep voice with no strings attached — became the rabbit for the Music City greyhounds to follow. Ray Benson says he became a “pied piper.” It was time for a last laugh.
Meanwhile, because he’d dared to record outside of Nashville with a producer he actually liked and who solicited the artist’s opinions, Waylon Jennings had been branded a troublemaker. But his records were selling to a desirably young audience, and “outlaw,” dreamed up by some ad man or other, turned into a music industry buzzword. Long hair. Beard. Beer–swilling and good times. Non–conformists playing non–conformist country music. Outside of the Nashville establishment. And this is how Waylon and Willie became outlaws.
In 1975, Jennings began putting together a patchwork album, using old tracks, for RCA. His task was to pull together tracks of his own, old stuff of Willie’s, and songs by studio owner/artist Tompall Glaser and wife, singer Jessi Colter, and make an “outlaw” album out of them.
“I did the Outlaws project at about three o’clock in the morning at RCA.” Jennings recalled. “A lot of those things weren’t supposed to be released.”
He “sweetened” the old four–track tapes with harmony vocals and extra guitars. “Most of those tracks were 10 years old by then,” he said. Nelson was, of course, the linchpin. RCA was eager to get some mileage out of him by re–releasing old tracks from his long, unsuccessful tenure there. Jennings was the label’s current great white hope for tapping the younger, hipper audience, and RCA had been watching “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” and the commotion down Austin way. They saw the Willie juggernaut.
Central to the album, which wound up with the title Wanted: The Outlaws, was a song Jennings and Nelson had written together in the ’60s, during an all–night poker game in a Fort Worth hotel. They had both cut versions of “Good Hearted Woman” (Nelson’s bloodless solo reading is available on the All–Time Greatest Hits CD, and Jennings had recently issued a live version.
In the studio, Jennings took this live recording, deleted his own voice in some places, and put Nelson’s in. “We were just riding around town in one of those hazy conditions,” Jennings recalled, “and I said, ‘Why don’t we go cut a record?’”
So they went in and “made” a classic country record in a matter of an hour or so. “When I first cut the one that’s got me and him on it,” Jennings said, “he wasn’t within two or three thousand miles of me.” Be that as it may, the Waylon and Willie version of “Good Hearted Woman” spent three weeks at #1 and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.
Wanted: The Outlaws became the first country music album to be certified platinum. Yep, they were outlaws, all right. Whatever worked. Whatever sold.
Two of Nelson’s best songs from the Yesterday’s Wine album, the title tune and “Me And Paul” were included on Wanted: The Outlaws. Because the rejection of that album had been a key reason Nelson had left Nashville, their success on the compilation made for an even more bitter irony. Nelson and Jennings became the toast of country music; overnight long hair, bandannas and Stetson hats became part of the country package. Uniforms and kitsch were out. Individuality, as personified by Willie and Waylon, became a thing to be prized, rather than scorned, in Nashville.
“I’ll tell you what it was, it was freedom,” Jennings said. “It was something that had never happened in country music. We just took our own lives by the reins and didn’t let nobody in.
“When I first came to Nashville, you had three hours to cut four songs, and mostly you had to use their studios, their producers, their musicians. You went in there, and what you got was what you got, and that was it. I never could do music like that. It was like an assembly line.”
Although they’d known each other since the early days, Nelson and Jennings had found they were kindred spirits; fun–loving, fiercely independent, tired of letting someone else call the tune while they danced. Or didn’t dance.
“I don’t know how two brothers could be any closer,” Nelson said.
“We’re friends, we fight…we have, we don’t anymore. Back when we was on different kinds of drugs, we would fight.”
Eventually, they cut a total of four duo albums, and two as 50 percent of the Highwaymen (there’s a third on the way as this is being written).
Yes, Nelson and Jennings are really, truly good friends. Theirs is not a friendship of showbiz contrivance. Said Jennings: “He don’t try and change me, and I don’t try to change him. Willie is the only truly free spirit that I really know. I hear a lot of people say they are, but he really is. Now, there’s other people say he’s the most irresponsible person on Earth, and we’re both right.”
Against Jennings’ better judgment; he let Nelson convince him to act in the abysmal 1986 TV–movie remake of Stagecoach. Waylon said he doesn’t hold it against his friend.
“I love Willie; he’s like my brother of the road,” he explained. “And he’s one of those type friends that, when you’ve been apart for a long time, all of a sudden you look up and he’s standing there. You pick it up right where you left off a year ago. It’s just a timeless friendship.”
After the double–whammy of Red Headed Stranger and Wanted: The Outlaws, Nelson just go hotter and hotter (he sang the last verse of Jennings’ hit “Luckenbach, Texas” a #1 hit in April 1977).
As befits any legend, Nelson’s past came back to haunt him. As he made one album after another for CBS, his old labels, EMI (which owned the Liberty masters) and especially RCA, were reissuing his early material with new titles and with pictures of the new, bearded and bandanna’d Willie on the cover.
Eight Willie Nelson albums appeared in 1976; only two, The Sound In Your Mind and The Troublemaker, contained new material (The Troublemaker, a gospel set, had been recorded for, but rejected by, Atlantic). Between 1976 and 1987, at least four Willie Nelson titles appeared in the record bins each year. More were sold through TV ads and mail order.
Rick Blackburn, who runs Atlantic’s current country operation in Nashville, was president of CBS/Nashville during Willie’s peak years. He said that he, Nelson and the label were only too aware of the harm those continuous re–issues — of generally inferior material — were causing Willie’s rep.
“We hated it,” he said. “It diluted the market, it cheapened his price. But that’s the commercial music business. He tried to stop it, but you can’t. You don’t have the right to. In the case of Willie’s pre–Liberty demo recordings, the artist can say, ‘I’ll sue you because it was never intended to be a master,’ but of course they’d say, ‘Well, we own it.’ And you wouldn’t believe the glut of product that came out.”
Nelson’s recorded output, once he and Columbia hit Red Headed Stranger out of the park, began to reflect his own wide–ranging musical tastes. First out of the chute were The Sound In Your Mind, a hodge–podge of stuff from various places, and a Lefty Frizzell album, To Lefty From Willie. It was as if he wasn’t sure what to do after Stranger.
“The natural thing that I guess a marketing genius would’ve said to do was come with another concept album,” Nelson said, “but you just can’t run ‘em off, you can’t sit down and write one anytime you want to.
“I had some songs that I probably could’ve done, other than a Lefty Frizzell tribute album, but I didn’t have anything that I thought was that good. The songs in that Lefty Frizzell album were, to me, just as good as the songs in the Red Headed Stranger album, or in the Stardust album that came out later. Those songs are standards, as far as I’m concerned.”
He released low–key duet albums with Ray Price, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Young and Roger Miller within another two–year span.
“Honestly,” he said, “these guys were my heroes. To be able to afford to go into the studio with Faron Young, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Roger Miller, Ray Price and do albums and have ‘em come out? That’s amazing. I was not only singing with my friends, I was singing with guys that I had listened to growing up.”
Nelson denies that these were “payback” albums, to bestow some of his commercial cache on the men who’d helped him in the early days, and who were now less than commercially viable.
“I thought they needed to be recorded,” he said of those albums. “I loved those songs, and I know a lot of other people do — Lefty Frizzell songs, Webb Pierce songs, Carl Smith…nobody’s done a Carl Smith album, so that needs to be done. Little Jimmy Dickens. There’s some more guys that I want to do albums about, once I get in a position where I can do it again.”
Nelson’s recorded output began to include standards, cowboy songs, gospel music and contemporary classics — sometimes all on the same album. To him, it all made sense.
“When I was playing clubs, the same audience would ask for ‘Fraulein,’ and then they’d turn around and ask for ‘Moonlight In Vermont,’” Nelson said. “Or they’d ask for ‘Stardust’ or they’d ask for ‘San Antonio Rose,’ and then they’d ask for ‘Mansion On The Hill.’ Those people didn’t know labels out there; they just liked music. So it wasn’t hard for me to want to record all kinds of music and sing all kinds of music.”
Everything came together with Stardust in 1978. Produced with velvety smoothness by Booker T. Jones (who was married at the time to Rita Coolidge’s sister Priscilla), of Booker T. and the MG’s fame, the album played up Nelson’s odd phrasing, against a setting of low–key, romantic arrangements.
But, there were no strings in sight; Stardust laid its bets on Nelson’s voice as the centerpiece. Against all odds, it worked.
Remembered Rick Blackburn: “He had started to get hot. And Willie called and said, ‘I got this idea to take 10 of my all time favorite songs, like “Moonlight In Vermont,’ ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’ and ‘Stardust,’ and do those; they’re just great songs. What do you think?’ And I said, ‘I think you’re crazy. I think what you need to do is write some; you’re a great songwriter. You’ve got a roll going; do something current. To me it just doesn’t make a lot of sense.’”
The Waylon and Willie single “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” was all over the place at the time; Jones, to Blackburn, meant Booker T. and the MG’s. “Green Onions.” Who the hell did Willie think he was, with those old songs? Tony Bennett?
“He had a young demographic, which was unheard of at that time,” said Blackburn. “Country artists skewed very old. Willie was never one for a debate. Not much discussion and he says, ‘Well, thank you very much,’ and he hangs up the phone.”
Under its contract with Nelson, CBS had to putout whatever record he gave them. And so, as with Red Headed Stranger, it took on Stardust with reluctance.
Immediately, Nelson’s sensitive reading of “Georgia On My Mind” became his third chart–topping country single (after “Blue Eyes” in 1975, and “If You’ve Got The Money” the following year).
The followup, “Blue Skies,” went to #1, too. “All Of Me” was Top 5, “September Song” Top 15. And Stardust, the album that made no sense to anyone but Willie Nelson himself, eventually sold triple platinum, staying on the Billboard pop charts for more than two years. To date, it’s his most successful album.
“It was a marketing dream,” Blackburn said. “The older demographic loved the songs, even if they didn’t like Willie, they liked the songs. It brought back a lot of good memories. The young demo, they liked Willie, and they thought he wrote every song. So we couldn’t go wrong.”
Said Nelson: “I’ve always figured that the commercial end of it is somewhere in the future. The ideas that I’ve had, the music that I’ve come up with and written and played—I’ve always had the encouragement of the people around me and from the audience was playing it for. The only people who were telling me it didn’t have a chance were the record executives. The public was already telling me, ‘Hey, it’s a good idea.’”
Stardust wasn’t the first time Nelson had gone against the powers that be in the record biz — remember Yesterday’s Wine? — but it was the first time he was vindicated by enormous acceptance by a public that now adored him, and was willing to give his ideas a listen.
“As soon as I got the record companies to give me a shot, to put it out the way I wanted to d it, well, success was right there,” he explained. “And the commercialism was right there.
“All of a sudden, all those ideas that weren’t commercial weren’t commercial were selling,” Nelson said.
Waylon Jennings wept the first time he heard Stardust. “I told him, I said, ‘Willie there’s that thing in our voice that never fit anywhere else like it does there.’” Jennings said. “He had this thing in his voice. I told him, ‘That thing has been waiting.’ Because he always had this kind of a quiver in his voice — it wasn’t like a vibrato, it was just something that was there — like no other person.”
Stardust was the ultimate outlaw album. Willie had re-written the book of country music, and added another chapter.
“I’ll tell you what,” adds Jennings. “Willie does what Willie wants to do, and that’s it. You might be there for two days and miss the whole train yourself if you start trying to make him do something.”
Simply because he didn’t have to, he wrote less. His older songs popped up on his new albums all the time, in new recordings. Still do. Nelson said he’s always been reluctant to let them go.
“I’ve got hundreds of songs laying around back there, and I haven’t had an opportunity to get ‘em all recorded,” he said. “And whenever there’s an opportunity to go get one — or if it’s one that I did on one of those obscure albums years ago that got lost — there was 10 of my songs that got lost along with it.
“So I don’t give up on them. I go back and look for the ones that I think nobody heard and I’ll bring ‘em back and try to find a spot for ‘em.”
By 1980, life in Dripping Springs was becoming too much, what with all the visitors (“People were showing up at the ranch who thought I could lay hands on them and heal their crippled limbs,” Nelson later wrote) and so Connie persuaded her husband to buy a second home, a three–story Swiss chalet just outside of Denver. Here, Paula and Amy began school.
The Nelsons also purchased the Pedernales Country Club, a huge, secluded spread in Spicewood, Texas, just northwest of Austin (the Pedernales River flows between Luckenbach, Spicewood and Dripping Springs).
Willie now had his own private nine–hole golf course, the country club building was converted to a recording studio, and he had a full–scale Western town built across the street from the studio (you can see it in the Red Headed Stranger movie, and in the TV–movie Lonesome Dove, where it stood in for Fort Smith, Arkansas, sheriff July Johnson’s stomping grounds.
Golf quickly turned into a passion. “It looks so easy, and it is so hard. You think you got it and then you don’t. You think you’re turning into a great putter, and then you miss one two feet away. So I think it’s a humbling game, and I don’t know why anybody plays it,” Nelson said.
Back at the outlaw ranch: Because of the unprecedented success of the Outlaws compilation, RCA waved fistfuls of money at Nelson and Jennings and persuaded them to record an all–new album together. Waylon and Willie was released in January 1978, just before Stardust.
Ultimately, Waylon and Willie again dusted off a couple of Nelson’s older tunes, chiefly, the lovely “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way,” a highlight of Phases And Stages. But the long–haired country music “outlaws” had such a cachet that the album, which was recorded quickly and wasn’t very good, sold platinum in record time.
The album’s one/two punch was Ed Bruce’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.” It hit #1, earned a gold single, and became the best–selling of all of Jennings and Nelson’s 45s. (They had recorded together, in the same studio, this time around.)
Nelson’s solo career, of course remained his primary concern. After Stardust, there was no stopping him, and his next “new” album appeared in November (co–headlining jaunts with Jennings had taken up the first half of the year). The double–pocket Willie And Family Live was a fairly straight–forward recording of his band’s live show at the time —it was pulling sellout crowds wherever it played.
Here, Nelson sang the medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Night Life” he’d already been doing for years. To this day, his shows still start with Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River” and follow with “Stay A Little Longer” and the medley.
Willie Nelson became an American cultural icon in 1978. His contented smile, it seemed, beamed from everywhere: Rolling Stone gave him an extensive cover story, and periodicals from Peoria to Pakistan delighted in chronicling his troubled rise to the top: the hard early days as a songwriter, the rejection by Nashville, the rejection of Nashville, the “Outlaw Movement,” the Family band, the exhaustive touring schedule.
On April 25, 1978, Nelson performed at the White House as special guest of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and with Connie and the girls, spent the night. Nelson loves to tell the story about the White House aide (nameless, of course) who sat on the roof with him that night, drinking beer and smoking “Austin torpedoes,” pointing out the sights of Washington from the best vantage point on Pennsylvania Avenue. Ah, success.
Nelson release three albums in 1979; Sings Kristofferson, a rather unspectacular collection of compositions from Kris Kristofferson, an old drinking buddy and co–headliner at the early Fourth of July Picnics (Kristofferson was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet at the moment, what with A Star Is Born and The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, but he wasn’t considered much of a singer, and his records still weren’t selling).
Willie also cut a two–LP set with Leon Russell. One For The Road, recorded quickly in a rough ‘n’ ready roadhouse style. Nelson and Russell sang duets on “Danny Boy,” “Summertime,” “You Are My Sunshine” and a bunch of even stranger titles. Even so, their up–tempo remake of Mae Axton’s “Heartbreak Hotel” went to #1 in July. The album went gold.
At Christmas time 1979, the Pretty Paper album appeared. A collection of holiday tunes delivered in the quiet, unassuming Stardust style (Booker T. Jones retuned to produce), Pretty Paper joined the ever–rowing glut of county singers’ holiday albums; although the title song was released as a single, it failed to chart. Willie wasn’t concerned about it one way or another, for his star continued to rise at a dizzying rate.
In November, Nelson made his cinematic debut in Sydney Pollack’s comedy The Electric Horseman. Earlier, there had been a round of talks with Hollywood people about turning Red Headed Stranger into a movie (ultimately, it would take another seven years to happen).
Nelson had backed out of negotiations after getting the sneaking suspicion that MCA/Universal, which was offering him a development deal, only wanted a piece of his recording contract. The company had also indicated it wanted Robert Redford to star as the murdering, redemption–hungry preacher; Nelson had designs on the role himself, even though he had no acting experience at all.
So when Nelson heard that Pollack was producing and directing Redford in a film about a cowboy in Las Vegas (an updated remake of the 1962 Kirk Douglas epic Lonely Are The Brave), he called Pollack out of the blue and said, “I sure would like to be in that movie you’re making with Bob.”
Taken aback, Pollack said he didn’t think there was a part for Nelson; Willie, who’d read the script, countered that he’d like to read for the part of Leroy, who managed Redford’s title character, a showbiz cowboy.
Pollack agreed to let him try, and the audition went well, and Nelson would up getting some of the best notices when the film appeared (it was otherwise not a tremendous success). He ad–libbed much of his own dialogue.
The Electric Horseman soundtrack was released as a Willie Nelson album — although it was as spotty and fleshed out with movie–music filler — and brought him another gold album award. It went on the wall at Pedernales.
“My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” from the movie was a #1 hit in January. Although it features Nelson’s intimate and unfettered voice way out front, the song (which Willie didn’t write) isn’t much more than a string of clichés about cowboys and country stars, and the production (by Nelson and Pollack, of all people) is burdened with violins and other badly–arranged and unnecessary instruments. If Nelson had stayed with RCA, and been a success, his records by then might’ve all sounded like “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.”
“My Heroes” was Nelson’s sixth #1 country single in less than five years. Ultimately, he would have 13 chart–toppers, and several more as half of a duet (plus one as part of a foursome). Conversely, some of his singles barely charted at all.
That’s the way Willie worked: he put out whatever he felt like putting out, and if it had little to do with what came before, well, so what? It was as if he was purposely going in the opposite direction of his tightly–controlled RCA years.
Between 1978 and ’83, Nelson placed 17 albums on the Top Pop Albums chart. Eight of these went platinum or more, and the rest (the new CBS stuff, but not the RCA re–issues) went gold. Everything made an appearance on the Country Album chart (Stardust hovered in the nether regions for nearly 10 years!)
“Willie always had vision,” said Rick Blackburn. “You gotta listen to him.”
As head of CBS, Blackburn’s job was to approve or reject an artist’s material. When Nelson was hot, he was on fire, and it was all Blackburn could to keep up with the music as it came in.
“I encouraged it, because Willie was a lot of things to a lot of people,” Blackburn said. “I never really thought that hurt him that much. Willie was everywhere; Willie had an appetite to do all kinds of music.”
Stardust, about which Blackburn had been skeptical, remained on the pop charts for more than two years. So although, as Nelson says, CBS sometimes exercised its “veto power” over his “artistic control,” it pretty much said yes to him at every turn, especially at the turn of the decade.
“He’d bring you so much, and then you’d sit down and talk about what made sense,” said Blackburn. “The product just flowed all the time, in rough states. But good roughs. Our feeling was that it broadened your horizon. Would that fly today? It depends on the artist. Willie would be sort of what you’ve got Garth Brooks to be now. You had hits, and then there was Willie. We were selling four or five million back then. That’s a lot.”
Meanwhile, the execs at RCA were still kicking themselves for cutting Nelson loose, and the wizards in A&R (and the art department) were keeping busy churning out new riders for the Willie bandwagon. RCA charted Willie Before His Time, Sweet Memories, The Minstrel Man, Best Of Willie and My Own Way (although Willie Before His Time was assembled and “sweetened” by Waylon Jennings in the wake of the Outlaws success, and presumably had Nelson’s blessing, the rest were no more than retreads from the RCA vaults.)
Most insidious of all was 1980′s Willie Nelson With Danny Davis And The Nashville Brass, a set of musty RCA tracks featuring Davis and his hornblowers dubbed over Nelson’s vocals. Nelson, never swayed and always happy for one more acknowledgement, even penned cheerful liner notes for the album. The Nelson/Danny Davis version of “Funny How Time Slips Away” charted, briefly.
Nelson’s projects for 1980 include Family Bible, a modest collection of religious songs and hymns from his Methodist boyhood, released as a duo album with sister Bobbie on MCA and the set with his old boss, Ray Price (Price had been a co–owner of Pamper Music way back when, too).
San Antonio Rose was the first of five albums Willie cut with buddies from the old days, and it was the best. The duo put “Faded Love” on the singles charts, where it stalled at #3 in August.
The Electric Horseman had whetted Nelson’s appetite for movie acting, though, and in 1980 Pollack produced his first starring vehicle, Honeysuckle Rose.
“I always wanted to make movies, all the way back to when I first saw Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the singing cowboys,” Nelson explained.
“That’s the kind of movies that I wanted to make; still do. And those others came along: a movie about being out on the road again, that’s easy to do.”
Although it contained elements from Nelson’s road life, the movie, which co–stared Dyan Cannon as Willie–esque singer Buck Bonham’s loving but discontented wife and Amy Irving as his protégé–turned–lover, was pretty much the Hollywood version of the way things were. Nelson’s band members all appeared — Mickey Raphael has a couple of memorable moments with actress Diana “Mommie Dearest” Scarwid — but the “band” in the movie was fleshed out by actors (including Slim Pickens!)
Nelson’s charisma and sheer likeability carried the day, though, and Honeysuckle Rose was a success at the box office, if a modest one. The film is notable mostly for the appearance in a concert scene, of Emmylou Harris (looking radiant in 1980, and sounding like every bit the queen of country music) and for the introduction of two freshly–written Nelson songs, his first for about five years, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” and “On The Road Again.”
“I haven’t ever written as much as I did in those early years, when I was hungry and writin’ for money,” Nelson said. “Tryin’ to write enough songs to keep the advances coming from the publisher. I was pretty productive in those days. But what I write (now), I feel was worth sitting around waiting for.”
Pollack has often told the story of how his new star wrote “On The Road Again,” start to finish, on the back of an envelope during a flight to somewhere or other, impressing the hell out of him and director Jerry Schatzberg.
Both “On The Road Again” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” went to #1. Nelson seemed unstoppable as he conquered genre after genre. His film career (he filmed a small role in James Caan’s Thief that year, too) opened new doors. He became a favorite guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Bill Witliff, who’d handled the script for Honeysuckle Rose, had written a script about an old cowboy embroiled in a life–long feud with a Mexican family. He’d married the daughter, the father had betrayed him and cut off his ears in the bargain, and when the cowboy had become a roving bandit, a legend had sprung up around him (he also took to killing the old Mexican’s sons when they came looking for him).
The character, and the movie, were both called Barbarosa, and when it was filmed for Marble Arch in 1981 it starred Willie Nelson in the title role, and Gary Busey as Carl, the naïve farm boy who joins him in his dusty travels.
Released in 1982, Barbarosa played in theatres for about five minutes. It is however, full of Western black humor and interesting dramatic tension, and is one of Willie’s better movies (it’s his personal favorite too). His next film was a TV–movie with Jon Voight, Coming Out Of The Ice, for which he received good notices for his portrayal of an at–peace–with–himself prisoner in a Siberian work camp!
In 1981, Nelson re–teamed with Paul Buskirk for Somewhere Over The Rainbow, an album of swinging country jazz and Western swing tunes (“I’m Confessin’,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter”), big old ballads (“Mona Lisa,” “In My Mother’s Eyes,” “Over The Rainbow”) and other tunes as far from the commercial country music of the day as possible.
Johnny Gimble lent a swinging fiddle to the proceedings. Country/jazz guitarist and singer Freddie Powers co–produced the album and even sang several of the songs; “Mona Lisa” was a minor hit, and Somewhere Over The Rainbow became a gold album.
It was during this period that Nelson started working on improving his health: he quit smoking, cut back on his drinking and began running daily (he hasn’t committed to vegetarianism yet, still having a weakness for Texas barbecue and potted meat sandwiches). While vacationing in Hawaii during the summer of 1981, his left lung collapsed (he figures it was a combination of his lungs’ smoke–weakened state, his jog that morning, and the icy–cold Pacific water).
During his four weeks in a Hawaiian hospital, to make use of his down time, Nelson wrote an entire concept album. Tougher Than Leather, which would be recorded with his road band and released in February 1983, was the story of an 1800s gunfighter who eventually died in the electric chair.
Reincarnation figures in the Tougher Than Leather picture, but unlike Red Headed Stranger, it’s a difficult story to follow.
In 1982, Nelson cut the albums with Roger Miller and Hank Snow, and his old tracks continued to come back and haunt him. Monument Records assembled The Winning Hand, musty period recordings by Nelson, Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee, all of whom had long ago left the label.
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard next cut an album together; the title song, “Poncho and Lefty,” had been written by the legendary and terminally under–appreciated Texas songsmith Townes Van Zandt and recorded by Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album.
Nelson and Haggard hit #1 with “Poncho and Lefty” in April 1983. Although it had been recorded a year earlier, typically for Nelson it was released out of sequence. In the meantime, he’d had his biggest hit yet.
Rick Blackburn: “We were doing a duet with Merle and Willie, it was ‘Poncho and Lefty,’ I think. And Johnny Christopher showed up on the bus, drunk. He had this demo in his hand, which was the B–side of an Elvis Presley song. It was ‘Always On My Mind.’
“He brought that song in for Haggard. I was there. I think Johnny put it in the tape player and Hag said, ‘Aw, that’s not for me, Johnny.’ And Willie’s sitting there, real quiet, and he says ‘That’s for me.’ Hag doesn’t remember that story, but that song was originally pitched for him. Willie had an ear, though.’”
Indeed, Chips Moman, who’d produce a lot of Nelson’s stuff in the ’80s, came on board for the Always On My Mind project. The album, which featured “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Let It Be Me” and “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” wasn’t his best, by any stretch.
But something about the bare emotions of the song “Always On My Mind” caught the public’s attention. It was a #1 country single (of course), and a Top 5 pop single. It earned a Grammy nomination for Record Of The Year. The triple–platinum Always album is Nelson’s second biggest seller, after Stardust. It was his biggest pop album, logging five weeks in the #2 spot.
Two years later, he was back in the Top 5 on the pop chart with perhaps his strangest single, “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Blackburn: “He wanted to do something internationally. He always thought, ‘Let’s start thinkin’ global.’ And Julio Iglesias was the biggest thing in the international market.
We had him on CBS International; I didn’t know him, but he had a house in Florida, where he lived part of the year. His brother was a dentist down there. So Willie set out to find him. And did.
“And I guess Julio was convinced that maybe it would bolster his domestic sales, because he didn’t sell a lot in the U.S. They struck up a win–win thing and started looking for a song.”
Hal David’s “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before” proved to be the ticket, and although Nelson and Iglesias recorded their parts separately, the chemistry was right, the single was a huge hit and went gold.
(Another Nelson/Julio duet, “As Time Goes By,” appeared on the Without A Song album at the end of 1983. Produced by Booker T. Jones, the album consisted of yet more standards in the Stardust vein, but failed to attract much attention.)
Songwriter, a movie Nelson and Kristofferson had been planning for many years, finally went before the cameras in 1984. Written by Bud Shrake, a former newspaperman and Sports Illustrated writer (he later went onto co–author Nelson’s autobiography), Songwriter was the story of a country songwriter who left the business, disgruntled, only to return as an entrepreneur and Svengali for a flaky girl singer and get revenge on the low–life club owner who’d screwed him.
The script underwent many, many revisions from Shrake’s and Nelson’s original ideas, but the final product was till pretty close to that vision, and to Nelson’s own story. Lesley Ann Warren played the girl singer, Kristofferson was hot country star Blackie Buck and ex–partner of Nelson’s Doc Jenkins. The film also starred Rip Torn as a Texas promoter with questionable ethics. Pollack produced, and Alan Rudolph directed.
Still, Songwriter was a massive failure both at the box office and at the record store (featuring Nelson/Kristofferson duets, Music From Songwriter hardly qualified as a full album from either). Promotionally, the film suffered because Nelson had shaved off his beard during some, but not all, of the scenes, and appeared in many of the promotional photographs almost totally unrecognizable.
In some of the photos and film clips, he sported his beard. People got confused, and avoided the movie in droves. (Nelson often shaves off his beard on the spur of the moment, just to give his chin some air).
He scored another #1 with Steve Goodman’s “City Of New Orleans” in August 1984, just before Songwriter came out, and teamed up with Ray Charles at the end of the year for “Seven Spanish Angels,” as unlikely a country music chart–topper to “All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”
Again, Nelson changed the rules to suit himself. The success of “Seven Spanish Angels” helped get Charles a recording deal with CBS. “One of the reasons I went after Ray Charles was because Willie said that was his favorite artist,” said Rick Blackburn. “And Merle Haggard said that was his favorite artist. Ray was like the idol, see. I didn’t know Ray Charles from you.”
In 1984, Nelson released the unlikely Angel Eyes, which presented him as the vocalist with a swinging three–piece jazz group headed up by Texas guitarist Jackie King; some of the songs are nothing less than fusion, with Willie Nelson trying to keep up at the microphone (picture him out in front of the Pat Matheny Group).
“He’s an incredible guitar player from San Antonio; he knew a lot of the same musicians around San Antonio that we knew,” Nelson said of King. The title song to Angel Eyes was torchy ballad with big, free–form jazz breaks, but the album’s unquestionable highlight was a magically weird rendition of the Sons Of The Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
Despite all this, Angel Eyes is one of Nelson’s few original albums to be deleted from the CBS catalog. No single was ever released from the project.
In April 1985, duet albums appeared with both Faron Young (who’d cut “Hello Walls” so many years before) and Hank Snow; in May came Highwayman.
Highwayman was one of those rare high–concept projects that worked. Usually, pairing more than two big stars on one record meant they tried to out–perform each other, on the separate fan bases cancelled each other out. But Highwayman, with Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, was a winner right out of the gate.
So where did the idea come from? “They all know I did it,” recalled Jennings. “I’ve had to rejuvenate all of their careers so many times…they’ve never known how much they really needed me.
“I remember talking about it. We were in Switzerland, on Johnny Cash’s Christmas special. And we got to doing three or four songs, and I’m positive I said, ‘Man, we ought to go cut an album.”
The song that gave the project its title was written by Jimmy Webb, and had been kicking around for a year or two. “Highwayman” was about reincarnation; specifically, the same fellow appears in the song in four different personas.
“I don’t go for that,” Waylon said. “I think it’s a little far–fetched.” As for his pal Nelson though, “He’s never tried to push me with that, and I’ve never tried to push him away from it. That’s what gets him through the days and nights — everybody has something that does.”
Actual recording of the song and the Highwayman album was, like everything else, purely an accident of time. “Cash and Willie were recording something together at Chips’ place,” said Jennings, “and I just stumbled in there.”
As for the ideas of adding Kristofferson as a fourth, Jennings said, “I think I brought that up, but all of them say they did too. So you got four liars, now you take your pick. No, really, the main thing about all of us is that don’t keep score.”
“Highwayman” became a #1 single on May 15; the album was a huge hit too, and sent Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train” into the To 10 in September.
At the Live Aid concert in July, Bob Dylan remarked that it sure would be nice to see something done for the family farmer in America, so very far from Ethiopia, where all the money and support from Live Aid were going. Nelson took this comment to heart; he’d been thinking about the heartland, where the family farmers — self contained, loyal to the land where their very forefathers had toiled — were being forced out by farming corporations. An American way of life, essential and part of the backbone of the country’s economic success, was being killed off.
He’d discussed this with Neil Young while they were cutting Young’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys” (the song would appear on Young’s Old Ways, and on the Half Nelson compilation, which collected a bunch of loose–end Nelson duets and singles, including those with Julio Iglesias and Ray Charles).
With Young and fellow heartlander John Mellencamp, Nelson formed Farm Aid, Inc., and organized a massive concert for Sept 22, 1985 to raise funds in the telethon manner prescribed by Live Aid. The all–day concert, really not much different from the Fourth of July Picnics, except better organized with bigger rock acts on the bill, was held at the University of Illinois at Champaign.
With a few exceptions, there has been a Farm Aid concert every year since 1985, with Nelson, Young and Mellencamp topping the bill.
As president of the company, Nelson signs every check that goes out. “There is this idea that people have that we have way too many farmers,” Nelson said, “that all these small family farmers and small agriculture–related businessmen should be put out of business.
“And they probably think they’re right about it. But I don’t think they realize the importance, or the way that the economy in this country was built, on the farmer. He was the first citizen, the first taxpayer. The first rung on the economic ladder. The farmer is the backbone of the country, the small family farmer, not the big corporate farmer.
“He is related to all the other small businesses. When five farmers go under in a farming community, one business in that town goes under. This has been going on for years now. We once had over eight million small family farmers; now we’re down to less than two million. And they’re knocking them off like flies.”
Since 1985 Farm Aid has granted nearly $11.5 million to more than 100 farm organizations, churches and service agencies in 44 states. Nearly half of the group’s grants are used for direct services (emergency assistance, legal aid and food); the rest are distributed as program grants, which include outreach, education and the development of long–term solutions.
The Farm Aid board believes that if America grew its own crops, to feed to its own people, the rest of the economic problems in the country would eventually be solvable.
“That’s why we keep doing it, to try to stop this trend of people leaving he land and going to the city,” Nelson said. “It just doubles and triples the problems in the city. And the only way for the economy to turn around is to flip it, and put people back on the land. Let a young couple go out there—take 100, 200 acres of land, make a living and pay taxes, and buy a tractor. Support the local schools, hospitals, businesses, service stations, what have you.”
He is more passionate about Farm Aid than anything that’s ever passed his way before. “The time will come when we will begin to appreciate the small family farmer, and how important it is that we get him back on the land. There’s plenty of money out there to be made if we take the natural things that grow and let them pay the bills.”
“Plenty of money” Nelson himself seemed to have, but in 1984 the Internal Revenue Service came to him and held out its hand for $2 million in unpaid income tax, from earlier, not–so–successful times dating all the way back to 1972.
“This accounting firm came to me and said, ‘You don’t need to pay that,’” he recalled. “What you need to do is get you a tax shelter, and you don’t have to pay. You can take it away and defer it later, write it off,’ all those things. And they were just full of bullshit. It was one of those shelters that the IRS wrote off as a non–allowable deal, and so anybody who invested in it — and there were a lot of us who did — lost what they put it, and at the same time, the taxes still weren’t paid.”
The accounting firm with the bad advice was Price–Waterhouse, the same guys who count the Academy Awards ballots and deliver the envelopes solemnly on TV on Oscar night. Nelson said his tax shelters included “securities and a cattle feed deal. They started going sour pretty quick in a couple of years. I knew a big mistake had been made. But it was one of those you couldn’t take back; you already had your money invested. And you still hadn’t paid your taxes.”
More albums followed: Promiseland, Partners, Island In The Sea, A Horse Called Music, Born For Trouble, Seashores of Old Mexico (with Haggard) and I’d Rather Have Jesus, another religious set with sister Bobbie (it was later re–released as Old Time Religion.) There was the poorly–received Highwayman 2.
Although Nelson hit #1 with “Living In The Promiseland” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” and had another Top 10 with Iglesias (“Spanish Eyes”), the songs just weren’t hitting the way they had been.
“I think the reason that those didn’t do well is because those albums were coming too quick,” he said. “We were handling them product quicker than they could sell it. They just weren’t geared to put it out that way.
“When I first got into the record business, I can remember when you could record a song today and have it out next week. And then have the whole company behind it. Webb Pierce could do it, and Faron Young could do it, and Lefty Frizzell could do it. All those guys, when they were really hot, they could more or less dictate what they wanted to do. And consequently, there was a whole lot of big hits coming in those days, a lot of great songs from the artists who were able to control what happened.”
Nelson said the marketers at CBS, for all appearances, were doing their best. “They were trying,” he recalled. “Blackburn, he was taking everything I would give him because it was easy product: ‘Oh, Willie’s sent one in again this week. Here’s Willie’s weekly album.” But I was having a big time, and they was takin’ ‘em, so…maybe it was a little overdone.”
By 1991, things were getting strained with CBS. Blackburn had departed for greener pastures at Atlantic, where he could steer the careers of hot hat boys like Tracy Lawrence and John Michael Montgomery. Nelson had one flop too many at CBS, he reckoned. That “artistic control” thing was starting to wear out its welcome.
“As long as it was sellin’ great and everything, there was no reason for them to get after my shit,” he said with a chuckle. “But when I put out one that didn’t do very well, then they had a great reason to come in and say, you know, ‘We better help you, son. Obviously, you’re slippin’.”
His movie projects continued with limited success. Red Headed Stranger made it to the screen in 1986, with Nelson, not Robert Redford, in the title role. Morgan Fairchild was cast as the cheating wife who gets her comeuppance in the form of a bullet, and Katharine Ross signed on to play the woman who redeems the stranger’s soul (replacing Angie Dickinson, Nelson’s first choice, who was busy with another project).
Made at the Pedernales town set for about $2 million, Red Headed Stranger attempted to tell the same story as the album, with an added subplot about an ornery family of wolf–trappers terrorizing the townsfolk. The subplot wound up taking over much of the film.
Despite pretty good performances (including Paul English and Bee Spears, with blackened teeth, as members of the redneck trapping clan), Red Headed Stranger wasn’t a cohesive film, and didn’t retain any of the subtlety of the album. It failed at the box office too.
Nelson bounced back with a TV–movie remake of the classic John Ford Western Stagecoach, for which he provided a title song. Nelson played Doc Holiday, in the strangely un-engaging film, with Kristofferson as the Ringo Kid, Jennings as the gambler and Cash as the sheriff. For once the stars agreed with the critics: it was pretty lame.
On the set, Nelson fell for makeup supervisor Annie D’Angelo, 20 years his junior, the marriage to Connie having lost since deteriorated into heartache, and ultimately, divorce.
Nelson and Annie were married in 1991, and they have two sons: five year–old Lucas, and Mica, four. In 1998, he starred in two TV–movie Westerns for veteran writer/director Burt Kennedy: Where The Hell’s That Gold and Once Upon A Texas Train (also called Texas Guns And The Last Texas Train).
He re–teamed with his Songwriter comrades Kristofferson and Rip Torn for Pair Of Aces (1990) and Another Pair Of Aces (1991), two unlikely comedies featuring Nelson as a wisecracking safecracker and Kristofferson and Torn as Texas Rangers.
To date, his most screen acting stint was in 1991′s The Wild Texas Wind; he took a small role as a favor to his friends Ray Benson and Dolly Parton, who’d starred.
Nelson filed a $45 million lawsuit against Price-Waterhouse, claiming their bad advice had gotten him in such bad tax trouble. The IRS, meanwhile, hit him with a $6 million bill for back taxes, plus more than $10 million in penalties and interest. In November 1990, the agency seized Pedernales — the studio, the golf course, the Western town, the fish camp, the Nelsons’ home — and announced plans to auction off the property to pay off Nelson’s debt.
“The thing started snowballing,” he recalled. “And when they came down, I knew that it was just a matter of time. I’d been expecting it for years; it wasn’t as tough it was a big shock or surprise to me.” He was not, however, prepared for the big bill they’d handed him.
“Initially, they said $32 million, then it dropped down to $17 million,” he said. “But I knew that if their accountants and bookkeepers had any brains at all, they’d see that there’s not $32 million there. That kind of figure never could have happened.”
At the public auction, one could bid on everything from the studio tasking price $575,478) to a microwave oven, a set of golf clubs given to Nelson by Jack Nicklaus, and a box containing 40 pairs of Nelson’s golf shorts.
Friends Frank and Jeannine Oakley, who run the Willie Nelson and Friends Showcase and Museum and General Store in Hendersonville, Tennessee, spent $7,000 buying up gold and platinum albums, posters, musical instruments and other personal items. Most of them are back in Nelson’s possession. The rest, the Oakleys have on display.
A group of 40 farmers, some from as far away as South Dakota, came to Texas in January 1991 to show support for Willie and protest the imminent auction of his ranch on Fitzhugh Road in Dripping Springs, where Lana and her family now resided. The American Agriculture Movement, a farmers’ lobbying group, bought the ranch for $203,840; in time. Nelson bought it back.
As for the golf course and studio, well, nobody with money showed any interest. When Nelson’s tax bill was finally settled in 1993 (he wound up paying about $9 million), he got them back. He settled unsuccessfully with Price–Waterhouse, too, and that took off some of the financial burden.
Keeping his sense of humor, Nelson titled a 1991 collection of songs Who’ll Buy My Memories? The IRS Tapes and sold it through TV advertising (“Who’ll Buy My Memories,” unrelated to Nelson’s tax troubles, was a heartache song from his golden age of songwriting). Recorded at Pedernales, Who’ll Buy My Memories featured just Nelson’s voice and guitar on 24 of his classic songs (the exception was “What Can You Do To Me Now,” the old burning–house song he’d written with Cochran in 1969; this would have made a good title for the album, too).
It’s a style that would soon come into vogue courtesy MTV’s Unplugged show. But Nelson did it first, and the songs on this album — including “Yesterday’s Wine,” “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” and “December Day” — are among the best recordings of his career, certainly the most personal. The Vietnam–era “Jimmy’s Road” was truly heartbreaking on the album’s intimate stage.
“Whatever talent I had going in, I still had that,” he said. “And whatever I had used to make whatever figure they said I owed them, I still had the same tools, the same music. I really wasn’t worried about it, because I knew their figures were so out of line.”
Outtakes from the Who’ll Buy My Memories sessions — from the Willie Nelson/Internal Revenue Service Tape Library — turned up on The Classic Unreleased Collection, released in early 1994 through Rhino Records and sold, via three nights’ worth of appearances by the man himself, on the home shopping network QVC.
“I felt it was good enough, and important enough to me, to spend some time trying to sell it,” he said of the three–CD or three–cassette box that to this day remains unavailable in stores. “Money had nothing to do with it. It’s just a lot of stubbornness on my part to get this music out.”
The set includes Sugar Moon, an entire album of jazzy standards recorded at the same time as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, with Merle Haggard’s band (Haggard had been scheduled to record, but hadn’t shown up); Willie Sings Hank Williams, a fantastic tribute set cut in the late ’80s; an entire live concert from the Texas Opera House in 1974 (an incredible performance from the height of the pre–Stranger era); outtakes from Shotgun Willie and other projects; and that elusive first single from 1957, “No Place For Me” and “The Lumberjack Song” (taken from a pristine disc, as the tapes could not be located). Willie answered QVC callers’ questions about the package, which contained material the IRS had returned to him after their bill was settled, and numerous tracks that CBS/Sony rejected outright. He said as much.
Yeah, okay, but a big star pitching his own stuff on retail TV? Willie ain’t Cher, that’s for sure. “I think that the music involved is a lot more important than my ego,” he said. “Naturally, I could feel like I was really a second–class citizen going on sellin’ shit, but I used to be a disc jockey and I sold it all the time.
“And I used to be a door–to–door salesman, so it doesn’t embarrass me at all to say ‘Hey, I’ve got a good piece of product; let me sell it to you.’”
During the IRS crisis, he’d accepted a job shilling for Taco Bell on TV commercials, singing a song called “The Girl With The Rose Tattoo” against a backdrop of cactus, desert sand dune and a Taco Bell drive–thru.
“When I first got the words, I said, ‘Wait a minute,’” he said of the TV spot. “I can’t do this. It sounds like I’m readin’ a menu.
“And when they sent me the melody, I said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s a ripoff of a song that me and Hank Snow recorded years ago.’ They said, ‘When you get sued, we’ll take care of it. We’ll hold you harmless.’”
At the end of the day, of course, nobody sued nobody, and after the spots ran their course Willie Nelson was replaced as Taco bell shill by Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Meanwhile, things began to go from bad to worse for Willie’s son. Billy Nelson never could seem to find a place for himself. Numbed by a messy divorce in the mid–’80s, he turned to drugs and alcohol; living in Goodlettsville, Tennessee in a cabin on the Nelsons’ Ridgetop property, he was arrested four times for driving while intoxicated and, in 1990, lost his driver’s license.
The death of his mother, Martha, in 1989 doubtless shook him up too. All the family members, including Willie, came to therapy sessions and participated in Billy’s treatment programs, but it all came crashing down on Christmas Eve 1991 when Billy hanged himself at home. He was 33.
“Billy was a lost soul,” said Ray Benson, who was one of Billy’s closest friends. “And Willie felt awful about the way it all happened. Billy was a kid when Willie was a young man and had nothing, Willie said. He had no money, he was drinking a lot, the marriage was not a good marriage so he didn’t spend a lot of time at home. And Willie feels a lot of probably remorse — not guilt, but remorse — over not being able to have raised Billy right.
“But he tried, for many years, to be a good father to Billy in his adult life, Billy had demons, and problems, that no amount of fathering could do anything about. Billy was a lost soul and he couldn’t fit in anywhere. He tried. It was really a shame. He was not raised right, Willie knows that. He was not a good father to Billy. Nor was Shirley a good mother.
“As the Japanese would say, it was Billy’s karma to be this way. For whatever reason. And if I knew the answer, hell, I’d get a TV show.”
Willie didn’t record again until the latter part of 1992; he did however, keep his regular dates in Las Vegas and in Branson, Missouri. Artistically, Willie Nelson’s “comeback” arrived in the spring of 1993.
Across The Borderline was produced by Don Was, who’d engineered Bonnie Raitt’s career revival and would go on to do the same for Waylon Jennings with Waymore’s Blues Part II.
“It felt right at the time, and it was an off–the–top–of–my–head decision,” Nelson said of Was’ recruitment. “My manager, Mark Rothbaum, calls up and says, ‘What do you think about Don Was?’ And I said, ‘As a what?’”
On the album, he sang a song by Paul Simon (“American Tune,” seemingly tailor–made for Nelson), a song with Paul Simon (“Graceland”), a song he wrote with Bob Dylan (“I kind of feel like he and I are sort of equally weird, and we get along fine”) as a duet, and duets with Raitt and Sinead O’Connor.
Simon, Willie said, had been trying to get him to record “Graceland” for years. Nelson thought it was just some song about visiting Elvis Presley’s grave.
He sang “Still Is Still Moving To Me” and “Valentine,” two new compositions (“Valentine” was written for his son Lucas), and re–made 1963′s “She’s Not For You.”
The “Healing Hands Of Time Band,” with Was, David Grisman, Benmont Tench and other notables, backed Nelson up on Lyle Lovett’s “Farther Down The Line” and “If I Were The Man You Wanted,” John Hiatt’s stunning “The Most Unoriginal Sin,” Ry Cooder’s “Across The Borderline” and Dylan’s “What Was It You Wanted.”
Nelson sang the latter song at the big “Bobfest” in New York City at the end of 1992; Dylan was among the numerous guests who performed with him on the April 1993 birthday special on CBS, The Big Six–O. Shortly afterward, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Across The Borderline drove Willie Nelson stock way up for the first time in years; a young, hip audience was learning about him, almost like the young, hip audience of the ’70s had discovered him in Austin and beyond. He was truly country music’s elder statesman now, and an American musical icon — kind of like a cross between Hank Williams, Buffalo Bill Cody and Frank Sinatra. CBS/Sony had its first gold Nelson album in years; it was thrilled.
And then he left the label.
Miffed at the CBS brass’ dismissal of Sugar Moon, Willie Sings Hank Williams and another set of standards cut with Paul Buskirk, Moonlight Becomes You, Nelson declared himself a free agent. He issued Moonlight through Justice Records, an independent Texas label.
“I don’t know why Moonlight Becomes You wasn’t considered another major album, but it wasn’t,” he said. “They didn’t consider it to be commercial enough, so the powers that be at CBS at that time turned it down. They decided they’d rather have something else, and so we immediately got crossways.”
Justice Records, apparently, was simply in the right place at the right time; Moonlight sold close to a million copies.
But he couldn’t stay there permanently; an independent label just couldn’t handle an artist of his stature (CBS International continued to distribute Moonlight outside of the United States).
“I’d been with CBS a long time, and I have a lot of product there, and I have a lot of friends there,” Nelson said. “And they all worked hard, but I just felt like I wanted to do something…it was time to make a change.
“And all of a sudden, here’s Jimmy Bowen and Liberty Records, EMI, wanting to do something. Again, the timing was just perfect. I love Jimmy Bowen. It’s real easy to work with him. It was just one of those natural deals.”
Liberty, of course, was the very label Nelson had started out on, way back when; it was a different label now, with Nashville legend Bowen at the helm. The label’s first commitment to Nelson was the two–CD set The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings, finally bringing together his early work under one roof. It had been out in ugly dribs and tacky drabs for years on various EMI–owned labels. As a fold–open boxed set, it included an exhaustive EMI discography and a pretty good biography, too.
Bowen took Nelson into a Los Angeles studio in the summer of 1994 to cut the album that would eventually be called Healing Hands Of Time; Nelson had copywrited and recorded the title song in 1964, on the Country Willie album. It had been re–recorded on The Sound In Your Mind in 1976.
At first titled Crazy (the implications were probably too much), Healing Hands Of Time is a collection of standards (a little left–of–center this time, with “All The Things You Are,” “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Oh, What It Seemed To Be” among the lesser–knowns in the track listing). It also includes heavily orchestrated renditions of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Night Life.” There’s a new Nelson composition, too, “There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone.”
At 61, he’s still cranking ‘em out. “I enjoy recording,” Nelson said, “and it’s easy to record if you know what you’re gonna do when you get in there.
“We did Red Headed Stranger in a couple of days. Healing Hands Of Time we did in two days. It was 61 pieces, and on the third day we did some overdubbing. To hear about being holed up in a studio for moths at a time is just, to me, unheard of. I guess some people work that way, but I would get bored real quick.”
Nelson completed another religious project in 1994, too. Released on tiny independent Promised Land Records, Peace In The Valley is the first in a projected series of three gospel albums featuring his late son Billy, recorded in the ’80s. Willie sings duets on some of the tracks, and some by himself or as part of a gospel harmony group, and appears with old footage of Billy in the video for the song “My Body’s Just A Suitcase For My Soul.”
It’s a heartbreaker, but a surprisingly good album. “It was something that needed to be done,” Nelson said. “It was kind of like the Moonlight Becomes You album; it was product that I had recorded and done and worked hard for, and my son worked on. It was just waiting for something to happen to it.”
True to his beliefs, the dearth of hit records doesn’t faze Willie Nelson. He figures he’s had a taste of the really big time, and he’s fine where he is, thank you.
Early one morning in May of this year, Texas police discovered Nelson’s Mercedes parked on a service road along Interstate 35 between Austin and Hillsboro. Inside the car, asleep in the backseat, was the man himself.
Nelson explained that he’d been driving home from an all–night poker game, and bad weather had forced him to pull over and stop the car. The officers found a marijuana roach in his ashtray; Nelson was arrested, posted bond and philosophically declared the incident “a part of life.” Then he drove home.
He continues to tour — on the road again and again — with the same band, on the same bus (more or less; the original bus Honeysuckle Rose crashed and burned; now there’s Honeysuckle Rose II). Drawing big crowds—not huge, just big—playing essentially the same songs.
“You would think that I would get tired of some of those songs, and usually when I do get tired of ‘em, I just take ‘em off the show,” Nelson said. “I don’t do them for a while. I think that’s one of the big secrets — well, I don’t know if it’s a secret or not — but it’s something that I’ve learned over the years. If I record songs that I like, if I happen to get a hit, then I won’t mind singing them every night. But if I sing a bunch of crap that I don’t like and that happens to hit, then I’m stuck with it.”
And he swears that he doesn’t care about the current Nashville controversy, of the old guys getting no airplay because the video–genic young bucks are all over the place.
“What’s funny to me, today they say, ‘Well, I wish I’d hear more of the old players — whatever happened to Randy Travis and George Strait?’ I knew when I heard that, I was out of luck, that they forgot about me years ago.
Essential Willie: The Top Twenty
It’s impossible to own just one Willie Nelson album. There are laws on the books that say you can’t.
Seriously, with somewhere near 200 albums in various stages of issue (some in print, some thankfully long gone), it might be hard to know which Willie is which. Do you want the crooner, the outlaw, the cowboy or the Nashville wannabe? The jazzbo or the folk singer?
A career with so many phases and stages can be hard to document (try researching and writing this story!) So here we offer a subjective cross–section of 20 essential Willie albums, from the entire 30–years–plus span of his recording life. Most of them can be found in your local record store.
Although everyone should start with Red Headed Stranger (pardon our opinion), the following are offered up in no particular order:
Red Headed Stranger (Columbia KC–33482, 1973): The definitive Willie Nelson album. As minimalist Westerns go, they don’t get any better than this tale of pain, sin and redemption. Nelson’s plaintive singing is set against stark and somber arrangements, usually just his old guitar and Bobbie’s piano, like a worship service in a lonely prairie church. If “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” in this context, doesn’t make you cry, follow the story to the final movement, the cathartic “Hands On The Wheel.” Emotions are guaranteed.
Stardust (Columbia 33303, 1978): Open fire, two guitars and Willie. This should be the standard by which all albums of standards are measured. Nelson’s singing is restrained and inviting (there’s none of the nasality that runs through Moonlight Becomes You, for example), and the band’s playing is sharp and clear, but unobtrusive. It’s a voice record, after all. Micky Raphael’s harmonica makes for a surprisingly romantic sound, and adds a jaunty, positive swing to “All Of Me.” Nelson’s “Moonlight In Vermont” may be the most romantic record ever made; certainly “September Song” is one of the most melancholy. Perfect for cold winter nights when Christmas carols just won’t do it.
Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Columbia 36883, 1981): Johnny Gimble’s fiddle and Freddie Powers’ guitar give this set of swing tunes the necessary bounce; “Who’s Sorry Now,” “Won’t You Ride In My Little Red Wagon,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter.” The agreeable Powers shares the vocals, too. What more do you need to know? After Stardust, this is Nelson’s best standards album.
Who’ll Buy My Memories (The IRS Tapes) (Sony Special Products 32981, 1991): Nelson goes unplugged, and his rugged charm and warm singing voice have never sounded better. They’re confessional songs, after all. Highlights include “December Day,” “Yesterday’s Wine,” “Jimmy’s Road” and “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way.” Still, it might’ve been nice to hear em a decade ago, before Willie’s voice took on its current overtly nasal quality (are you listening, Bob Dylan?)
Across The Borderline (Columbia 32732, 1993): Don Was coughs up a crack studio band and produces Nelson singing duets with Paul Simon (“Graceland”). Sinead O’Connor (“Don’t Give Up”), Bob Dylan (“Heartland”) and Bonnie Raitt (“Getting Over You”). Nelson does two new original songs (“Valentine” and “Still Is Still Moving”) and covers by Simon, Dylan, Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. With all the bases covered, Nelson—grizzled as hell at age 59—outshines each and every one of them with his most inspired singing in years. (Check out “The Most Unoriginal Sin” and his breathtaking “American Tune.” The latter sounds as if it were written for him.)
The Classic, Unreleased Collection (QVC/Rhino, 1994): Willie Sings Hank Williams is alone worth the price of admission ($32 by direct mail by QVC), but you also get Sugar Moon, a jazzy ‘n’ swing set recorded with Merle Haggard’s band. Willie’s very first single (“No Place For Me” from 1937) and an incredible live performance from the Texas Opry House in 1974, with a “Whiskey River” so ferocious it’s scary. Here is the power of his Texas honky tonk shows. There are outtakes from Shotgun Willie and Who’ll Buy My Memories, to boot. And a pretty good booklet. Supposedly the set will be available in record stores on of these days.
The Early Years: The Complete Liberty Recordings (Liberty 7243, 1994): Forget all those United Artists reissues, or anything on Sunset, Capitol/Pair or EMI–Manhattan. This two–CD set includes everything that Willie did for Liberty, including his first two albums in their entirety, plus a third that was completed but never released. As a bonus, it’s got the original “Night Life” single, by Paul Buskirk and His Little Men featuring Hugh Nelson. Elegant in their simplicity, these are the best early recordings by a long shot, full of misery and gin.
Greatest Hits & Some That Will Be (Columbia 37342, 1981): Here you get a sampling of the great stuff (“Georgia,” “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” “If You Could Touch Her At All”), plus some that were the best things on their original albums (“I’d Have To Be Crazy,” “On The Road Again,” “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”). The god–awful Sydney Pollack–produced “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” is here—don’t know how that one got past Willie—as is a second–rate version of “Good Hearted Woman,” without Waylon and played at double–speed, the way a lot of “outlaw” country was hammered home in the honky tonks. The problem with Greatest Hits is that a whole bunch of Nelson’s very best—”Poncho & Lefty,” “Highwayman,” “City Of New Orleans”—were still down the road a piece. The “Some That Will Be” weren’t, by the way.
Angel Eyes(Featuring The Guitar Of Jackie King) (Columbia 39363, 1984): Yow! This one is a sizzler, and out of print, too. But look it up, because it’s nothing less than a full–tilt jazz album with Willie in the Mel Torme role. Fusion goes fishin’ on this version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” the oddest thing Nelson ever recorded (there are a few close seconds, but here he sounds like he’s trying out as vocalist for the Pat Metheny Group). On the instrumental “Samba For Charlie” Willie plays Wes Montgomery on his beat–up Martin N–20. Verrrry interesting.
Highwayman (Columbia 40036, 1983): When legends meet, the initial effect is sometimes so overwhelming that it doesn’t matter so much what they do together. Such was the case with this good–natured affair with Cash, Kristofferson and Jennings. Aside from the way–cool title song and the eerie “Jim, I Wore A Tie Today,” there isn’t a whole lot to shake the Earth. Or shame it. Even Guy Clark’s melodramatic “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” creaks under the weight of all that heaviosity. If it were just the title song, with a few more verses…
All–Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1(RCA 8336, 1988): Despite the misleading picture on the front, there’s not a bandanna or pigtail in sight. If you gotta check out the “Nashville Sound” Willie, this is the most complete one to get (Once More With Feeling is better, but it’s long out of print). Although it doesn’t include his great 1970 hippie arrangement of Roy Acuff’s “Pins And Needles (In My Heart),” All–Time does give you “Both Sides Now,” “Fire And Rain” and “Everybody’s Talking,” which almost clear the palette of the overproduced junk crammed onto the rest of the disc. Not for the faint–hearted.
Tougher Than Leather (Columbia 38248, 1983): Reincarnation is the theme, and the story line is a little too brainy at times to follow (it’s an obvious attempt to duplicate Red Headed Stranger, but the simplicity is lost in a complicated tale about a dead cowboy, a rose and some other stuff). But Nelson’s band is at its sweet, low–key Western heartbeat best on “Changing Skies” and “My Love For The Rose,” and check out sister Bobbie tinkling the saloon ivories on “Beer Barrel Polka.” Bet country radio didn’t know what to do with a single called “Little Old Fashioned Karma.”
Yesterday’s Wine (RCA LSP–4368, 1972): After Red Headed Stranger, this is Nelson’s most accomplished concept album, as a humbled man reviews the events of his life after it’s over. From the first song, “Where’s The Show,” to the last, “Goin’ Home,” its quiet, contemplative tone is captivating. Some truly classic songs: The reverent “It’s Not For Me To Understand,” and the jocular “Me & Paul.” Rather than carry on the be–labored countrypolitan production sound of Nelson’s earlier RCA stuff, this one was the blueprint for Willie yet to come, for Willie Nelson, the beloved superstar. Note: Compare the confessional–sounding originals here of “In God’s Eyes” and “Family Bible” to the heart–wrenching versions sung by doomed son Billy on Peace In The Valley. Goosebump city.
Phases And Stages (Atlantic SD–7291, 1974): At the time, critics praised this concept album to the skies. It tells the tale of a broken marriage, first from the woman’s point of view, subsequently from the man’s, through a series of thinly–connected songs. Although it’s the biological father of Red Headed Stranger (that one was next) and is performed in the stark, emotive manner of some of Nelson’s all–time best work, Phases And Stages hasn’t aged as well as Yesterday’s Wine. The concept, though noble, just doesn’t hold together so well after 20 years, and it seems a little forced. “Bloody Mary Morning” has never been one of his best tunes, and “Sister’s Coming Home” was to be a shitkicking delight on Emmylou Harris’ Blue Kentucky Girl in 1979, but not here.
Half Nelson (Columbia 39990, 1983): A strange collection of odds ‘n’ sods from the first Columbia decade. Chief among them is “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before,” the chart–busting, if unlikely, pairing with Latin heartthrob Julio Iglesias. Then there’s “Are There Any More Real Cowboys,” the Neil Young co–hab repeated from Young’s cheesy Nashville opus Old Ways, and an electronically–created Hank Williams “duet,” “I Told A Lie To My Heart,” which features Nelson singing a respectful harmony vocal to a primitive Williams demo tape. The great “Poncho And Lefty” is here, too, and a duet with George Jones on Willie’s weirdest song “Half A Man.”
To Lefty From Willie (Columbia/LoneStar KC–34693, 1977): At the height of his post–Stranger popularity, Nelson issued this low–key charmer, his best honky–tonk album. He wasn’t a huge superstar yet, so these songs, all associated with his hero Lefty Frizzell, are earnest and true. And the band played ’em like the well–oiled loser’s lounge machine they were. Best: “Always Late With Your Kisses,” “That’s The Way Love Goes,” “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone” and “Railroad Lady.” The latter number was included on Greatest Hits And Some That Will Be.
Without a Song (Columbia 39110, 1983): Booker T. returns for another trip on the standard–go–round; although the songs are a nice lot (“Autumn Leaves,” “Once In A While”) it’s just not as good as Stardust on which it tries to capitalize. Nelson’s nasal singing has got the better of him by now, and he can’t whisper the sweet, romantic nothings like he did back in 1978. Still, Without A Song has “As Time Goes By,” the coolest of the Willie/Julio duets. And it’s better than Always On My Mind, which outsold it by about a zillion copies.
Shotgun Willie (Atlantic SD–7262, 1973): Shotgun Willie is a transitional album; he was taking side–trips into the wild country where rock, balladry and country music met in secret, but he wasn’t ready to commit yet. It’s a beer–drinking record. So you get the rollicking “Whiskey River,” in its first incarnation. “Sad Songs And Waltzes” and “Stay All Night,” set against the stodgy “Shotgun Willie” and “Bubbles In My Beer,” which harkened back to the old days when Willie was still looking for the right formula (i.e., what would sell). It was the first album, it should be noted, to employ his own band for every track. Leon Russell, Doug Sahm, David Bromberg and the Jerry Joyner Horns plugged in, too.
The Sound In Your Mind (Columbia KC–34092, 1976): First out of the chute following the mad bull Red Headed Stranger, this one is a mixed bag of standards, really old Nelson songs and popular numbers from the honky–tonks (and “Amazing Grace,” too). “I’d Have To Be Crazy” is a Rick Blackburn’s favorite song, and “That Lucky Old Sun” predates Stardust by two years. “If You’ve Got The Money” is a wonderful beer blast from honky–tonk heaven; it was a #1 single in July 1976. Nelson’s voice is wonderful throughout, sincere and comfy, and full of the confidence of the talented and the successful, and on the front cover he looks like Jesus in a bandana. Obviously, he knew where he was going, but the stitched–together song list is proof that he wasn’t altogether sure how he was going to get there.
JUPITER, Fla. – During the late 1970s and early ’80s, whenever he appeared on the Tonight Show, Burt Reynolds rarely failed to mention Jupiter, where he lived and was planning to build a “top quality” theater.
Johnny Carson always seemed to think he was kidding.
Groundbreaking for the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and Institute for Theatre Training, on five acres at A1A and Indiantown Road, took place on May 19, 1978.
“What I’m trying to do is pay back the people here who have been so loyal to me,” Reynolds, who’d grown up in nearby Riviera Beach, told reporters. “There’s a real need for a theater here. This has been a dream of mine for a long time.”
Reynolds was, at that moment, the top male box office star in America. His Hollywood buddies, who knew of the actor’s dedication to home and hearth, never doubted his sincerity.
Actor Charles Nelson Reilly, a friend from Reynolds’ days in New York theater, remembers his first trip to Jupiter. Reynolds drove Reilly and Dom DeLuise down Indiantown Road – one unpaved lane a mile east of the U.S. 1 truck stop – and stopped the car.
“There was a mound, and he said ‘I’m going to build a theater here,’ and we all thought he was crazy,” Reilly says.
Still, Reynolds persevered and the $2 million Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and Institute for Theatre Training made its debut Jan. 30, 1979. Reilly takes credit for coining the phrase “Miracle at the Truck Stop,” which they had printed on bumper stickers.
“When it opened,” Reilly recalls, “the L.A. Times said ‘Burt Reynolds Institute? What’s next, the Anson Williams Conservatory and the Sonny Bono Academy?’ And he got so depressed.”
Still, no one had seen anything like it in Jupiter, and the opening season was sold out months in advance.
“I want a theater for people who haven’t seen live theater, and at prices they can pay,” Reynolds said before the opening. “I imagine we might have as 75 percent of the audience guys who climb out of pickups. I hope we’ll also get knowledgeable aficionados of good theater.”
First-night tickets cost $18.95; all other shows were $14.95. Season tickets were sold for $74.75 per person.
To enter the 400-seat auditorium, audiences passed an elaborate fountain, and a commissioned statue of Reynolds by Miami sculptor Manuel Carbonell.
“Vanities,” directed by Reynolds and starring his then-girlfriend Sally Field, came first. The cast also included Tyne Daly and Gail Strickland. Reynolds and Field next co-starred in “The Rainmaker,” also directed by Reynolds. Karen Valentine (of TV’s “Love American Style”) starred in “Born Yesterday,” followed by Stockard Channing in “Two For the Seesaw.”
“I’ve made friends who grew up in theater,” Reynolds said that first year. “They’d like to do it again, but they just don’t want to get clobbered by the New York critics. They want to have fun.”
Indeed, the first seasons were jammed with A-list actors Field, Martin Sheen, Charles Durning, Farrah Fawcett (making her stage debut in “Butterflies Are Free”), Richard Basehart, Carol Burnett, Jose Quintero, Robert Urich (Reynolds’ old footbal pal from Florida State University), Abe Vigoda, Ossie Davis, Jim Nabors and a then-unknown John Goodman.
“I would just ask the actors ‘What’s your favorite play?’ or “What’s your biggest challenge?’,” Reynolds wrote in his autobiography. “Singers want to act. Actors want to sing.”
Reilly himself replaced an ailing Channing in a production of Ernest “On Golden Pond” Thompson’s “Answers,” a collection of three one-act plays about friendship. He played opposite Reynolds; the other vignettes were acted by Ned Beatty and Charles Durning, and Kirstie Alley and her husband Parker “Hardy Boys” Stevenson.
Joshua Logan came to Jupiter to direct Martin Sheen and Simon Oakland in “Mister Roberts”; Sheen’s son Emelio Estevez, yet to make his mark in the movies, also was in the cast.
Later, a production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Reynolds, starred Sheen, Andrienne Barbeau and Sheen’s other son, Ramon Estevez – later to be known professionally as Charlie Sheen.
Reilly lived on and off at Reynolds’ three-story home on Jupiter Island for 17 years, teaching daily at the institute and working on shows, behind the scenes and on the stage.
It was, he says, a wonderful time for everyone associated with the place.
“I lived on the beach, and you could go out and look left and right, and not see another human being on Jupiter Island,” Reilly says. “We would have parties, and nobody would go in the water. Reynolds had all these towels that were the size of blankets, and hats for the sun.
“But there was so much to do in the theater, with the teaching and the kids and the mainstage plays, that you never thought of the beach. It was rather sad in a way, but there was so much to do.”
The audiences ate it up, and, Reilly says, the performers were only too happy to receive such genuine appreciation from a theater-starved community.
“There were always elderly people, and sometimes someone would get sick in the middle of a matinee and have to go to the hospital,” he remembers. “And I would go into the ambulance with them and say ‘Don’t worry, it’s not that good a show. You didn’t miss that much.’”
After two seasons, several rows of seats were installed to augment the dinner tables, and the venue’s name was changed to the Burt Reynolds Jupiter Theatre.
There were three private dining areas overlooking the auditorium, for VIPs. “They had waiters and waitresses,” Reilly recalls. “It was like you’d died and gone to heaven. The china and the tablecloths were unbelievable.”
Often, Reilly or another actor would return to Los Angeles after many months in Jupiter, only to be called back in a pinch.
One year, living at the beach house, Reilly was being visited by actress Julie Harris, who was laying low after an illness, and veteran character actor Vincent Gardenia, who was at the time teaching at the Reynolds Institute.
“Brian Keith was making a movie, and it got delayed, so he couldn’t come do the show he was scheduled to do, whatever it was,” Reilly recalls.
“We were to start rehearsals Tuesday, and we had nothing. No attraction. So I said to Julie and Vincent, who were sitting in the kitchen, what about ‘Death of a Salesman?’ and they said OK, that’s fine. And we did it, and it was amazing.
“It was the best ‘Death of a Salesman’ I ever saw, not because I did it, but because of the quality of the acting.
“One critic in the area wrote that it was like ‘having Christmas and your birthday on the same day, with no limits to the gifts.’”
The Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training put on lunchtime matinees; classes were every day. Each season, 10 theater students were awarded scholarships.
Among its successful alumni are singer Lisa Felcoski, who does TV jingles, and stage actress Anastasia Barzee, recently seen opposite Kevin Kline in “King Lear” on Broadway. According to Reilly, Reynolds was fiercely dedicated to teaching. “I never knew who that person was on the posters and in the movies,” he says. “Because he was always this wonderful man.
“He and I would teach at midnight, because he liked to teach then. I mean, no one teaches at midnight. But they’d stay till 4 a.m., then we went to the truck stop and had breakfast.”
Sadly, the dream ended in 1989; Reynolds’ financial woes cost him the facility, and it spent the next 10 years under several owners who tried to keep things going, but for one reason or another couldn’t rekindle the old magic.
With his pudgy hands shackled in front of him, Mark David Chapman sat at his defense attorney’s table, facing the judge who would decide his fate. Inside the crowded federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, the man who murdered John Lennon rarely looked up from his lap, where he clutched a dog-eared paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye, calmly turning the pages as best he could against the steel tug of the handcuffs.
Chapman didn’t really look like the deranged killers you see in the movies, although his hair was barely crew-cut length – he’d recently shaved his head in prison – and there were deep black circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in a week.
He was just some overweight loser. A bulletproof vest under his dingy brown sweatshirt made him look stockier than he was, like he was wearing football pads.
It was the summer of 1981, just eight months after the murder. A buddy of mine was living in Brooklyn Heights, working as a production assistant on the soap opera The Guiding Light. I’d accompanied him to the studio the day before, and watched them tape the show. Got a script autographed for my mom, who was a fan.
During an afternoon of sight-seeing, he accompanied me to the Dakota, the gothic mansion where Lennon had lived – and died – on Central Park West. I’ve stopped by there many times over the years, but that first visit, when the shock and the anger were still fresh, hanging in the air like gunpowder smoke, has stayed with me.
Bob was about to leave for the studio the next morning; if I had plans, I don’t remember what they were. In his little kitchenette, I perused Time magazine over my morning coffee – and I saw, under Milestones, the item about Chapman. He’d pled guilty in June – “God instructed me to do it” – and was to be sentenced on August 24.
That very day.
So whatever I was going to do, I didn’t do it, and I went to the federal courthouse instead. Bob convinced me to take his CBS ID badge, so I could get into the journalist section in case there were too many “regular people” there, taking up the cheap seats. I wouldn’t start writing professionally for another year or two.
Here’s the thing about John Lennon. And I’m well aware that millions of people feel exactly the same way. Let’s take the Beatles out of it for a moment – the incredible artistry, the unparalleled songs, the amazing cultural saga that publicity guru Derek Taylor called “The 20th Century’s Greatest Romance.”
The Beatles. Yeah. You get it.
I’m not one of those people who think Lennon, in hindsight, was a genius or a visionary or a deep philosopher or any of that stuff. I find it amusing when people quote him – or, more often, misquote him – with those goofy Facebook memes.
What he was, was charismatic, brilliant, quick-witted and extraordinarily talented. Lennon was so, so funny, and despite the fact that he often said ridiculous things, it was hard – impossible – to give up on him. You could not look away.
The indisputable magic of a celebrity like his was that you felt like you knew him, even though you didn’t really, and it was a really good feeling.
When that guy shot him in the back, he’d just made a new record, and started giving interviews again, after a self-imposed five years off the radar. When John “returned,” I – like so many others around the world – was just so fucking glad he was back in my life.
So it was weird to hear the prosecutor’s clinical description of the crime, step by step, and to hear the word “victim” followed by “John Winston Ono Lennon.” It brought it all home, you know? Now he was another statistic.
Two psychiatrists who had examined Chapman at length spent hours on the stand, describing his childhood fantasies about the armies of “little men” who lived in the armchairs and sofas of his family’s living room. This testimony is described in detail in the excellent book Let Me Take You Down.
I didn’t follow much of it. Sitting in the media gallery, behind the sketch artists who were drawing like mad, I watched Chapman. His puffy black eyes remained fixed on the ratty red book in his lap.
When the testimony was over, the judge asked if Chapman wished to make a statement before sentence was imposed. When the reply came – “yes, your honor,” in a hoarse whisper – you could feel the intake of air as everybody in the courtroom gasped. The woman in the seat in front of mine held her pencil at the ready over her sketch pad.
A uniformed, armed officer moved in behind him as Chapman stood up at the table. “I’d like to read from The Catcher in the Rye,” he said loudly. “This will be my statement.”
And he did. With the paperback open in front of him, he read that famous paragraph from J.D. Salinger’s teen-alienation novel, the one about little kids falling off a cliff:
I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.
We all sat back, slack-jawed. The judge gave him 20-to-life. They led him away.