Willie Nelson is probably one of the most famous musical stars around, and I can’t imagine anyone not instantly recognizing his grizzled face when they see it or his unique voice when they hear it. I wonder though if there are many of us around who remember the early days, before he became the character he now is, and when he had a much different appearance?
I can’t really say that I remember Willie during that period from the late 50’s to the early 60’s, although it’s possible I heard him on the Grand Ole Opry or some other radio show. And I can remember seeing Patsy Cline and others on TV shows such as Alabama Jubilee, so it’s possible Willie showed up there too, but if he did then he didn’t register with me at the time.
However, I definitely remember some of the big hit songs of the era that I’ve since learned were written by him but performed by others. That was Willie’s fate in the early stages of his career — he was a well-respected songwriter but pretty much a non-factor as a singer. He tried, but his unconventional voice was something different, and not many country music fans of the time appreciated it.
Growing up in Texas, he was musically inclined from childhood. He began appearing professionally in a serious way in the early 50’s, singing in honky-tonks while continuing his main job as a radio DJ. He also tried making recordings but with limited success, however he always had his songwriting, and that’s what eventually allowed him to keep going. Beginning to be recognized by well-known singers as a source of noteworthy songs helped pave the way, and things started happening for him.
Hank Cochran helped him latch on at Pamer Music, which was co-owned by Ray Price. Price recorded Willie’s “Night Life” and also hired him as a musician in his touring band, the Cherokee Cowboys. That began a productive period during which Willie provided hit songs for several big name singers. These included “Funny How Time Slips Away” by Billy Walker, Faron Young on “Hello Walls” (although I like Willie’s version better) and probably the biggest of all, “Crazy”, unforgettably performed by Patsy Cline.
Willie began to have some success as a singer too, but although he did well stardom continued to elude him. He signed on with Liberty Records in the early 60’s and had a couple of top ten recordings; “Willingly”, with his wife (at the time) Shirley Collie, and “Touch Me”, but then he again seemed to tread water for a while. He did keep writing though, and Roy Orbison had a hit with Willie’s “Pretty Paper” during that time period.
Frustrated, Willie moved to RCA in the mid 60’s but things kind of continued a downhill glide and eventually he moved back to Austin, where he would reinvent himself as the redneck outlaw so beloved by later audiences…but that’s another story.