It’s Willie Nelson’s 80th birthday today!
Guest Blogger: Randy Poe, author of Stalking the Red Headed Stranger.
Unless you were listening to country radio in 1962, you probably aren’t aware that Willie Nelson had two Top Ten singles on Liberty Records that year. “Willingly” – a duet with Shirley Collie – entered the charts in March, followed two months later by “Touch Me,” Willie’s first solo venture to reach the Top Ten.
It would be thirteen years before Nelson would have another hit single. In 1975, his recording of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” went to number one on the country charts, number twenty-one on the pop charts, and number twelve on the adult contemporary charts. Before long, Willie Nelson was on his way to becoming a household name via records, concerts, movie roles, television appearances, and – well – just being Willie Nelson.
While I was researching Willie’s life story for my book Stalking the Red Headed Stranger, the main trait I personally found to be most admirable about the man was his indomitable determination.
When he scored that first Top Ten hit in 1962, Willie was twenty-nine years old. When he followed it up with another Top Ten hit a couple of months later, major stardom must have seemed just around the corner. However, his next few singles didn’t make the kind of noise those first two had, and by 1965, Liberty Records had closed it Nashville offices, leaving Willie without a label.
Despite that dry spell during his last couple of years on Liberty, Willie was soon signed to the all-powerful RCA Records – home of Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Hank Snow, and a host of other country giants.
Chet Atkins – RCA’s head honcho in Nashville – was so confident he’d signed a winner that he assigned himself the task of producing Nelson’s records. With the combination of RCA and Chet Atkins on his side, Willie’s next hit single was virtually a fait accompli. But it quickly became apparent that Chet’s “Nashville Sound” production methods (lots of background singers, lots of strings) just didn’t work in Willie’s world. Year after year, single after single, album after album, Nelson’s career remained in neutral, if not reverse.
After seven years of failure, Willie’s days at RCA mercifully came to an end. Atlantic Records was next. By then, Willie was forty years old. Most country singers have had their last number one hit long before they hit forty. Willie was yet to have his first. Two years, two albums, and six singles later, Atlantic Records – just as Liberty had done in the mid-’60s – got out of the country music business, leaving Nashville and Willie behind.
Despite the fact that Nelson had now gone over a dozen years without anything close to a hit, Columbia Records was waiting in the wings – not only ready and willing to sign the singer, but to also give him complete creative control over his recordings for the label.
The end result was Red Headed Stranger, a concept album that broke the mold in country music with its dark story line, its stark instrumentation, and its number one single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
After that – as the deejays say – the hits just kept on comin’.
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Willie Nelson turns eighty today. His musical talents have been known throughout the world for decades. But what if he’d given up after that first year on RCA with no hits, or that second year, or that sixth or seventh year? Anyone could understand why he might call it quits after none of his albums or singles on Atlantic made much noise either.
Just like millions of others, I’m a huge fan of Willie’s music. I also admire his work with Farm Aid, Habitat for Horses, and the other important causes he has championed over the years. But it’s pretty safe to say that without his incredible, indomitable determination – at least as far as his recording career is concerned – Willie Nelson might very well be remembered today as just another singer who had a couple of Top Ten hits in the early 1960s.
Happy birthday, Willie. Thanks for all of your contributions to the world of music – and for reminding us that talent is an asset, but determination is invaluable.
Stalking the Red Headed Stranger is a guide to the art and history of professional song plugging. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill history book/instruction manual. It is an in-depth, up-close look into the real music business by industry insider and Grammy Award nominee Randy Poe, who has represented literally hundreds of the greatest songs in the history of popular music, including “Stand By Me,” “Happy Together,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Hound Dog,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Chapel of Love,” “Summer in the City,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Kansas City.”
But wait! There’s so much more! Interwoven throughout this entertaining and enlightening book is the hysterical saga of the author as he chases American icon Willie Nelson across Canada – via plane, taxi, rental car, and even ferryboat – in an attempt to pitch a single song to the Red Headed Stranger. And what happens on Willie’s bus doesn’t stay on Willie’s bus.