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Music

Willie Nelson’s Dallas Diaries

Willie meets the famous and infamous in 1950s Dallas, with Paul English, his trusted drummer, bodyguard, accountant, partner-in-crime, right-hand man, by his side.
By Willie Nelson with David Ritz | |Illustration by Tim O’Brien
Young Willie Nelson
Half Nelson: When Willie was making his way as a young artist in Fort Worth and Dallas in the 1950s, he did not yet have his iconic outlaw persona. Tim O’Brien

It was a Saturday night in 1955 when me and Paul drove over to Dallas from Fort Worth to see about hustling up some gigs. The Bob Wills Ranch House, on Corinth Street in the industrial wastelands south of downtown, was the biggest music barn in the city. When we walked in, Paul introduced me to a man standing by the front door. In his gray suit, white shirt, and black bow tie, he looked out of place. Everyone else was wearing working clothes, overalls, and jeans. Some of the gals were wearing cowgirl getups. Most of the fellas had cowboy hats. This guy was smoking a pipe.

“Willie,” he said, “meet O.L. Nelms.”

Well, I’d heard of O.L. Nelms because he’d plastered giant billboards from here to Fort Worth saying, “Thanks to All of You for Helping O.L. Nelms Make Another Million.” Nelms was the real estate mogul who owned the Bob Wills Ranch House. He named it after Wills because they were buddies.

“How are you doing, Paul?” asked Nelms.

“Fair to middlin’,” Paul answered.

How in hell did Paul know O.L. Nelms? Short answer: Paul knew everyone.

Hank Snow was on stage singing his big hit “Cryin’, Prayin’, Waitin’, Hopin’.” Miss Kitty Wells was on the same show. We hung around to hear her do “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” I’ve always liked Kitty. A few years later, I’d go back to this same place after it was renamed the Longhorn Ballroom. That’s when Dewey Groom, a singer himself, took it over from Nelms and devoted one night a week to Black blues. Paul also knew Dewey. Many were the times me and Paul went over there to hear great artists like B.B. King, Freddie King, and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

Naturally, Nelms wasn’t about to hire a nobody like me to play his Ranch House. Paul had other promoters in mind. We headed into the heart of downtown where, across the street from the fancy Adolphus Hotel, was Abe Weinstein’s Colony Club. If a strip joint could be called classy, the Colony Club fit the bill. This time we went through the back door, straight to Abe’s office. A thin-faced man with a 5 o’clock shadow, Abe wore a double-breasted suit and black fedora. He was hunched over an open ledger on his desk. When he looked up, he seemed pleased to see Paul.

“I wish I had your dad doing my books,” said Abe. “He’d do a better job than me.”

“Abe knew my dad,” Paul told me. “Dad was the best accountant in the state.”

After introducing me, Paul asked Abe whether he’d ever listened to my Western Express radio show. He hadn’t. He and his brother, Barney, owned a bunch of clubs, but according to Abe, they didn’t want country music.

“Can Willie play bump-and-grind music?” asked Abe.

“Willie can play anything.”

“I’m sure he can, but right now I don’t have a thing.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” said Paul. “Mind if we take a peek inside?”

“Be my guest.”

The club was awash in red—red brocade wallpaper, red leatherette banquettes, waitresses in skin-tight red skirts. The red curtains were drawn and Shari Angel, billed as “The Girl with the Heavenly Body,” came out in a G-string and pasties. In those days, that was as far as they’d let the gals go.

We stood in a corner watching. Abe joined us for a minute.

He asked Paul, “What do you think?”

Paul gave a small nod.

“Glad you approve,” said Abe. “Next week we’re bringing Candy Barr back. You don’t want to miss Candy. Jack Ruby tried to book her, but she turned him down flat. The guy’s a bum. Stay away from Jack Ruby.”

A minute or so after leaving the Colony Club, Paul said, “Let’s go see Jack Ruby.”

I had to laugh.

We walked down Akard Street where Paul pointed out four or five other strip clubs.

“Jack Ruby owns a couple of these,” he said. “The Weinstein brothers hate his guts, but Jack has connections. No reason not to pay Jack a visit.”

At the corner of Commerce and Ervay, we bumped into David “Fathead” Newman, a handsome Black man with an easy smile and thick moustache. A Dallasite, Fathead played sax in Ray Charles’ band. He was also Ray’s best friend. I was crazy for Ray’s music. “I Got a Woman” had just come out and, even on my country music show, I’d play the thing every chance I got. Paul and I had gone to see Ray’s band in a club on Jacksboro Highway. We hadn’t met Ray personally, but we knew Fathead, a friendly gentleman.

“We’re looking for Ruby,” Paul told Fathead. “You seen him?”

“He was just here. Matter of fact, we had a run-in.”

“What happened?” Paul asked.

“Well, I was playing in a band at his place … ”

“How come?” I asked.

“Ray’s off the road for a couple of weeks,” said Fathead. “I wanted to pick up a few extra bucks. Easy gig. Except with Jack, nothing’s easy. He accused me of looking at the strippers while I was playing.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Jack was bitching about how his white clientele doesn’t want to see a Black cat drooling over a naked white chick. But that don’t make sense. His white clientele is looking at Chris Colt and her .45s. They can’t keep their eyes off her .45s. No one is looking at me. And I’m just looking to get through this dumbass gig and split.”

“He fire you?” asked Paul.

“I quit,” Fathead said. “Should have never taken the gig. You ever know Zuzu Bollin?”

“I knew Zuzu,” said Paul. “Blues guy.”

“Had a big hit. Or what should have been a big hit. ‘Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night?’ After the record came out, Ruby hired Zuzu to play at one of his clubs. After a week of packed crowds, Zuzu got half of what he was promised. Zuzu called Ruby a scumbag. Then Ruby got the deejays to stop playing Zuzu’s record. That was the beginning and end of Zuzu.”

“Well, at least you got your gig with Ray. When are you guys going out again?” I asked.

“Not sure. Ray just moved here.”

“Ray Charles is living in Dallas?!”

“South Dallas,” said Fathead. “Over on Eugene Street. You should come over and say hello.”

“Always wanted to meet him,” I said. “Wonder what he’s like in everyday life.”

“You play chess?” Fathead asked.

“Yes indeed,” Paul said.

That surprised me. I was a chess player myself. Didn’t figure Paul as one.

“Well, that’s the opening,” said Fathead. “Ray’s always looking for good chess players.”

“Meanwhile,” said Paul, “where do you think we can find Ruby?”

“Probably over at his place on Oak Lawn.”

Known Associates: One of Willie’s first gigs was as a DJ for the Western Express radio show in Fort Worth. English, meanwhile, was hanging out with the likes of Jack Ruby (above, far left, with friends), who declined to offer the future country icon a gig.

II.

A big neon sign said “Lucas B&B,” an all-night ham-and-eggs eatery. Me and Paul parked right in front. Next door was the Vegas Club, Jack Ruby’s after-hours spot. I’d passed by it before when Bobbie and I had gone to church where she played organ for Sunday services. The church was in Highland Park, a highfalutin neighborhood of huge mansions right around Oak Lawn.

The dance floor was crowded, the smoke was thick, and music was coming from a loudspeaker, playing Jimmy Reed blues. The band was on break. A back room had paintings of bosomy women on the wall. Real-life bosomy women were working two different roulette wheels. Green felt tables were set up for poker and blackjack. I was tempted, but I was broke. Beyond the back room was an office with blue velvet walls and a white wood desk. The stocky man seated behind the desk had beady eyes, thin lips, slicked-back dark hair, a white boutonniere in the lapel of his silk suit, and a cigarillo in his mouth.

“Meet Jack Ruby,” Paul said, making the introductions.

Ruby seemed happy to see Paul. It seemed like everyone was happy to see Paul. You felt good being around him. And if he was your friend—like he was to so many people—you also felt safe.

“Either you got something for me,” Ruby said with a distinct Chicago accent, “or you want something from me.”

“What would I have for you?” Paul asked.

“A dame. Two dames. Three dames. What do I know? You tell me, Paul.”

“Not into that kind of operation these days.”

“So where are you working?”

“Working with this guy.” Paul nodded in my direction.

“What does he do?” Ruby asked. 

“Sings. Plays. Writes. Got his own radio show.”

“How’s that gonna make me any money?”

“He’s really good,” Paul said. “His band is lighting up Fort Worth.”

“Fort Worth is a hillbilly town. Farmer’s town. Pigsty town. This here is different. You saw the name out front? This here is more Vegas, more Monte Carlo. Whatever gets over in Fort Worth falls flat in Dallas.”

“How many spots you got, Jack?” Paul asked.

“I got what used to be the Singapore Supper Club. I renamed it the Silver Spur Club. I also got Hernando’s Hideaway. I used to have the Bob Wills Ranch House.”

“We saw Nelms over there tonight,” Paul said.

“Nelms stole it from me. I’ll get it back. I’ll also get the Weinsteins. I got plans to open a swank club that’ll put their Colony out of business. You hit them up for work?”

Paul gave one of his coy little nods. “Abe sends his regards.”

“Abe can go to hell. Him and his brother Barney both. Small-time operators.”

“They got big-name entertainers.” 

“They got big-time shit. They’re small-time schmucks.”

“Well,” Paul said, seeing we were getting nowhere, “you know where to find me.”

“Find me some dames,” Ruby said. “Dames were your thing. You always did good with the dames. Better leave this Willie fella alone and stick with what you know.”

III.

Eggs over easy, home fries, crisp bacon, buttermilk biscuits. Me and Paul in a booth at Lucas B&B wolfing down a late-night breakfast. The fluorescent lights were buzzing. I felt a little buzzed myself from the beers and whiskey I’d been drinking at our various stopovers while Paul remained stone-cold sober. A plate of hot food did me good.

I asked Paul more about his history with women.

“I had a lady working for me a few years back,” he explained. “I’d barely turned 21, and so had she. She needed protection. I needed money. She had friends interested in the same line of work. I set up shop at the Western Hills Inn way out in Euless. Low-key but lucrative. The girls liked me because I made sure no harm came to them. They called me the Good Pimp. That was my reputation. I’d tell them that most men were all about wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am. I’d say, ‘Honey, light a cigarette, lay it in the ashtray, and by the time it burns out, your customer should have had his satisfaction. Quick thrill for him, less work for you.’ The gals would trust me with all their personal problems. I guess everyone needs a shoulder to lean on.”

“The people running that Western Hills Inn ever get suspicious?”

“I gave the bellman a cut. Gave the taxi drivers a cut. Gave the maids a cut. Had everyone moving in the right direction. Word spread. Clean rooms, gorgeous gals. You wouldn’t believe who came through. Big stars. Desi Arnaz.”

“Lucy’s Desi?”

“The same. Arrives in a limo. Throws around hundred-dollar bills like Monopoly money. Champagne for everyone. Party all night. Switch rooms. Switch girls. Two at a time, three at a time. Turns around, goes back to Hollywood, and a month later, he’s back in Euless.”

I shook my head in wonder. Paul got around.

IV.

Paul didn’t find us any work that night in Dallas, but the evening proved lucrative in other ways. Paul always maintained his connections. The men we met we’d meet again. And, of course, he’d eventually find the man I was dying to meet most. Ray Charles.

Paul and I decided to take Fathead up on his offer to meet the High Priest of Soul. He gave us the address, and on Sunday afternoon, we headed back to Dallas. The 32-mile drive on Highway 80 through Arlington was no sweat. Construction on a new turnpike was underway, and I liked looking at the heavy equipment—bulldozers, backhoes, track loaders, and rollers. I liked rolling down highways. Paul was a great companion because, like me, he’d rather listen to music than talk. The biggest song in the country was playing on the Buick radio: Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” followed by Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and then Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” I was still noodling with songs of my own but hadn’t had much success in getting them recorded by me or anyone else.

Ray’s neighborhood was nice. Well-kept lawns, small houses. His was on Eugene Street. Fathead was at the front door to greet us. He introduced us to Ray’s wife Della. A little toddler, Ray Jr., was chasing after the family puppy. The radio was tuned to KCNC, the Fort Worth country radio station where I’d been working. That was unexpected.

“Ray’s out back,” Della said, “working on his car.”

Fathead led the way. There was the genius himself, hunched over the engine of a Studebaker Golden Hawk, a two-door hardtop coupe. He had on his dark glasses, a brown shirt, and brown pants. He didn’t turn his head our way.

“Be with you fellas in a minute,” he said. “Mechanic said he changed the sparkplugs, but I can see that the sparkplugs aren’t the problem.”

I was tickled by how he said, “I can see … ”

We watched him dip in and out of his tool kit, fooling with the engine for a good 15 minutes. He worked fast and looked like he knew what he was doing. He reminded me of a doctor doing surgery. Finally, he put down his tools and said, “I do believe the problem is solved.”

See It Through: English eventually settled in Dallas, though he never left Willie’s side. Ray Charles remained a friend to Willie long after he left South Dallas.

Then he got in the car and turned over the engine. It purred like a kitten. Big grin on Ray’s face as he threw the Hawk into reverse and backed it down the driveway without missing a beat. He walked up to the house—no cane, no seeing eye dog—and shook our hands as Fathead introduced us. Strong handshake.

“Car’s not even a year old,” he said, “and already acting up. Pisses me off, but you didn’t come around to hear me bitching about my car. I hear you boys play chess.”

“I’ll sit out and let you musical geniuses play,” Paul said.

“What’s your instrument, Willie?”

“Guitar.”

“Your friend’s calling you a genius.”

“He was really talking about you.”

“Duke Ellington’s a genius,” Ray said. “Art Tatum’s a genius. I’m good at what I do, but that’s about it.”

“Feel the same. A genius to me is Django Reinhardt.”

“Him and Stéphane Grappelli. Man, that fiddle and guitar go so good together.”

“I’ll never be Django,” I said.

“You don’t need to be. We already got us a Django. Fats said that you’re on the radio. What station?”

“You got it on right now. I didn’t expect you to be a country music fan, Ray.”

“Why not? Grew up on the Grand Ole Opry. Down in Tampa I was in a band called the Florida Playboys. Ever hear of them?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“No one has. We were mainly covering the hits of the day. Stuff like ‘Kentucky Waltz.’  ”

“This was a Negro band?” I asked.

“Negro my ass,” Ray shot back, slapping his thighs in delight. “I was the only pepper in the salt shaker.”

“And no one gave you trouble?”

“Not if I played the right notes. Hell, I knew more country tunes than all those crackers put together. No offense meant.”

“None taken,” I said.

“Talking country music, I’ve never heard your radio show. When’s it on?”

“Weekdays at noon.”

“Usually not up by then.”

“I wouldn’t be if I didn’t have to,” I said.

“You like Hank Snow?” Ray asked.

“Who doesn’t?”

“Thinking of recording his ‘I’m Moving On.’  ”

“Be interested to hear how you’d do it.”

With that, he walked over to the upright piano in the small living room. Next to the instrument was a table holding a stack of thick bound books.

As he sat on the piano bench, he asked, “You like reading, Willie?”

“I love it.”

Ray pointed to the stack and said, “My braille books.”

“Mind if I take a look?”

“Now I’m not believing you read braille.”

“I don’t. It’s just that I’ve never seen a braille book before.”

I opened the one on top and ran my fingers over the bumps. “Is this a sexy one?” I asked.

“Only if you think the Bible is sexy.”

Paul laughed like he knew something no one else did.

“What else you reading, Ray?”

“I like Robert Louis Stevenson. I like Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I like Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ I started reading all those books in school. They call it fiction. Then you got your nonfiction. Ever hear of Norman Vincent Peale?”

The Power of Positive Thinking.”

“You read it?”

“I try to do it,” I said.

“Well, lemme try to do this Hank Snow thing.”

He played it about the same tempo as Hank, but with gospel flavor that turned it into a hymn. As a piano player, he made me think of my sister, Bobbie who, like Ray, had come up in church where you learn chords big enough to get the whole congregation rocking. Ray’s rendition got me rocking.

“Great,” I said.

Ray got up from the piano and headed toward the couch. His movements were deliberate, decisive. His body and mind were on double time. It was invigorating to be in his presence.

“Ready to fool with these rooks and bishops?” he asked.

“Gonna give it my best.”

“I’m just a beginner,” said Ray.

“Sounds like a setup for a bet.”

“You know what they say about robbing the blind,” Ray reminded me. “I’m no gambling man. Are you?”

“Been known to put down a few dollars on dominoes.”

“I like dominoes. Dominoes is fun, but chess is war.”

“Go easy on me, Ray. I’m just a country boy.”

“Backwoods Georgia, where I was raised, is so country we be eating everything on the hog ’cept the oink.”

“Yeah, but you got a proper education. Look at that pile of books.”

“State school for the blind. Saint Augustine, Florida. Learned me a little Beethoven.”

“Wouldn’t mind hearing a little Beethoven,” I said.

“You keep pushing back our gunfight at the O.K. Corral.”

“Come on, Ray,” I said, “just a little Beethoven.”

Ray went back to the piano and knocked off a little Moonlight Sonata.

“Mighty pretty,” said Paul.

Determined, Ray brought out his board and set up the pieces.

“Right now there’s still some daylight left,” he said, “and you can see. That gives you one hell of an advantage. But come nighttime, we won’t be turning on no lights. That’s when your advantage ends and mine begins.”

We chuckled, but when the sun set and it got too dark to see the pieces, I saw Ray wasn’t kidding. He expected me to have memorized all the positions the way he had. So, of course he wiped me out.

“Tell your boss to push that radio show till evening time,” Ray said on our way out. “I wanna hear what you sound like on the air. I wanna hear you tell the people how a blind man kicked your ass.”

“Not sure how long that show’s gonna last,” I said. “If I keep playing those records of yours like I’ve been doing, they might wind up firing me.”

Ray exploded in laughter. “You guys with your 20/20 better watch out for those wooden nickels,” he said as we climbed in the Buick to head back to Cowtown.

V.

That night Paul brought out his own chessboard.

“Watching you and Ray gave me the itch,” he said. “You ready?”

“Never thought a guy with your background would be interested in chess.”

“My background has everything to do with chess,” he said.

“What part of your background?”

“Jail.”

“They play chess in jail?”

“Killer chess. The killers are the best players.”

I fought hard, but Paul’s background bested me. He played to kill and won hands down. 


From Me and Paul: Untold Stories of a Fabled Friendship by Willie Nelson. Copyright © 2022 by Willie Nelson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Focus

This story originally appeared in the January issue of D Magazine with the headline, “Willie Nelson’s Diaries” Write to [email protected].

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