75 Year of Willie Nelson; 30 years of Stardust

by Joe Nick Patoski
Texas Monthly
Spring 2006

After two decades of penning some of the most enduring songs of the modern country era and leading the “outlaw” country movement that revolutionized the industry — Willie Nelson put his Midas touch to the ultimate test by tackling the Great American Songbook. 

In this exclusive excerpt from his new Book Willie Nelson:  an Epic life, Joe Nick Patoski chronicles the making of Nelson’s classic Stardust, released 30 years ago in April, 1978.  The album officially marked the red-headed strangers crossover from being a major player in Texas and American country music to one of the biggest artists in the world.

Willie was testing Columbia Records’ definition of artistic control.  Lefty Frizzell’s death in 1975 had inspired Willie to do an album of nothing but Lefty songs dedicated to his favorite honky-tonk singer.  The suits at Columbia were less than thrilled when they first heard about the idea, especially since the label had dropped Lefty three years earlier.  But two years later, after Willie’s version o f “If You’ve Got the Money” from the album The Sound in Your Mind shot straight to No. 1 on the country singles chart in the summer of 1976, Columbia brass came around and released the Lefty tribute.  Even then, label personnel tried to get him to title the album songs for a Friend, figuring record buyers didn’t know Lefty Frizzell from Johnnie Wright.  But Willie held his ground and To Lefty From Willie (Columbia Records CK 34695) was released in 1977 featuring 10 of his favorite Lefty songs, including “I Love You a Thousand ways,” which reached No. 9 on the country singles chart that summer, “Always Late (with your kisses),” “Mom and Dad Waltz” and “Railroad Lady,” Lefty’s last single before he died, written by Jerry Jeff Walker and an up-and-comer named Jimmy Buffett.  The album charted as high as No. 91 on Billboard’s album charts, a testament to Willie’s star power more than Lefty’s legacy.

For every well-intentioned idea that went bust came 10 more wild new ideas.  That had been Willie’s MO for most of his life, but few people paid attention before.  Now he was being taken seriously.  He’d done the Old West big, church gospel and old-school honky-tonk.  His RCA catalog had been recycled.  Moving forward, he opted to look back and reminisce by reviving the old songs he’d grownup with, and make an album out of that.  At the Spence Manor in Nashville, he mentioned what he’d been thinking to Rick Blackburn, who was running Columbia’s Nashville office.  Rick was hardly convinced.

“”You’re crazy!  You’re nuts!” he told Willie.  “You’re a great writer.  Go write.  You’re coming off ‘Luckenbach, Texas.'”

Rick Blackburn’s words went in one of Willie’s ears and out the other.  Willie was listening to his muse.  “Why be predictable!” he asked Rick.  “Great songs are great songs no matter when they’re written.  My audience right now is young.  They’ll think these are new songs, or a lot of folks will.  At the same time we’ll get the sentiment of the older audience who grew up with all those songs who don’t necessarily know me as an artist.  I think we’ll b able to bridge that gap.”

“I still think you’re crazy,” muttered Blackburn.

Willie had a good feeling about the idea.  The year before, he and Connie secured a six-month lease on an apartment on the beach in Malibu so they and their girls could be near Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge and their daughter, Casey.  Willie seemed to be spending half of his time in Los Angeles, singing, playing, recording, doing TV and sniffing around movies, so having a place there made sense.  While jogging, his upstairs neighbor recognized him.  The neighbor, Booker T. Jones, was a music guy, too, and knew Willie’s music and a lot about him through Kris and Rita, who was the sister of Booker T’s wife, Priscilla Coolidge.

Booker T. may have been black and Willie white, and Willie may have been country while Booker T. was all about soul, stylistically.  But they came from the same geographic region and both were raised in musical households where gospel music and pop songs from hymnals and songbook by the piano filled  the rooms; both experiencedthe pleasure of being paid to play music at a young age; and both retained an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs of their youth.  Each was in California expanding his musical boundaries and exploring musical genres other than the ones they were associated with.  And they both dug Ray Charles.

“We had a lot of common influences,” Booker T. Said.  “Ray Charles was a big influence of mine, and he was a big influence on Willie.  I had heard Bob Wills and his Texas country jazz.  Willie just loved jazz.”

As the frontman of Booker T. & the MG’s, Booker T was one of the cooks in the kitchen who created Southern-style soul music in the 1960s.  The MGs were the house band at Stax Records, aka Soulsville, U.S.A., in Memphis and backed up Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Johnny Taylor, the Staple Singers and Albert King on their biggest hit records, while the MGs scored instrumental hits of their own, such as “Green Onions” and “Hip Hug Her.”  An accomplished arranger and producer (and co-author of Albert King’s signature blues piece “Born Under a Bad Sing”), Booker was all about groove.

Since departing Stax for California, he’d produced albums for soul singer Bill Withers (including his hit version of “Ain’t No Sunshine”), for his sister-in-law Rita Coolidge, (including her hit on “Higher and Higher”) and for jazz-fusion guitarist Earl Klugh (including “Magic in Your Eyes”).

Willie Nelson and his new neighbor got along just fine.

“He didn’t have to worry about me disturbing him when I was making music because he was making music on his own down there,” Booker T. said.  “We were the only ones in the complex who socialized, I think.”  They were just two music guys with sterling music credentials and extensive recording histories, mixing it up on the beach overlooking the Pacific. 

They discovered a shared appreciation for the Great American Songbook, the informal name given to the great melodic pop standards of the middle 20th century that practically every musician coming of age in that era learned sooner or later — songs such as “Georgia on My Mind,” written by Hoagy Carmichael; the eternal “Stardust,” also written by HoagyCarmichael 1927; “Moonlight in Vermont,” popularized by vocalist Margaret Whiting; “All of Me,” a hit for bothLouis Armstrong and Paul Whitemanin1932; and the Irving Berlin classic, “Blue Skies,” “When I got out of high school, I was playing high school proms and high school dances around Memphis with bandleaders to make extra money,” Booker T. said.  ‘Those were the songs we played — “Tenderly,” “Stardust.'”

Booker T. went downstairs and jammed with Willie on guitars a few times.  Then Willie went upstairs and jammed with Booker T.  “I had keyboards up there,” he said.  One night Willie said, “We ought to record some of these.”  They went over songs and the ones that felt good made the list Willie was compiling. “They were all song I heard all the time on the radio,” Willie said.  “We had sheet music and Bobbie played them on the piano and I’d figured them out on guitar.  Those were hard song sot play.  They weren’t your normal Country & Western tunes.  They had a lot of good chords in them, and it took some time to learn them.

The Malibu jams led to more serious collaborations.  “Pretty soon, he invited me to go into the studio with him,” Booker T. recounted.  “We knew what we wanted to do.  Willie had a free hand with Columbia pretty much to do whatever he wanted to do, so he chose me as a producer, we got the money and started recording.”

Working with Booker T. made sense to Willie.  “I was just singing songs that I liked.  Luckily I found a guy who knew how to produce them, arrange them and record them.  I needed him there to make sure they were musically correct and to write the strings and arrangements,” he said.

Booker felt a synergy developing.  “You know how it is when you’re with somebody and you don’t talk about it a lot?  We had a lot of unspoken understandings about bringing this music to the foreground in a soulful country way and we were just enjoying it, too,” he said.  “I had some music in my mind, the sounds, and I knew some of the members of his band pretty well.  I knew Chris Ethridge.  They fell in pretty easy.  Micky, Bee, Jody, Paul and Rex knew their way around a recording situation, too, and dug the country soul Southern thing.  “The songs naturally fell in,” Booker T. said.  “It was pretty informal.”

They gathered in Brian Ahem’s house, tucked away in the Hollywood hills.  A Canadian producer married to the singer Emmylou Harris, Ahem built his Enactron Truck Studio to move around the country and record in any location.  In this instance the wires and cords ran from the recording console in the truck, parked in the driveway, through the front door of the Ahern residence.

Creature comforts extended to a full kitchen and a swimming pool, but little time was spent partying.  The band rehearsed songs until they got it right, rolled tape and recorded, devoting no more than a few take for each song before moving on to the next.  More of the musicians were set up in the living room.  Mickey Raphael recorded his parts in the same tile bathroom shower where he had played on Emmylou Harris’ albums for the “Great natural reverb,” he said. In less than a week they had an album.

“Willie saw me a a musician and gave me all the latitude as a producer to do what I wanted with it,” said Booker T.  “He did his part and left.  I was mostly an arranger.  The producer part was organizing the logistics and doing the work of making a record — making sure the tape was happening, making sure the sound was coordinated with the engineer, mastering.  I tried some other piano overdubs, overdubbing some strings on some songs, some horn arrangements, having a big ensemble playing on “Georgia.”  The middle part of it I left to Willie. 

Booker T. Jones got a wakeup call when he delivered the finished product to Columbia Nashville.  “I realized what we did was somewhat orthodox.  I don’t know if the suits in Nashville thought it was commercial.  I’m not sure what they thought.  But they didn’t print many copies when the record was released.”

The front cover of Stardust, a painting of the Pleides constellation in a starlight sky by Susanna Clark, the wife of Texas singer-songwriter Guy Clark, conveying an ethereal mood reflecting the ongs inside.  The inner cover was a photograph of a smiling Willie wearing a blue parka “borrowed” from  Stevie Wynn, Mr. LasVegas, and a top hat and beaded WN hat band presented to him by the Sioux Nation, with the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas in the background.

By the time Stardust was released in April 1978, “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to e Cowboys,” his duet with Waylon, had rocketed to No.1 on the country charts in march and crossed over to Top 40.  “Mammas” was on the new compilation RCA’s Jerry Bradley had orchestrated as the follow up to ‘Wanted:  The Outlaws,” once again pairing the two W’s but leaving out Jessi Colter and TompallGlaser.  The title Waylon & Willie and the album cover done up to look like a tooled-leather picture frame withtheir smiling faces painted over a landscape with a silhouetted cowboy on horseback, in the background said it all:  inside the cardstock package was a polyvinyl disc 12 inches in diameter containing audio performances by the country duo of country duos, the baddest-assed of all the bad ass Texas outlaws, the latest in a long line of American rebels masquerading as cowboys who were really entertainers playing by their own rules.  Several other singers spun from the album including Willie’s “If You Can’t Touch Her At All,” a No. 5 country sing.e, and Waylon’s ‘Wurlitzer Prize,” a sentimental slice of life about a lovesick guy pouring his coins into the jukebox to hear sad songs.  The album stayed atop the country album chart for three months, eventually going double platinum, signifying sale of 2,000,000 units.  Willies’ guitar was absent from the recording but nobody seemed to notice.

No sooner had “Mammas” started descending from the top of the charts than “Georgia on My Mind” from Stardust rocketed to No. 1 country and No. 5 pop.  Whatever Columbia’s initial hesitation about Stardust may have been the label ended up printing more and more copies.  Willie was right.  The songs sounded new to his younger fans.  When he road tested “Stardust” at the Austin Opry House, the kids responded as if Willie had written it.  As for the old timers, ‘the same people who danced to ‘Bubbles in My Beer,’ danced to ‘Stardust,” Willie said.  Style didn’t matter music was music.  The buzz grew exponentially and never stopped.

“I didn’t realize how many records it sold until we got a platinum record,” Booker T. Jones said.

— Joe Nick Patoski

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