Selling songs to Willie Nelson...

'Stalking the Red Headed Stranger' is a book about the art and craft of song plugging: trying to get a song heard and hopefully recorded by a specific artist – sometimes by any means necessary. The “Red Headed Stranger” in the book’s title is American icon Willie Nelson.

In 2006 my boss, Jerry Leiber, told me to find Willie and play him “The Girls I Never Kissed” – a song written by Jerry and his partner Mike Stoller that had been recorded a few years earlier by Frank Sinatra. Throughout their 60-year partnership, Leiber and Stoller’s songs were recorded by well over 1,000 acts. Elvis recorded dozens. The Beatles recorded a half-dozen. But over all those decades, all those songs, and all those artists, Ol’ Blue Eyes recorded only one. And so, rather than refer to the tune by its proper title, it was known around the office simply as the “Sinatra Song.”

When Jerry told me to pitch the Sinatra Song to Willie Nelson, he made it clear that he meant for me to do so immediately. There were only two problems: 1) Willie Nelson was on tour in Canada at that moment, and 2) Willie Nelson had no clue who I was. In fact, the only person I knew who actually knew Willie Nelson was John McEuen, a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. And, being the luckiest guy on the planet, I soon discovered that the opening act for Willie’s Canadian tour was – I kid you not – the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

The below excerpt begins as John McEuen and I leave a diner in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, and stroll across the parking lot to play the Sinatra Song for the Red Headed Stranger….

Breakfast had been eaten, the tab had been paid, and the time had come. John and I left the diner and walked over to the bus. Gator Moore opened the door before we could even knock.

As soon as he saw me, Willie stood up and said, “Oh, hey! You got that Sinatra song for me to hear?”

For the last eight days, I had spent virtually every waking moment trying to figure out how I was going to find a way to get Willie Nelson to let me play the Sinatra Song for him. Incredibly, now that the task was at hand, he was the one asking me to let him hear it.

As the last note faded away, Willie smiled. “Frank Sinatra is my favorite singer,” he said. “And I read in a couple of interviews that he said I was his favorite. I’ve always been real proud of that.”

“As well you should be,” I said.

It was impossible for me to judge Willie’s reaction to the song. He hadn’t said, “I love it!” On the other hand, he didn’t say anything negative either. What he did say was, “Tell me more about Leiber and Stoller.”

I knew he must have heard about my bosses. Most people in the music business have. When the show Smokey Joe’s Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller became a smash hit on Broadway, even much of the general public became aware of their names. In fact, at Ray Charles’s seventieth birthday party, Willie had met Mike Stoller in the Green Room. Maybe when he said, “Tell me more about Leiber and Stoller, he’d just meant “How are they doing?” But I was so used to having to rattle off their list of hits for the uninitiated, I did the same for Willie. As I began telling him the songs they’d written and the records they’d produced, Willie fired up a joint that would’ve made Bob Marley nervous. When I told him they wrote “Kansas City,” he said, “Hey, I cut that one!” Then he strolled over to the sofa and handed me the joint. What could I do? I took a hit and passed it back to him, and then continued listing Jerry and Mike’s hits. When I got to “Hound Dog,” Willie said, “I sure remember that one!” Then he handed me the joint again.

I was just about to suggest that John and I hit the road, when Willie started talking about the next album his label wanted him to record. He told us it was supposed to be a collection of classic No. 1 country hits. Then he pulled out a big binder and said, “I’ve got this huge list of songs to choose from.” At that point, he got up from the kitchen table, sat down next to John, and opened the binder. Then he looked at me, sitting opposite the two of them, and patted the space on the sofa next to him. I knew he meant for me to come sit next to the two of them so the three of us could look through the binder together – I just wasn’t entirely sure if I could get from my sofa to his sofa. To my surprise, I felt light as a feather as I stood up, took a couple of steps forward, and then sat down next to Willie.

The first page of the binder was a list of No. 1 country hits from 1948. One of the songs on page one was “Deck of Cards.” I pointed to the title and said, “T. Texas Tyler did that one.” The song is actually a spoken-word piece about a group of soldiers in church. As all of the other soldiers pull out their prayer books, one soldier pulls out a deck of cards. The sergeant sees the soldier “playing cards” in church and has him taken to jail. When the Provost Marshall asks the soldier for an explanation, the soldier tells him what each of the cards in the deck symbolize to him (the 10 being the Ten Commandments, the Jack being the devil, the Queen being the Virgin Mary, and so forth). Willie – who understandably seemed surprised that I knew about a T. Texas Tyler record from 1948 – turned to me, looked me right in the eye, and doing a perfect T. Texas Tyler impersonation, recited the last line of the song: “I was that soldier.”

Sitting on a bus in a parking lot somewhere in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Willie Nelson was, indeed, that soldier. He had spent decades on a crazy, mine-filled battlefield called the music business. Over the course of nearly half a century, he’d suffered numerous trials and tribulations, setbacks and defeats – his only weapons a guitar named Trigger, his voice, his songs, and his determination. When the smoke had cleared and the war was finally over, Willie Nelson was still standing – Trigger still at the ready.

Most men his age have already been retired for a decade or more. When asked about his own retirement plans, Willie has always given the same response: “All I do is play music and golf. Which one do you want me to give up?”

But perhaps the truth is that the road is more addictive than any drug. Once it’s in the blood, it can’t be given up. Old singers never die – they just ride away.

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From Stalking the Red Headed Stranger (c) 2012 by Randy Poe, published by Hal Leonard Books, and imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation. Reprinted with permission.

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