Of all the rough characters the Outlaw Country music scene can boast, only one has a glass eye and is a former gang leader and pimp. Only one when asked once by a 20/20 reporter if he carried a gun, and if so could he see it answered, “Which one?” because he notoriously carried two at all times. Oh, and for years wore a cape. YES, A CAPE! Because he wanted to look just like the Devil.
He is none other than Paul English, Willie Nelson’s long time drummer, money man, and friend. And despite his significance in the Outlaw movement, there is little information and appreciation for Paul out there.
Paul’s parents were devout Christians, but despite all his Sunday learnin’, he ended up becoming the leader of the “Peroxide Gang” in Ft. Worth, TX, and later an outright pimp. Ft. Worth was the first place Willie Nelson really started playing music professionally, and in the late 50’s, it was a rough scene. Downtown was full of brothels and night clubs, and stabbings and shootings were very common. One club Willie played at was Gray’s Bar. They had to rig up chicken wire in front of the stage to protect the band from flying beer bottles and would-be homicidal stage crashers.
Sometimes Willie would not get paid. Willie met Paul, and Paul told Willie he could help him with that. Paul became Willie’s strong man, and eventually Willie’s drummer. I’ve said many times in conversation that if it wasn’t for Paul, Willie would be living under a bridge in Houston. And Paul says, “Had it not been for Willie, I would be dead or in the penitentiary.”
“I started making the papers in 1956 when the “Fort Worth Press” started running a “10 Most Unwanted” list. I made it five years in a row. I was involved in three murder trials, but they never led to anything. I was the kind of guy they were always trying to stick charges on . . . In ’55 I started running girls. This went on for a long time. It was a good business but you had to work hard . . . I had become really adept at picking locks. We had a contest on how many daytime burglaries we could pull and I think I pulled twelve. I don’t think I was ever legitimate until I started playing drums for Willie in 1966.”
Wilie Nelson’s band is notorious for being like one big family, and Willie gives a lot of credit to his success to the fact that he’s been able to keep the same people around him for so long. The very first part of that family was Paul English. Paul officially became Willie’s drummer when Willie asked Paul, ironically, if he knew any good drummers. The only reason Willie never considered Paul was because he thought he couldn’t pay Paul enough money.
But Paul saw something in Willie, and he might have been one of the first to see it. Paul gave up his high living lifestyle to go play for Willie for sometimes no money at all, or IOU’s, because he could see Willie’s singular talent, and knew it would eventually pay off. And pay off it did. During Willie Nelson’s heyday, Paul English was the highest paid drummer/sideman in music according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Whatever Willie made, Paul got a 20% cut of.
Paul’s strong arm tact and loyal friendship is one of the reasons Willie Nelson was able to become such a success, and was able to become the face of The Outlaw movement. Willie gave tribute to his friend and manager on the groundbreaking album Wanted! The Outlaws with the song “Me & Paul.” Here Willie is performing the song with Paul in 2000:
But you can’t talk about Paul English without talking about the cape. For years the man wore A CAPE for crying out loud!
“I had this beard similar to what I have now, and everybody would say, “Anybody ever tell you you look like the Devil?” And I’d say “Well, you’re not going to hurt my feelings because the Devil was the prettiest angel in heaven.” I considered it a compliment. We saw this cape in the window and Willie said, “Aw, you got to have this.” I did think I looked like the Devil so I bought the cape. . . when I got off stage that night, there were about fifteen girls waiting for my autograph, and so the cape stayed.”
Here is Willie and Paul, and the cape, playing on the first season of Austin City Limits. It is also a great example of Paul’s playing. He is one of the best minimalist country brush drummers to ever play:
So if you ever see Paul English, have some courtesy, have some sympathy, and some taste. For if not for this legendary sideman, The Outlaws may have never put Nashville in its place.
(all quotes from this story came from Willie: An Autobiography)